“High Anxiety”, you win.
When I checked with Chris Sturhann, our esteemed host of this blogathon, I wondered if it would be cheating to write about Mel Brooks’s hilarious Hitchcock homage—after all, Brooks was up front about the fact that the film was a tribute to and loving parody of the master of suspense. Chris said maybe it is a bit of a cheat, but he decided to allow “High Anxiety” in because he loves it so much. I concurred with his reasoning, and hey, after all, Brooks was just being open about what he was doing, while other filmmakers have been more cagey about Hitch’s influence on their projects.
Anyway, “High Anxiety” is an utter delight. The 1977 film draws primarily on three Alfred Hitchcock classics— “Spellbound”, “Vertigo”, and “North by Northwest” — but it has references to many other movies by the master, some obvious and some demanding a bit more thought.
Shades of “Spellbound”, it’s set in a mental hospital—the Psycho-Neurotic Institute for the Very, Very Nervous, which is getting a new boss in the person of Dr. Richard Thorndyke, played by Brooks. The previous director has died, and another staff member, Dr. Charles Montague (the great Harvey Korman), had his own eyes on the top spot. Thorndyke begins to suspect something’s rotten in the institute.
But Thorndyke, whose name echoes Roger Thornhill of “North by Northwest”, has another problem—like Scottie Ferguson in “Vertigo”, he has a pathological fear of heights, here called “high anxiety,” a moniker that sprang from Brooks’s fertile and witty brain. It doesn’t help that the institute is located high atop a cliff in Los Angeles, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. He’s being treated by his mentor, Professor Little Old Man—oh, wait, that’s Professor Liloman, portrayed by the brilliant Howard Morris. The character is reminiscent of Dr. Alexander Brulov, Dr. Constance Petersen’s mentor in “Spellbound.”
Another staffer at the institute is the strict and sadistic Nurse Diesel (Cloris Leachman). When introducing “High Anxiety” at the 2017 TCM Classic Film Festival, Brooks told Ben Mankiewicz the character was based on the intimidating Mrs. Danvers of “Rebecca”, although it’s easy to see aspects of Madame Sebastian, the monstrous Nazi mother in “Notorious”, in Nurse Diesel as well. At the same event, Brooks revealed the origins of one of Nurse Diesel’s most hilarious lines. Video of the interview is at the end of this essay.
Then there’s the archetypal Hitchcock blonde—in this case, Victoria Brisbane, played by the fabulous Madeline Kahn, a regular in Brooks’s movies. Victoria, whose wealthy father is a patient (or, she suspects, a prisoner) at the institute, doesn’t appear to be based on a specific Hitch character. She does, however, have the same shade of blonde hair as Madeleine Elster of “Vertigo,” and one of her costumes could be seen as an update of the iconic gray suit Kim Novak wears as Madeleine. Another of her outfits is pure Brooksian silliness and never fails to produce a laugh no matter how many times you’ve seen it.
There are so many other bits of homage to Hitchcock in the film. Most prominently, it riffs on the “Psycho” shower scene; portrays a different sort of bird attack than “The Birds”; features an innocent man framed for murder, with the crime documented by a photographer, a la “North by Northwest”; and has a suspenseful climb through a tower as in “Vertigo.” The obsession with high places recalls scenes from “Rebecca,” “Saboteur,” and “North by Northwest” as well. A treacherous car ride evokes the latter film too.
Also like “Vertigo,” “High Anxiety” has many beautiful location shots of San Francisco, where Thorndyke attends a psychiatric conference. The “Spellbound” references continue in the way one of the bad guys meets his end. And the music by John Morris is very Bernard Herrmann-esque.
Brooks wrote the script with Ron Clark, Rudy De Luca, and future director Barry Levinson, and all of them make memorable appearances in the movie. Visual effects artist Albert Whitlock gets a role as well.
And while much of the film’s humor derives from the Hitchcock parodies, some of it is Brooks’s Borscht Belt shtick or his trademark ribald comedy, and all that’s hilarious too. He even sings at a piano bar—the tune is called “High Anxiety” and provides the opening line of this essay—and he does so charmingly.
In speaking to Mankiewicz, Brooks confessed to being worried about what Hitchcock would think of “High Anxiety.” Hitch, who knew and liked Brooks’s work, gave his blessing to the project beforehand, but when Brooks showed him a rough cut, he didn’t react. Brooks went home despondent, but he needn’t have felt that way. The next day he received a supply of Hitchcock’s favorite (and very expensive) wine, along with a note saying, “Don’t have any anxiety about ‘High Anxiety.’”
Hitch was right. Forty-three years later, the film is as entertaining as ever—as timeless as the movies that inspired it.