After his dismal showing at the bake-off, Appellate Judge Tom Becker developed Pie Anxiety.
Given that his name is synonymous with "riotous comedy," it's a little surprising to note that Mel Brooks has directed less than a dozen films, the last one being 1995's trifling Dracula: Dead and Loving It. He hasn't done anything really approaching greatness since the early '70s.
Ah, but what greatness that was. In 1974, Brooks—who'd already won an Oscar for writing The Producers—offered up a pair of the most beloved comedies of all time, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein. Brooks received two more Oscar nominations, one for writing Young Frankenstein, and the other for writing the theme song for Blazing Saddles.
Brooks' follow-up, Silent Movie, was not as successful as his previous efforts, but it was still regarded overall favorably, a funny and whimsical experiment in making a modern day silent film.
Next up was High Anxiety, Brooks' spoof on/tribute to the films of Alfred Hitchcock. Brooks cast himself in the lead and got together a group of supporting players who'd helped him strike comedy gold before.
So, how does it work out when The Master of Comedy takes on The Master of Suspense?
Facts of the Case
Dr. Richard Thorndyke (Brooks) arrives as the new head of the Psycho-Neurotic Institute for the Very, Very Nervous after the mysterious death of his predecessor. Unhappy to see him are the effete Dr. Charles Montague (Harvey Korman, The Carol Burnett Show) and the cigar-smoking, pointy-breasted Nurse Diesel (Cloris Leachman, The Last Picture Show). Afraid that Thorndyke might uncover the secrets of the sanitarium—mainly, that they're money-grubbing frauds—they determine to get rid of him, one way or another. Perhaps they can take advantage of his own psychological condition, a fear of heights, known as High Anxiety.
While at a conference, Thorndyke meets icy blonde Victoria Brisbane (Madeline Kahn, Clue). Victoria is concerned about her father, a wealthy industrialist who's a patient at the Institute, and who she believes is being kept against his will. Thorndyke agrees to help Victoria discover the truth—but will they survive the dastardly deeds of Montague and Diesel?
If you took all the bits in High Anxiety and just watched them individually, you'd probably find them to be funnier than the film is as a whole. It's not a bad movie by any means, it just feels a little forced and overfocused—terms that have no place in the Brooks universe.
High Anxiety lacks the freewheeling spirit of Blazing Saddles and spot-on inventiveness of Young Frankenstein. Part of the problem seems to be Brooks' efforts to make this a faithful and affectionate tribute. The Hitchcock-specific gags work to a point, but the film is best when the supporting players—particularly Leachman and Korman—are left to their own devices. One of the better sequences involves some unseemly play between Diesel and Montague, and in the featurette included on the disc, Brooks notes that the shooting ran a little longer because he let them improvise. The ensuing silliness harkens back to the glory days of Blazing Saddles. The same goes for Madeline Kahn. When she's trying a take-off on the Hitchcock "ice blonde," she seems a little lost, maybe because her character isn't patterned after any particular "ice blonde." When she steps away from the confines of the genre send-up, she's much better, and a couple of her scenes—one involving a telephone, the other helping Brooks smuggle a gun onto a plane—are memorable.
Overall, though, Brooks seems to be bogged down. Even though it's far from complex, the film feels a little plot-heavy, with its running riffs on Spellbound and the whole "wrong man" business interrupted for hit-or-miss jabs at Psycho, The Birds, Vertigo, The 39 Steps, and other Hitchcock films. The camerawork sometimes makes obvious reference to Hitchcock's use of unusual angles, as do the matte shots (Albert Whitlock, who did matte effects in a number of Hitchcock films, has a small role here as Brisbane).
But the parodies rarely rise above the level of sit-com. It's like Brooks knows the words, but he can't hear the music, and we end up with lot of fairly obvious Hitchcock riffs that tend to go on too long and boast little in the way of style. High Anxiety is a funny idea that just never comes together as well as it should.
This disc is a stand-alone version of the one that was included in The Mel Brooks Collection, a nine disc Blu set that was released last year. The technical work here is marginal—I wouldn't have known I was watching a Blu-ray if it wasn't marked on the box. The picture is soft and a tad hazy. Audio is surprisingly weak; I found myself fiddling with the levels more than once.
Extras include a pair of onscreen text tracks, one with trivia about the film, the other an "Anxiety Test." To watch these, you have to access them from the menu and watch the film all the way through without fast-forwarding or reversing. Frankly, they're a bit annoying. There's also an isolated score track.
What is good is a half-hour featurette, "Hitchcock and Mel: Spoofing the Master of Suspense." This was produced in 2009 and includes comments from Brooks, Leachman, the late Dom DeLuise, Dick Van Patten and Jack Riley (who both had small parts in the film), as well as a couple of Hitchcock historians and Hitchcock's granddaughter. It's the sort of thing that actually helps you appreciate the film more.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
This film has its fans, and I understand why. Much of it is very funny, and even the parts that don't work as well are good for a smile—or a grimace, maybe. It might not be Brooks at his best, but it's still a far-sight better than most of what's out there now.
Lesser Brooks gets a lesser Blu treatment.
A little guilty.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
• Trivia Track
Review content copyright © 2010 Tom Becker; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.