Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (April 12, 2006)
Who says I don’t take care of my friends? My pal Kevin absolutely adores Mel Brooks’ 1977 flick High Anxiety, so when I heard it’d come out on DVD, that meant I needed to nab it so I could bequeath the disc to him when I finished. Even though this meant I’d need to screen seven other Brooks films since Anxiety comes only as part of the eight-disc “Mel Brooks Collection”, the tug of friendship meant I’d take one for my buddy!
Frankly, I’ve never been able to figure out why Kevin so loves Anxiety, but I try to keep an open mind. This was my fourth or fifth time through the film and I didn’t like it much on those earlier occasions, but who knows? Maybe the fifth or sixth time will be the charm.
Anxiety offers Brooks’ parody of Hitchcock. Dr. Richard Thorndyke (Brooks) takes over as the head of the Psycho-Neurotic Institute for the Very, Very Nervous when Dr. Ashley dies. His chauffeur/sidekick Brophy (Ron Clark) feels this came as a result of foul play. An outsider from Harvard, Dr. Charles Montague (Harvey Korman) resents Thorndyke’s presence since he craved the job.
The plot thickens when we learn how Dr. Ashley planned big changes around the Institute, another factor that contributes to the sense that he died at someone else’s hands. It seems likely that those same parties will come after Thorndyke. How will they do it? They probably will exploit his “high anxiety” – Thorndyke’s paralyzing fear of heights. The movie follows all the various twists and turns related to Thorndyke’s disorder and attempts to send him over the edge – literally.
At his best, Brooks provided clever spoofs of other filmmakers. This is why Young Frankenstein worked; he took specifics of prior films and twisted them in amusing ways. If he goes too broad, he loses his touch. That was the problem with the moronic Spaceballs and the idiotic History of the World Part I.
In Anxiety, though, Brooks manages to stay on the subtle side of the street. Not that the film doesn’t include some broad laughs, but Brooks keeps things more subdued than usual. For instance, when Thorndyke first comes to the Institute, we see a “Keep In” sign on the front gate. That acts as a play on the usual “Keep Out” warnings. In his lesser films, Brooks would zoom in to accentuate this joke, but here he maintains restraint
The movie works better due to that factor, as the almost throwaway nature of many gags makes them more effective. I like movies that don’t stress jokes. They reward us for attention and don’t beat us over the head with their comedy. As I mentioned, Anxiety includes plenty of over the top moments – how else to view a scene in which a man who believes he’s a dog humps Thorndyke’s leg and then pees on Montague? - but it also makes sure that it features more subtle bits.
I probably like Anxiety more now than in the past since I’m much better acquainted with the work of Hitchcock. I think I last saw Anxiety back in the mid-Nineties, and I’ve seen many Hitchcock films during the intervening period. Brooks doesn’t usually directly spoof specific Hitchcock flicks; some clear references to Psycho, Vertigo and a few others appear, but Brooks mostly keeps things less obvious. That’s fine with me, as the movie draws much of its humor from the general reflection of a Hitchcockian tone. Anxiety absorbs the Hitchcock feel but doesn’t just re-enact specific sequences.
That works for me, as I don’t think much of movies that simply recreate existing references with little cleverness. Even when Anxiety goes for the obvious – such as the shower scene from Psycho - it adds enough distinctiveness to ensure it doesn’t suffer from the moronic mimicry of something like Scary Movie. There’s a wit at hand that I appreciate, and there’s also a great adherence to the source. For instance, when Anxiety spoofs The Birds, the film uses similar sound design and omits music.
Much of the charm comes from the cinematography. Brooks ensures that shots strongly evoke the Hitchcock style. That means elements such as the one in which a character states he feels caught in a web while shadows create that sort of look around him. The movie doesn’t over-stress these shots; instead, it lets us enjoy them on our own.
Another positive also relates to Brooks’ subdued tone. In crummier films like History of the World or Spaceballs, Brooks doesn’t trust himself enough to let the jokes sag. Those films pour on the gags without pause, and that just accentuates the crappy quality of the bits.
In Anxiety, Brooks allows himself to take breaks. This allows the comedic segments to prosper. They don’t battle against themselves for prominence, and they come from a more natural place. The humor stems from the story and characters, not the reverse.
A significant difference between Anxiety and Brooks’ lesser works stems from his obvious affection for the source material. That warmth permeated Young Frankenstein as well but was absent from trash like Spaceballs. It’s obvious he did the latter just to make a buck, while he shows a greater affinity for Hitchcock here. That helps allow the movie to prosper, as it doesn’t simply capitalize on a popular trend.
The high quality of the film’s cast certainly helps. Ron Carey and Howard Morris offer the most memorable work in their supporting roles, and a young Barry Levinson pops up in a terrific turn as a high-strung bellboy. Korman provides a favorite moment with his foiled attempt to eat a fruit cup; his anticipatory joy and subsequent disappointment are brilliant to see. Cloris Leachman’s cold, stern Nurse Diesel also offers many fun moments.
Maybe I’ll have to apologize to my friend Kevin. For years, I gave him a hard time about his adoration of High Anxiety, as I thought the film was lackluster at best. However, I now can appreciate the film’s charms and see it as a consistently amusing and clever piece of work.