High Anxiety (1977)

high_anxiety

High Anxiety
Dir. Mel Brooks
Premiered December 25, 1977

Alfred Hitchcock loved the 1970s. His favorite movie at the end of his life was Smokey and the Bandit, after all. And it makes sense. As soon as he came to Hollywood in the early days of the Second World War, Hitchcock constantly fought with the studios, constantly testing the limits of violence, sexuality, and creative control. He didn’t always succeed, and sometimes he had to go outside the studio system entirely, but he almost always came out on top, creating a model for the auteur theory that would usher in the New Hollywood. His last film may have been behind him in 1977, but he was loving the ride.

So it makes sense that the definitive Hitchcock parody should come out at this time, and that it should come from Mel Brooks, an auteur in his own right fresh off of Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, and Silent Movie. And yet High Anxiety isn’t as well remembered as those. I don’t know why.

The story begins when renowned psychologist Dr. Richard Thorndyke (Brooks) takes a new job as head of the Psycho-Neurotic Institute for the Very, Very Nervous. But Thorndyke has a secret that could cost him his job: he suffers from High Anxiety, and seeks treatment from mentor-turned-colleague Professor Lilloman (Howard Morris).

What the hell is High Anxiety? What isn’t? Thorndyke is afraid of everything. He’s afraid of heights, naturally, which sends him into a completely dysfunctional state. He’s afraid of everyone around him, of sudden plot twists, and of music cues (provided, Blazing Saddles-style, by a passing orchestra).

But Thorndyke has much the be scared about. His predecessor at the PNIVVN died under mysterious circumstances, as does another doctor (Dick Van Patten) soon after. His prissy rival (Harvey Korman) and sadistic nurse (Cloris Leachman) are clearly up to something– besides their clandestine BDSM relationship– as patients at the PNIVVN never seem to get better, or, seeming fine already, can’t leave. Things get even stranger on a visit to San Francisco, where he’s cornered by Victoria Brisbane (Madeline Kahn), the ravishing, perpetually mildly aroused daughter of one of the institution’s patients who’s convinced of a grand conspiracy that only the two of them– and Thorndyke’s shutterbug comic relief sidekick (Ron Carey) can untangle.

With Mel Brooks, a lot of people find it hard to get into as adults, requiring repeat viewings, so I’m not sure how fair of a shake I’m giving High Anxiety. I certainly liked it. It got Hitchcock right, it got Brooks’ own unique style of humor right, the two work together, I just don’t know what else to say without just quoting the movie or describing scenes from it. Sadly, generally liking something doesn’t make for the most interesting review.

Except blonde Madeline Kahn, whoo.

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Signs This Was Made in 1977
Victoria in one scene has a matching Louis Vuitton purse, pantsuit, and car.

How Did It Do?
High Anxiety grossed $31.1 million against a $4 million budget. Critics were generally if gingerly positive, mostly calling the film uneven or flawed but overall good, earning a 75% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes. Probably the biggest endorsement of the movie came from Alfred Hitchcock himself, who called its main Psycho homage “genius” and sent Mel Brooks some wine.

And that was 1977.

Next Time: 1977 in Review

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