Mel Brooks has often been called the Master of Comedy. The moniker might be a bit too grandiose, but he was certainly the master of the parody. In recent years that has become more evident than ever. Too often I’ve been forced to sit through something called a comedy. Not only can I do so without ever actually laughing, but there are far too many titles of late that don’t even give me the chance to crack a smile. It’s not that I’ve seen so much that it’s hard to find anything original. I can still laugh like crazy when I watch a Sanford and Son episode I’ve seen at least 50 times or an Abbott & Costello routine that was old before they even got their hands on the material. There is a famous quote that states, “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.” Then why does Mel Brooks make it look so dang easy?
While we’re on the subject of masters, you really can’t avoid the Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock. Perhaps no one understood his audience more than Hitch did. He’s influenced a great many of today’s filmmaking geniuses. He’s been admired by almost anyone who has ever really studied film. Mel Brooks can be counted among his students. On more than one occasion I have seen an interview where Brooks can’t say enough flattering things about Alfred Hitchcock. It would have only been a matter of time before Brooks turned his creative mind to one of his own idols. The result is enough to give anyone High Anxiety.
Dr. Richard H. Thorndyke (Brooks) is a renowned Harvard psychiatrist and professor of psychiatry. He has been hired to become the head of a hospital for the very, very nervous. His predecessor died suddenly of a heart attack just as he was about to institute some major changes at the facility. From the moment he is met by his driver Brophy (Carey) who is to bring him to the hospital, he’s alerted that the former head of the institute’s death was not so cut-and-dried as he believed. He’s also warned of “mysterious” goings- on at the facility. There he meets Dr. Charles Montaque (Korman) who feels that he was stepped over by the arriving Thorndyke. He believed that he should have been the next head doctor and has been running the show in the interim. There is also old nurse Diesel (Leachman) who is the strict disciplinarian of the hospital. She runs a tight ship. If you’re 30 seconds late to supper, you forfeit your fruit cup. These two are also having a rather perverted affair employing the use of all kinds of twisted props. He also finds out that his old college professor Dr. Lilloman (Morris) has been working at the hospital. Dr. Lilloman wants to help Thorndyke overcome an unfortunate affliction of high anxiety, a fear of high places. This will be particularly helpful since his new office window looks down over a high cliff to the crashing waves of the sea below. At a convention, Thorndyke meets Victoria Brisbane. She informs Thorndyke that her husband checked into the facility for some rest and hasn’t been heard from again. The two discover a terrible secret and are soon the targets of a hired hitman. When the hit fails, Thorndyke is framed for murder, and the two go on the run. They end up back at the institute where Thorndyke will have to overcome his fear to save the day.
While the obvious Hitchcock film being spoofed here is Vertigo, Brooks doesn’t stop there. There are obvious and subtle references to the entire library of Hitchcock films throughout this romp. Some of the better moments involve a nod to The Birds. This time we’re talking pigeons. Instead of pecking out your eyes, these guys will crap all over your face. There’s the shower scene from Psycho that utilizes many of the key moments nearly shot for shot. You can have a lot of fun with this film, particularly if you have an extensive Hitchcock knowledge base. Anything from street signs, a location that is North By Northwest to background gags and camera angles might be a hidden or not-so-hidden reference to Hitch. It has likely been the subject of a drinking game. Drink or not, it actually makes this the kind of film you can watch several times, looking for these homage moments and matching them to the Hitch film they have been taken from.
Brooks employs some of his regular troupe here. Harvey Korman is perfectly neurotic and fiendish as Montaque. Rudy DeLuca is marvelous as the nervous hitman who really, really wants to kill somebody. Cloris Leachman is no stranger to Mel Brooks movies and has one of the quirkiest roles ever as the demented nurse. There’s a ton of physical humor here. Dick Van Patten has his usual small Brooks role. Here he plays a doctor at the hospital with serious suspicions about what is going on. And, of course, one of Mel’s favorite actresses, Madeline Kahn has a pretty juicy role as Victoria. Even Barry Levinson has a cameo as a bellboy in the film. Brooks not only knows how to cast a movie, but he knows how to use his cast well. Brooks himself is the lead in this one, a rare occurrence for his movies. And, there’s the obligatory musical number, this time the title song performed by Brooks himself.
High Anxiety is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average 30 mbps. Mel Brooks films in high definition are going to be a mixed blessing. Certainly, this is as clean and sharp as the film has ever looked, at least in the home. The problem is that Mel didn’t film for picture quality. The image here is soft. Colors never jump out at you and look only moderately natural. At times they looked extremely faded. The print is in fine condition with a defect or so, here and there. Black levels are only average, again owing to the soft image. So, while the image isn’t all that impressive in high definition, you are seeing the way the film originally looked.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is about as straight-forward center as they come. I’m not sure I heard anything of significance come at me from the rear channels. About the only improvement here from earlier versions of the film is that there is a much more solid depth to the dialog. That’s because there is some sub that helps fill the sound out more.
Hitchcock And Mel – Spoofing The Master Of Suspense: (29:20) HD Brooks talks a lot about his admiration for Hitch. He describes his meetings with the iconic director. Hitch’s granddaughter also talks about both Brooks and Hitch, as well as the film.
Don’t Get Anxious – The Trivia Of Hitchcock: It’s a cheat, but this pop-up option during the film will alert you to all of those Hitchcock references and provide some nice Hitch trivia.
One of the neatest aspects of this film is that Brooks was able to spend time with Hitch to prepare for the film. Not only did Hitch approve of the movie, but he provided Brooks with plenty of reference material and even offered him a wonderful gag for the film. It required more budget than Brooks had. Still, it’s so cool to know that Hitch was, in some small way, involved with the movie. I’m quite surprised that he didn’t provide one of his signature cameo appearances. It would have been the absolute perfect icing on the cake. High Anxiety was released just a year after Hitch released his final film. It would have been something to have seen that. “It would give me immense pleasure.”