High Anxiety Movie Review

One of the reasons we film critics have a soft spot for Mel Brooks's High Anxiety is that its endless parade of campy Hitchcock gags makes us feel smart. "Oh, that's from Vertigo. Hey, that's from North by Northwest. Did you hear that? He just said MacGuffin."

Of course, it's vitally important that you be in the mood to see a Mel Brooks movie when you see a Mel Brooks movie -- any Mel Brooks movie -- because if you're not, you'll just groan, roll your eyes, and walk away. But if you're feeling silly, Mel will make you laugh, and High Anxiety keeps the zingers coming from the very first moment, when the urgent strains of the powerful orchestra accompany Dr. Richard Thorndyke (Brooks) as he walks through the airport during the opening credits. The credits end, and Thorndyke comments, "What a dramatic airport!" Later, the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra will follow him around in a bus to add more drama to pivotal scenes.

Thorndyke has arrives in San Francisco to take over management of a spooky mental institution ("for the very very nervous") perched high atop an isolated craggy cliff. The plot, not that it much matters, revolves around Thorndyke being framed for murder and having to set out to solve the mystery of the real killer. Standing in his way are Dr. Montague (Harvey Korman in all his sniveling glory) and the terrifying Nurse Diesel (Cloris Leachman), whose Teutonic tendencies are in full effect when she explains an important rule of the asylum's dinner service: "Those who are tardy do not get fruit cup." And she means it. You kinda have to see it for yourself, but it's one of the funniest line deliveries ever.

The late, great Madeline Kahn also shows up as the scatterbrained heiress Victoria Brisbane. Note how her Cadillac Seville, totally covered with Yves Saint Laurent logos to match her logo-covered YSL jumpsuit presages today's designer logo mania by a good quarter century.

The Hitchcockian moments come and go with varying levels of hilarity. Brooks is attacked in the shower by a bellboy wielding a rolled-up newspaper. (The ink circles the drain just like Janet Leigh's blood.) A flock of birds poops on him. He has to face a fear of heights. And so on. Actually, he's funnier doing his own Mel Brooks thing, no more so when he picks up the mike in a hotel bar and warbles a lounge-lizard version of the movie's theme song. Sing on, Mel!


High Anxiety Rating

" Good "

Rating: PG, 1978


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