My first experience with Alfred Hitchcock wasn’t actually with the work of the man himself. When I was a child, my grandparents lived in Waukegan, a suburb of Chicago, and I would often spend a month or two with them every summer. There was a station they received that would show the same movie every day for a week, perhaps longer, and it was on this station that I first watched Back to the Future II (at least a dozen times) and often-overlooked Joe Dante flick Explorers, both of which I loved. The best movie shown on this repeating station, however, was Mel Brooks comedy High Anxiety. Although not as well known or beloved as pictures like Blazing Saddles, The Producers, or Spaceballs, High Anxiety remains, to this day, my favorite of the entire Brooks oeuvre. It’s a pastiche homage to the films of the Master of Suspense, and, as with Head Over Heels, I couldn’t stop thinking about it during and after watching Dario Argento’s Do You Like Hitchcock? I didn’t understand the references when I was a child, but every time my grandmother would laugh out loud, she would explain which of Hitchcock’s films was being parodied, and why the joke worked. I recently rewatched the film and was worried it would pale in comparison to my memory of it, but I’m delighted to say it’s only gotten better with time.
Dr. Richard Thorndyke (Brooks), a Harvard professor, has just flown to California to take over as the director of the Institute for the Very, Very Nervous. After making his way through a notably dramatic airport, he is greeted by his driver, Brophy (Ron Carey), a motormouth shutterbug who exposits about the institute and its staff, whom Thorndyke meets upon arrival. Many of them are played by part of Brooks’s recurring stable of actors: Cloris Leachman plays Nurse Diesel, a parody of Rebecca‘s Mrs. Danvers; Harvey Corman is Dr. Montague, who is engaged in a scheme and a BDSM relationship, both with Diesel; and Dick Van Patten portrays Dr. Wentworth, who tries to warn Thorndyke that something is amiss. Thorndyke is eventually led to investigate the institute’s violent ward, where he is introduced to the very wealthy patient Arthur Brisbane, now suffering under the belief that he is a dog, the result of a nervous breakdown. On a business trip to San Francisco, Thorndyke meets Brisbane’s daughter, Victoria (longterm Brooks collaborator and one of the greatest comediennes of all time, Madeline Kahn), with whom he discovers that Diesel and Montague are attempting to steal the Brisbane fortune and that the man Thorndyke met was a random patient. The dastardly duo hire a hitman to frame Thorndyke for murder, causing the good doctor and Victoria to flee the city while Brophy works to prove Thorndyke’s innocence. And, as with most Hitchcock homages, there’s a climactic altercation at a great height waiting at the end.
The above plot summary outlines the larger elements of the Hitchcockian thriller narrative but belies just how funny this movie is. Film comedy, by its nature, does not demand that its plot be tightly structured in order to be successful; many comedies have only the barest of plots, which exist only to be a skeleton upon which jokes and gags are hung. I’m always more impressed when a comedy takes the time to construct an intricate plot that would stand alone as a decent mystery without comic elements, which is probably why I love Clue (also starring Madeline Kahn) and Hot Fuzz (which is basically the apotheosis of mystery comedy) so much. While High Anxiety‘s plot isn’t as airtight as it could be, it does stand out as part of what makes the movie work.
The homages run fast and heavy, and they work much better here than they did in Argento’s film. The overall plot about a scheme within a mental institution that is brought to light by the newly arrived overseer is taken from Spellbound, my second favorite Hitchcock (side note: Salvador Dali was an art director on Spellbound, which makes it an absolute must-see for any fan of art and cinema). The finale, like Do You Like Hitchcock?’s, borrows most heavily from Vertigo. But there’s also the scene in which Thorndyke tries to escape from a huge flock of birds, or Birds, and the scene in the hotel which presents Thorndyke’s framing for murder is evocative of the similar scene in North by Northwest. Meanwhile, the gags range from broad (wealthy heiress Victoria Brisbane drives a car that is covered in Louis Vuitton leather—not upholstered, covering the outside) to the specific (future Good Morning, Vietnam director Barry Levinson plays an uptight bellboy who attacks Thorndyke with a newspaper in the shower, causing gray newsprint to funnel into the drain, just like Marion Crane’s B&W blood in Psycho) and some fall all over the spectrum.
Hollywood legend says that the Master of Suspense himself sent Brooks six bottles of 1961 Château Haut-Brion to express his appreciation for the thorough and engaging send-up of the British director’s body of work. That alone speaks volumes about just how much love and effort went into crafting High Anxiety‘s homages. It’s reflective of the amount of adoring attention that went into, say, Argento’s adaptation of Poe’s “The Black Cat,” but not his more metatextual and by-the-numbers Hitchcock piece. High Anxiety is a movie that anyone who loves comedy, or classics, or Hitchcock should watch and watch again.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond