Martin’s quirky movies #4 High Anxiety

My choice for my fourth quirky movie is High Anxiety, Mel Brooks’ loving parody of suspense movies, most obviously the oeuvre of Alfred Hitchcock. The film was dedicated to the master of suspense, who actually worked with Brooks on the screenplay and later sent Brooks a case containing six magnums of 1961 Château Haut-Brion wine to show his appreciation.

Melvin James Kaminsky (Mel Brooks) was born on June 28, 1926. He is best known as a creator of film parodies. His most well known films include Blazing Saddles, The Producers, Young Frankenstein, Silent Movie, History of the World, Part I, Spaceballs and Robin Hood: Men in Tights.

This is Brooks’s first film as a producer and first speaking lead role. He had previously taken the lead role in Silent Movie. One of the joys of the film is the appearance of the veteran Brooks ensemble members Harvey Korman, Cloris Leachman and Madeline Kahn. Particular kudos should go to Leachman for her wonderfully over the top portrayal of Nurse Diesel. Leachman specialised in playing variations of a neo-Nazi sadists. In “Young Frankenstein,” she had played Frau Blucher, whose very name would make the horses whinny with fright.

High Anxiety opens with Dr. Richard Thorndyke (Mel Brooks) arriving at Los Angeles airport. Unfortunately Thorndyke, like John ‘Scottie’ Ferguson in Hitchcock’s Vertigo, does not like heights. He is terrified of flying, but the doctor has to be in Los Angeles to take up a new post as administrator at the Psychoneurotic Institute for the Very, VERY Nervous. On arrival he is introduced to the rest of the staff, including Nurse Diesel and Dr Charles Montague (Harvey Korman). All is not well at the institute. Montague appears resentful that he was not given the appointment and Nurse Diesel inspires terror wherever she goes. Montague and Diesel appear to be in a sado-masochistic relationship. Thorndyke also meets some of the patients, including a millionaire, Arthur Brisbane, who behaves himself as though he were a dog. One of the members of staff, Doctor Wentworth (Dick van Patten) wants to blow the whistle on the mistreatment of the patients, but is killed when he tries to leave.

The action then shifts to San Francisco, where Thorndyke has gone to attend a psychiatric conference. At the hotel Thorndyke discovers that he has been given a room on the 17th floor, hardly ideal for someone suffering from Vertigo. In San Francisco Thorndyke is contacted by Victoria Brisbane (Madeline Kahn), who believes her father is completely sane. Vicky shows him a photograph of his father, and Thorndyke realises that this man is not the man who was behaving like a dog. Unfortunately Thorndyke is being followed by a professional killer, who disguises himself as the doctor and kills a man. Thorndyke is now on the run. The finale of the film involves a tower. There the baddies, Nurse Diesel and Montague plan to fake Arthur Brisbane’s suicide. Will Thorndyke be able to conquer his high anxiety? You will have to find out for yourself.

There is no point in describing the gags in great detail. You are better off watching for yourself. There are all the classic Brooks gags such as the moment Thorndyke and his chauffeur are driving down a Los Angeles freeway and we hear dramatic music. We wonder what is going on until we see the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra performing in a bus in the next lane. There are homages to a number of classic Hitchcockian scenes including one from The Birds. Brooks hired Ray Berwick, the bird handler from the Hitchcock film The bird droppings were actually mayonnaise and chopped spinach. However, according to Brooks, the helicopter spraying the fake bird droppings scared the pigeons so much that half of the bird droppings were real. There is also a great Sinatra parody as Brooks sings the title song of the film.

I think that this film is underrated. Brooks was often criticised for being unsubtle. The critics may be right, but compared to what has come since Brooks appears to be a master of understatement. Now I compare his films to more modern films, like Meet the Spartans. Is it just me or are modern comedy films just plain awful? The rest of this post will be a rant about the decline of Hollywood comedies. I do have a soft spot for movie comedies. It could be Charles Chaplin, screwball comedies from the Golden Age of Hollywood, Billy Wilder, the early Woody Allen or Monty Python. Where are these types of films now? When I referred to this phenomenon I was thinking of quality. But apparently there is now a fall in quantity; Hollywood is increasingly reluctant to make comedies, due to the decreasing returns on their investment. But that’s not what I’m complaining about. What I hate is the tawdry vulgarity. I do like a bit of bad taste, but many modern comedies seem to have no taste at all.


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