Monday, June 06, 2011

High Anxiety

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.


BRENT said...

Good write up Neil!! It is funny because I hated this for many, many years. I didn't learn to appreciate it until I began to see more Hitchcock movies in which to understand Brooks send ups.
In many respects this is the movie that started the movie spoof genre that mocked other movies/directors/genres.

Neil Fulwood said...

Thanks, Brent.

I've been trying to leave comments on The Silver Screen, by the way, but Blogger's playing me up something rotten at the moment. I just wanted to say how much I enjoyed your David Lean overview - good, succinct reviews that really captured the flavour of the films.

BRENT said...

Thanks Neil...I was extremely disappointed at the lack of attention they got, I mean he was a brilliant film maker and yet it appears bugger all people were interested! I used the word priviledge in all four of them and it was to see them on the big screen.
Does blogger send you around in circles with comments?? You type your comment, you have to then sign in and so and so? I had the same trouble for a long time and found out that if you untick the remember me box you shouldn't have any more problems. It is ridiculous because it has been going on for weeks and still hasn't been fixed.

Neil Fulwood said...

The problem I've been having is that Blogger wants me to select from the "sign in as" drop-down box, but when I click on the drop-down arrow nothing happens.

I'll try unticking the "remember me" box and see if that makes any difference.

BRENT said...

That is a new one! I can't believe the constant problems Blogger throws up at us. The problem is I just cannot find a way to contact the people who run it to complain or bring the problem to their attention. I end up going around in circles in the so-called Help section and get the big fat no-where.