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In Defense of High Anxiety

Most, if not all of Mel Brooks’ films, have received mixed reception from critics, audiences and even fans alike. Yet most of them are considered classics now. However, there is one underrated film of his which is not liked well enough to be recommended but we are. We are of course talking about “High Anxiety” (1977).

Criticized for substituting a real storyline for a line of goofs and gags pointed at Alfred Hitchcock’s films, “High Anxiety” (1977) has found a tough audience with critics, audiences and even a few Mel Brooks fans. In “High Anxiety”, we follow “Dr. Richard Thorndyke” (Mel Brooks) to Psychoneurotic Institute in which the staff are as unstable as the patients. At the Institute, Dr. Thorndyke encounters “Nurse Diesel” (Cloris Leachman in a bullet bra that she wore to her audition) and her lover/psychiatrist “Dr. Charles Montague” (Harvey Korman) who engage in some S&M by night and tormenting patients by day. While Thorndyke wants to treat the patients and figure out the structure of the Institute, he is forced to leave and attend a conference. May we mention Thorndyke suffers from vertigo? It’s mighty hard for him to get to his hotel room when it is on the top floor. And all he wants is his newspaper!

While at the conference, Thorndyke encounters “Victoria Brisbane” (Madeleine Kahn), a daughter who wants to find her missing father who worked at the Institute. He is compelled to help her after serenading her and everyone else at the hotel bar with the theme of “High Anxiety.” But it’s not before Thorndyke is framed with murdering a man in the hotel lobby. Now, he is on the run from the police to find out who is the real killer and most importantly, who framed him. All of the answers comically point back to The Institute.

The film contains too many Hitchcock parodies to count but it includes a parody of “Psycho”’s shower scene with a rolled up newspaper and a parody of “The Birds” which includes a mad dash to escape bird droppings. Although the whole film pokes fun at Hitchcock, there are references to other films as well. At one point, “Nurse Diesel” dresses up as “The Wicked Witch of the West” from “The Wizard of Oz” (1939) which is why it is such a brilliant parody film!

Who else but the multi-talented comedian, actor, director, writer Mel Brooks to put together such a film that could poke fun of so many things and still have it be watchable? No one. Very few people know that Alfred Hitchcock himself loved this film and after watching a rough cut of it with Mel, sent him a bottle of wine. Who could ever disagree with the Master of Suspense?

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