A while ago I accepted an open call from Louis over at the Cinematic Frontier blog to contribute an entry to the Mel Brooks Blogathon. This week marks the 90th birthday of beloved film funnyman Mel Brooks, and Louis decided to honor him with a spate of articles about his films from across the blogosphere. Of the titles available, I chose to do what may be my favorite Brooks comedy: High Anxiety, a satirical send-up of the classic Alfred Hitchcock suspense films. While Brooks is better known for his romp The Producers, the racial Western satire Blazing Saddles and the 1930s horror homage Young Frankenstein, I think it’s in High Anxiety that we see most clearly Brooks’s considerable talent and skill as a filmmaker in his own right. He’s not just a clown making imitative jokes about the Master of Suspense and his great films, like North by Northwest, Psycho, Notorious and Vertigo (which the film’s title lampoons). It takes someone who really understands the cinematic style of Hitchcock to satirize him so perfectly, and in High Anxiety, Brooks shows how fluently and deftly he speaks the language of great cinema.
The plot of High Anxiety is as Hitchcockian as they come. (Spoilers, of course). World-renowned psychiatrist Dr. Richard Thorndyke (Brooks) arrives in Los Angeles to head up a prestigious psychiatric institute following the sudden death–some say murder–of its former superintendent. Thorndyke soon realizes there’s something fishy going on at the institute, chiefly concerning Dr. Montague (Harvey Korman) and the bizarre Nurse Diesel (Cloris Leachman). In fact they are keeping patients of the asylum prisoner long after they’ve been cured so as to bilk their families of considerable medical fees. Eager to keep Thorndyke from discovering their secret, Montague and Diesel hire a hit man to frame Thorndyke for a murder he didn’t commit. Now on the run, he joins forces with Vicki (Madeline Kahn), the daughter of one of the institute’s wrongfully-imprisoned inmates, to expose the plot and clear his name. From this description High Anxiety doesn’t even sound like a comedy. But the laughs come quickly and consistently, and the whole package adds up to a deliciously entertaining picture.
We don’t even need to talk about Brooks’s almost supernatural mastery of the timing of comedy. That’s just the fuel on which High Anxiety runs. It’s the way in which he conceptualizes Hitchcock that’s really stunning. Take for instance the opening sequence, which plot-wise is nothing more than Thorndyke arriving at the airport and going to the institute. But as he goes about this simple task he encounters one potential menace after another: a pushy cop who ominously takes him aside, a deranged woman charges at him screaming for no apparent reason, and his driver Brophy (Ron Carey) tells him about the mysterious death of his predecessor. All of these elements, each one of which could have been the departure point for a plot unto itself in a real Hitchcock thriller, have comedic resolutions. The cop turns out to be a pervert who flashes Thorndyke in the restroom. The screaming woman rushes past him and happily into the arms of the person she’s greeting. The dramatic musical sting that punctuates Brophy’s warning is shown, in an exquisite pan shot, to be the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra, rehearsing on a bus that happens to be passing by Thorndyke’s limousine. These aren’t just throwaway gags: they’re very carefully constructed exactly the way Hitchcock would have done them, except instead of suspenseful thrills, they’re jokes.
The central plot twist of High Anxiety is keenly Hitchcockian: Thorndyke, attending a psychiatric convention, is framed for a shooting in the hotel lobby in full view of hundreds of witnesses. The true circumstances of the murder are so bizarre that no one would believe them: a hit man commits the crime while wearing a latex face that looks exactly like Thorndyke, then hands him the murder weapon. “The wrong man” angle was the primary driver of so many of Hitchcock’s movies, and plays on a psychological dread that many of us, including me, have of being falsely accused and unable to prove our innocence. Note the staging and photography of the murder sequence is, shot-for-shot, very much like the U.N. murder in North by Northwest (1959) in which almost the exact same thing happens. Brooks also recreates the famous shower scene from Psycho (1960), with an enraged hotel bellhop and an inky newspaper instead of a mad-dog killer, but again look how closely it imitates the original. For my money, Brooks’s recreation of the shower scene is even better than the “serious” one done by Gus Van Sant in the 1998 remake of Psycho. Brooks, who’s trying to be funny, succeeds where Van Sant, who was trying to be serious, failed.
This brief bit from High Anxiety showcases Mel Brooks’s sense of timing, as well as his understanding of the tropes of Hitchcock suspense films. Sorry for the crummy video quality.
It doesn’t hurt that the performances in High Anxiety are wonderfully rich and Brooks directs them perfectly. Madeline Kahn is both shrill and sexy as the quintessential Hitchcock blonde-in-gray a la Kim Novak, Tippi Hedren or Grace Kelly. Both Harvey Korman and Cloris Leachman get to chew ample amounts of scenery as the kooky villains. The weakest performance is probably Brooks himself, who has perfect timing but limited dramatic range. (Brooks had to take the role himself when his first choice, Gene Wilder, became unavailable). One wonders how High Anxiety could have been even better if Cary Grant, still alive in 1977, could have been coaxed out of retirement to take the role, or perhaps another old Hitchcock dramatic regular. Rod Taylor (The Birds) could also have made it work. But even as the weak link, Brooks is still delightful. I especially like his Frank Sinatra send-up in the musical number where he sings the theme song, which he wrote himself.
In short, High Anxiety is not merely a comedic triumph, but it’s a loving and heartfelt tribute to Alfred Hitchcock and his legacy of cinema. Rumor has it that when Hitchcock saw High Anxiety at a special screening he walked out without saying a word. Brooks was sure he hated it, but then Hitchcock sent him several cases of Château Haut-Brion 1961, one of the best French wines. It’s hard not to like High Anxiety, but the fact that the Master of Suspense himself loved it seems to speak volumes about Brooks’s achievement. In my view it’s one of the best comedies of the 1970s.
The theme from High Anxiety, written and performed by Mel Brooks, is actually a pretty great song. Take a listen!
Thanks to Cinematic Frontier for the opportunity to do this blog!