Monday, June 06, 2011
Dr Richard H Thorndyke (Mel Brooks) disembarks from his internal flight in a somewhat anxious state. A demented old lady and the sexual overtures of a flasher complicate his exit from the airport. His driver (“and sidekick”) Brophy (Ron Carey) greets him with by sticking a camera in his face and taking a montage of intrusive shots. Brophy’s hobby is photography; a vitally important plot point hinges on it. The ad hoc photoshoot completed, Brophy drives Thorndyke to The Psycho-Neurotic Institute for the Very, Very Nervous, where Thorndyke has just taken over as director – much to the chagrin of the oleaginous Dr Charles Montague (Harvey Korman). By the time Thorndyke learns that his predecessor met a grisly end, he is in a state of nervous agitation fit to rival that of any of his patients.
Thus begins ‘High Anxiety’, Mel Brooks’s loving homage to Hitchcock (the opening credits carry a dedication to Hitch). Mainly riffing on ‘North by Northwest’ and ‘Vertigo’, but with a couple of inspired nods to ‘Psycho’ and ‘The Birds’ (the latter arguably Brooks’s most lowbrow skit this side of the beanfeast in ‘Blazing Saddles’), the plot is so nonsensical as to make ‘North by Northwest’ look like a piece by Strindberg.
Thorndyke is crippled by a fear of heights (later revealed as actually being a fear of parents); Montague and the sinister Nurse Diesel (Cloris Leachman) plot mysteriously, as well as indulging in a bit of light BDSM (the nurse’s attire for these sessions? step forward, the obligatory Nazi uniform); there’s a case of mistaken identity that sees an innocent man go on the run; and a seductive blonde (Madeleine Kahn) is mixed up in it somehow. Just about all the Hitch tick-boxes are checked, right down to the slightly artificial cinematography and the Bernard Herrmanesque score. (Subject of the score, Brooks’s show-stopping performance of the title song is a splendid parody of Frank Sinatra.) If there is a problem – and, let’s face it, outside of ‘The Producers’, ‘Blazing Saddles’, ‘To Have and Have Not’ and ‘Young Frankenstein’, Brooks’s work is hit and miss and then some – it’s that Brooks clings too deferentially to the very material he’s spoofing. The broader moments, such as the two supposedly gliding camera movements that fail spectacularly and don’t just break the fourth wall but bulldozer it aside, are textbook examples of classic Brooks slapstick and seem all the funnier for not relying on audience familiarity with the minutiae of Hitchcock.
Elsewhere, though, the frame of reference is very specific, and Brooks wavers between parodying actual scenes (the chase up the stairwell to the top of the tower) and staging set-pieces in the manner of Hitchcock, but layering them with brash and heavy-handed stabs at humour (Thorndyke and his paramour evading cops at an airport by means of deliberately drawing attention to themselves; Montague terrifying a patient into regression). The tone wavers along with the approach and there are a few ploddingly unfunny moments between the belly laughs.
When ‘High Anxiety’ hits its marks, it’s manic, mirthful and memorable, energetically performed by a cast who are all on good form. Particularly Madeleine Kahn who is just the perfect choice to send up the angsty, icy Hitchcock blonde. Having said that, though, any film automatically becomes a more engaging prospect when Madeleine Kahn’s name pops up in the credits.