Movies You Might Have Missed: Mel Brooks' High Anxiety

The parody of Alfred Hitchcock films is a loving homage as much as a pastiche and one that Hitchcock himself saw and approved of 

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The Independent Culture

When the history books are written, Mel Brooks might just be considered the greatest American humourist of the last century. Having honed his craft at various Borscht Belt resorts in the Catskills, Brooks took a job on the legendary Sid Caesar vehicle Your Show of Shows alongside other fledgling writers like Woody Allen and Neil Simon. With Carl Reiner, he released a string of comedy albums as The 2000 Year Old Man, a work that would be the crowning achievement of just about any other comic one could care to name. For Brooks, however, that honour belongs to the stretch of films he made at the start of his career, from The Producers in 1968 to High Anxiety in 1979.

While the director has undoubtedly produced some gems since High Anxiety, it is probably fair to say his parody of Alfred Hitchcock movies marks the end of the golden period. Like Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein before it, High Anxiety works because it is a loving homage as much as a pastiche. Indeed, Brooks held a private preview for Hitchcock to see his reaction. Ever the showman, the master of suspense walked out without a word once the screening was over leaving the younger auteur fearing the worst. Days later, Hitchcock sent Brooks a congratulatory case of wine and a note reading, “A small token of my pleasure, have no anxiety about this.” It is little wonder that the film is dedicated to Hitchcock.

The plot concerns Dr Richard Thorndyke (Brooks) and his role as the new administrator of the Psycho-Neurotic Institute for the Very Very Nervous. There have been suspicious goings-on and things go from bad to worse when our hero is framed for murder and must confront his own psychiatric condition, “high anxiety” if he is to clear his name. Brooks’ regulars Madeline Kahn, Cloris Leachman and Harvey Korman all excel in this glorious send-up of Vertigo, Psycho, The Birds et al.

Hitchcock actually had one inspired suggestion of his own. He proposed a scene in which the killer would chase Thorndyke to the harbour, where the hero would try to escape by taking a running jump onto a boat in the water only to realise that the boat was pulling into the docks rather than away from them. Brooks adored the idea but budgetary constraints meant it was never filmed. It is proof, however, that Hitchcock knew a thing or two about comedy and his positive appraisal of this classic spoof was spot on.