Mel Brooks Monday: High Anxiety

Alfred Hitchcock once said that puns are the highest form of literature. If that’s true, then Mel Brooks must be Shakespeare.

Case-in-point: High Anxiety, Brooks’ hilarious send-up of classic Hitchcock thrillers. Although it takes a lot of shots and gets a lot of laughs, I see this movie as more of a love letter to everything Hitchcock than a spoof of his movies (the opening credits dedicate the movie to “the master of suspense”). Like all of Brooks’ enduring works, it is an interesting look into the movies and experiences that shaped him as a filmmaker.

High Anxiety plays like an almost perfect replica of a classic Hitchcock thriller, with so many references to the master it’s tough to catch them all in one sitting. Everything is here, from the could-it-be-murder plot to the California locations to the Bernard Herrmann-esque score by John Morris.

High Anxiety is an absolute treat for Hitchcock fans.

High Anxiety is an absolute treat for Hitchcock fans.

Brooks casts himself as renown psychiatrist Richard Thorndyke (instead of Roger Thornhill), who is flown out to L.A. to take over as head of a mental hospital (The Psycho-Neurotic Institute for the Very, Very Nervous). The previous director, Dr. Ashley, died under mysterious circumstances, and the sharply dressed Charles Montague (Harvey Korman) thought he was a shoo-in to take over until Thorndyke was called in. Not long after he settles in, Thorndyke suspects that not everything is as it should be. Patients that should be completely cured are acting even more insane than before (one thinks he’s a cocker spaniel), and both Montague and the menacing Nurse Diesel (Cloris Leachman) seem to be hiding something from him. Combine the intrigue with Thorndyke’s crippling case of High Anxiety (instead of Vertigo) and you have a recipe worthy of the master of suspense.

Brooks was wise to cast himself in the lead role. Besides To Be or Not to Be, this is his finest performance in any of his own films. He’s perfectly believable as a brilliant psychiatrist that somehow still manages to be a clueless-yet-lovable doofus. His Thorndyke has that unique combination of charm and folly that typified Hitchcock’s most relatable protagonists. The great Harvey Korman is also back, and almost as cartoonishly evil as he was in Blazing Saddles. He is, once again, uproarious. Leachman and Madeline Kahn, who shows up as a classic Hitchcock blonde, are also perfectly cast in juicy supporting roles.

The movie’s greatest joy comes from its cavalcade of sequences riffing on classic Hitchcock scenes. My favorite is Brooks’ take on the shower scene from Psycho, but there’s also sequences cut straight from Vertigo, North by Northwest and The Birds, among others. The physical comedy on display is elaborate and sophisticated; it never feels cheap. Any Hitchcock fan will get a huge kick out of Brooks’ vast, geeky Hitchcock knowledge (one scene even mentions a “Mr. McGuffin”).

Perhaps inspired by one of the greatest directors who ever lived, Brooks even channels Hitchcock’s artistic eye by making his most visually accomplished movie to date. His eye for composition is uncharacteristically astute, filling the movie with creative pans, zooms and odd angles (the constantly moving camera even becomes the butt of one of the movie’s funniest running jokes).

As a Hitchcock fan, I can’t help but categorize High Anxiety as one of my favorite Mel Brooks movies. Anyone not familiar with the famed director’s work might find significantly less to enjoy. But the highest compliment I can pay the film is that it comes off less as a spoof of Hitchcock than a very, very funny caper that could have come from the master himself.