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Tuesday, December 15, 2009

High Anxiety, You Win: Mel Brooks' Masterful Hitchcock Spoof

Ask someone to come up with the unassailable Mel Brooks' classics, and the names you're most likely to hear are Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles and The Producers--three bona fide gems, no question. But one movie from the same early Brooks period which has not taken its rightful place among those greats is his absolutely superb parody of Alfred Hitchcock thrillers, High Anxiety.

To even call it a parody does it a disservice--it's actually a loving tribute, an homage. Yes, it helps to have a knowledge and understanding of Hitchcock when watching the movie, but it remains hysterically funny and very well written, even if you don't know criss-cross from apple sauce.

I had the pleasure of re-watching it again recently for the first time in many years, and I was completely taken aback by how excellent a comedy it is. For my money, it's completely at the level of the other ones previously mentioned, yet never seems to get the recognition it deserves. Some of that may be due to the fact that Brooks' other thriller/horror spoof, Young Frankenstein, is such an unquestioned classic that it's caused people to overlook this other Mel Brooks thriller comedy.

I would contend that Brooks lost a lot of steam as the years and decades wore on, and some of his later material I don't find funny at all. I think he usually works best when he has someone just as talented to collaborate with--remember he had the brilliant Gene Wilder with him for Producers, YF and Blazing Saddles. With High Anxiety, as the previous year with Silent Movie, he was more or less striking out on his own--although he did have two brilliant TV writers, Ron Clark (Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour) and Rudy De Luca (Carol Burnett Show) working with him, as well as future Oscar-winning director Barry Levinson.

Perhaps it was the lack of Wilder that caused High Anxiety not to attain the rarefied heights of its three predecessors. Nevertheless, I was very pleasantly surprised to be reminded just how great High Anxiety really is. The story goes that Brooks actually asked Hitch to be in the movie, but the legendary director politely declined, explaining that he only cameos in his own films. Still, it's reported that Hitchcock did indeed see the movie, and absolutely loved it.

Brooks himself takes the lead role--unlike with the three earlier classics--and is a study in understated straight-man comedy as Dr. Richard Thorndyke, the put-upon new director of the Psychoneurotic Institute for the Very, Very Nervous. It isn't typical for him to play it straight, yet he does it perfectly, almost appearing to be an actual lead character from a Hitchcock film, dropped into the madcap chaos of this parody--which is exactly the point.

Then there's that classic vintage era Brooks supporting cast. The late, great Harvey Korman as the masochistic Dr. Montague; Cloris Leachman, just as terrific as she was in Young Frankenstein as Frau Blucher, here as the sinister Nurse Diesel; Madeline Kahn, who in hindsight was clearly one of the finest comic actresses of all time, as prototypical Hitchcock vamp Victoria Brisbane. These people are excellent, and all click to form one of the great ensemble comedy casts.

Brooks can be erratic with his scripts, and some of his later material in particular falls flat. Not so here. This is a comedy screenplay filled with one gem after another. Again, not as well-remembered as some other Brooks movies, but so many great lines:

"What a dramatic airport!"

"I got it! I got it! I got it!... I ain't got it."

"That kid gets no tip."

"Professor Lil' Old Man!"
"Lilolman! Lilolman!"

"I beeped! I beeped! Take me away! Take me back to Russia! Put me in irons! I beeped! The mad beeper is loose!"

"You're the cocker's daughter?"

"Are we talking about number one, or cocky-doody?"
As I said, this is actually more than just a straight-up parody--it's a love poem to Hitchcock. Not only are his characters and plot situations referenced, but so is his style of lighting, editing and camerawork. At times it's pretty amazing, and this is also where it does pay a little to be a Hitchcock fan. The downward shot from the ceiling during which all the characters suddenly look up; the shot from underneath the glass table, as Korman and Leachman keep placing plates and cups down, blocking the camera; and of course, the creeping zoom shot in which the camera literally breaks through the fourth wall. Brilliance.

