Monday, March 3, 2014

High Anxiety (20th Century-Fox, 1977)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After the Academy Awards Charles, our friend Garry and I ran a DVD of Mel Brooks’ 1977 film High Anxiety, a movie that had somehow eluded me until now even though I’m a Brooks fan and think The Producers, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein are three of the funniest movies of all time. High Anxiety was Brooks’ “take” on the Alfred Hitchcock oeuvre, taking its main scaffolding from the 1945 Hitchcock film Spellbound — Brooks plays internationally renowned psychiatrist Dr. Richard H. Thorndyke (one of Brooks’ odder in-jokes: “Dr. Thorndyke” was the sleuth character in a popular series of British mystery stories in the early 20th century), hired to take over the Psycho-Neurotic Institute for the Very, Very Nervous after the mysterious death of the previous director, Dr. Wentworth — but throwing in a lot of references to other Hitchcock movies, notably Vertigo (Brooks’ character suffers from “high anxiety,” a fear of heights, and Brooks illustrates it with the famous Saul Bass graphic of his body falling into a spiral design — though, oddly, Brooks and his cinematographer, Paul Lohmann, do not use the combination of tracking the camera in one direction and zooming in the other Hitchcock and Robert Burks used to show James Stewart actually experiencing vertigo) and Psycho (there’s a screamingly funny and almost uncannily exact parody of the famous shower murder in which Brooks is attacked in the shower by a newspaper-wielding bellboy), along with North by Northwest (Brooks is framed for murder in a hotel lobby), The 39 Steps (a mystery woman, played by Madeline Kahn, enters Brooks’ hotel room uninvited and announces that she’s in danger), The Birds (Brooks is surrounded by birds while waiting for a contact in Golden Gate Park — the film moves back and forth between Los Angeles and San Francisco — and of course, this being a Mel Brooks film, instead of pecking him the birds crap all over him; according to, the fake bird dung was made of mayonnaise and finely chopped spinach) and bits that reference less well-known Hitchcocks like Marnie (a red flash out of nowhere during one scene) and Torn Curtain.

 High Anxiety is a quite amusing movie but it’s not the unrelenting laugh-fest Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein were, and one can tell the beginning signs of Brooks’ formula becoming threadbare and his stock cast — Madeline Kahn, Harvey Korman, Cloris Leachman — becoming too set in their routines. It’s certainly got pleasures, including Brooks’ own performance — surprisingly restrained, at least for him (apparently he originally wrote the character for Gene Wilder but took it over himself when Wilder’s schedule prevented him from doing it) — and some great jokes spoofing movie conventions, including a scene in which portentous orchestral music is heard as Brooks is being driven by his chauffeur, Brophy (a quite good Ron Carey), to his job at the Institute — and it turns out it’s coming from a bus labeled “Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra” in which the said group is practicing. (It’s not Brooks’ fault that Bing Crosby, Dorothy Lamour and director Victor Schertzinger pulled a similar gag in The Road to Zanzibar and made it even funnier.) The plot — not that it really matters — is that Dr. Charles Montague (Harvey Korman), who had Wentworth murdered to gain control of the Institute and then got sandbagged when Thorndyke was hired as director instead; and his combination sidekick and S/M dominatrix, Nurse Diesel (Cloris Leachman) — a character that has more in common with Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest than anyone in the Hitchcock canon (though Charles drew a connection between her and Judith Anderson’s character in Rebecca), are holding industrialist Arthur Brisbane hostage and passing off another patient as Brisbane. This patient is under the delusion that he’s a cocker spaniel — a gimmick that now that I know about “puppy play” reads quite a bit differently than it would have if I’d seen this film in 1977! — and inevitably at least twice Victoria Brisbane (Madeline Kahn), daughter of the real Brisbane who gets involved with Thorndyke in hopes of rescuing her dad from the baddies’ clutches, gets referred to as “the cocker’s daughter.”

It all comes to a head in the high tower where the baddies have taken the real Brisbane, intending to throw him off so he’ll die and it’ll look like an accident, and Thorndyke has to overcome his “high anxiety” to rescue Brisbane — which he does courtesy of some instant analysis from Dr. Lilloman (Howard Morris, obviously parodying Michael Chekhov’s character in Spellbound) that convinces him he’s not afraid of heights, just of parents. Along the way there’ve been some nice glimpses of the Hyatt Regency hotel in San Francisco, complete with its famous glass elevators — her properly shown inside the building instead of outside as they were in The Towering Inferno (1974) — and a neat scene in which Brooks as Thorndyke is told that he’s been put in a room on the 17th floor of the hotel even though he specifically requested a room on the second or third floor because of his “high anxiety.” He’s told by the desk clerk that a “Mr. MacGuffin” called the hotel and had Thorndyke’s room changed — “MacGuffin” was Hitchcock’s pet term for the plot device that powers a thriller story and which the characters care about, but the audience doesn’t. There’s also a hired killer, wearing bad braces in honor of the assassin in the James Bond movie The Spy Who Loved Me, who makes clear the sheer joy he takes in his work, and some nice gags ridiculing airport security (including one at the beginning in which a nice-looking security guard calls Brooks into the airport restroom and turns out to be a Gay man making a pass at him, and a later scene in which Brooks tells Kahn that they should act like a really obnoxious old Jewish couple to make themselves such pains in the ass that security will wave them through) that in the post-9/11 era are probably even funnier now than they were in 1977! Another way in which watching this movie is doing the time-warp (again): as Brooks’ plane approaches the Los Angeles airport the “No Smoking” and “Fasten Seat Belts” lights go on, and the intercom voice tells the passengers to extinguish all smoking materials; the fact that anyone was ever allowed to smoke on a plane will jolt contemporary audiences!