Did I mention that, during Thorndyke's hotel stay in the movie, he is granted a room on short notice thanks to the sudden cancellation of another occupant? The occupant's name? Mr. McGuffin.

Then, of course, there are the specific spoofs, peppered throughout. After YF, Brooks made movie spoofs his bread and butter, and some would argue they got a bit stale later on. But here he truly is at the height of his powers, parodying moments from Hitchcock that are genuinely clever and laugh-out-loud funny.

The take-off on The Birds in which the avian creatures shit all over a fleeing Thorndyke may be obvious, but no more so than the campfire fart scene in Blazing Saddles--just as funny, but far more legendary. And of course, the overarching parody of most of the movie is of Vertigo, the Jimmy Stewart featuring a guy who's afraid of heights...

You just knew that Psycho, Hitchcock's most famous film, would be targeted, and boy does Brooks make the most of it, with a very well-staged and paced scene. A young Barry Levinson plays an exasperated bellboy, who, after repeated requests for a newspaper, barges into the bathroom while Thorndyke is showering, and proceeds to "stab" him repeatedly with the rolled-up paper. The shower scene itself is copied almost shot-for-shot, with all the angles duplicated. Levinson's high-pitched screams of "Here's your paper!!" actually reference the screeching violins of Bernard Hermann's unforgettable score. And of course, we close with the ink pouring down the drain like blood. Genius.

But my personal favorite spoof scene has always been the death of Dr. Wentworth, played by Dick Van Patten. A takeoff on a scene from Hitch's last film, Family Plot--released the year before--it features Van Patten struggling to escape from a car while the world's most annoying rock song blares over the car stereo, until his eardrums explode. This ludicrous scene always cracks me up the most, and best of all, Brooks actually composed the rock song! ("If you love me baby, tell me LOUD! LOUD!")

Speaking of this, we all know now that Brooks has an ear for music given the success of The Producers on Broadway, but it really should've come as no surprise, as the guy has composed tunes for almost all his movies. Here we also get the eminently hummable "High Anxiety" theme itself, performed by Brooks in another of my favorite scenes--in which he puts over a Frank Sinatra impression that manages to be amusing, yet not over-the-top. An extra bonus for a Frankophile like myself...

As always with Brooks, part of what makes this movie so damn funny is his distinctly "New York Jewish"sense of humor. Some have no taste for Brooks because this style of humor has no appeal to them; others may find it dated. But here, it works so well precisely because it is so out of place in a Hitchcock-like setting. Take, for example, Brophy, the cartoonish chauffeur with the Brooklyn accent--a guy like this would never show up in a Hitchcock movie in a million years, yet here he is, looking like he just walked off the set of an Abbott & Costello movie.

And then there's the phenomenal airport security scene, which gets funnier every time I see it. Here is the one time the Thorndyke character breaks from the straight-man role, as Brooks and Kahn disguise themselves as an elderly Jewish couple trying to get through security. This is the one scene that resembles nothing at all from Hitchcock, and is instead Brooks gone wild. You can tell that he and Kahn were ad-libbing and playing off each other quite a bit here, and it is a testament to their collective comedy chops how well they pull it all off.

If you're like me, a Mel Brooks fan who hasn't checked this one out in a while, do yourself a favor and re-evaluate it. If you're a Hitchcock lover who's never seen it, give yourself a treat and watch it. It's one of Brooks' very best, and belongs right alongside Young Frankenstein as another loving tribute to the horror/thriller genres.


le0pard13 said...

You're so right with this one, B-Sol. It deserves higher praise than it gets. Such a great cast in one, too. Thanks for posting this.

The Mike said...

Great write up, and I agree completely. I'd put it alongside the three movies you listed as his "bests", with Silent Movie rounding out the top 5.

RayRay said...

Well said. Always been a fan of this one. Kudos.

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