Egging The McGufffin: HIGH ANXIETY (20th Century Fox 1977)

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Mel Brooks loves films as much as the rest of us do. After skewering Westerns in BLAZING SADDLES and horror movies in YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, Mel set his satirical sights on Alfred Hitchcock in HIGH ANXIETY. The result is a film buff’s dream, with the gags coming fast and furious as Mel and his band of merry pranksters pay a loving but hysterical homage to the films of the Master of Suspense.

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Mel takes the lead here as Dr. Richard Thorndyke, the new head of the Psycho Neurotic Institute for the Very, Very Nervous. Thorndyke’s aide, the inept Brophy, thinks the former director was “a victim of foul play”. At the Institute, he meets oily Dr. Montague and starched Nurse Diesel, whose S&M/B&D relationship isn’t their only secret. Thorndyke has an ally in his mentor, Prof. Lilloman (say it slowly). The professor works as a consultant, and tries to help Thorndyke conquer his own phobia, “high anxiety” (fear of heights to you laymen).

Thorndyke discovers some very rich patients are being held there, but Montague assures him they’re very sick people, such as Zachary Cartwright, who sees werewolves, and Arthur Brisbane, who thinks he’s a Cocker Spaniel. After the mysterious death (“murder… I mean accident, accident”, sputters Montague, Thorndyke is encouraged to attend the psychiatric convention in San Francisco. A “Mr. McGuffin” called and moved his room to the 17th floor! Once he makes it up there, a typical Hitchcock blonde bursts in, saying “They’re after me!” Turns out she’s Victoria Brisbane, daughter of Arthur. Thorndyke shows her a picture and she tells him the Cocker Spaniel-wanna-be is not her father at all!

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After completing his lecture on penis envy (which he has to alter when a colleague show up with his two young daughters!), Thorndyke and Victoria meet up in the piano bar, where we get to hear Mel croon his self-penned “High Anxiety” in his Sinatra-via-the-Catskills style. Monatgue and Diesel have hired a killer named “Braces” to disguise himself as Thorndyke and commit murder. Now Richard Thorndyke must clear his name and find out the truth about what’s really going on at the Psycho Neurotic Institute for the Very, Very Nervous!

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Brooks loaded the cast with comedy pals like Harvey Korman as Montague, and Cloris Leachman as Nurse Diesel, who’s a cross between REBECCA’s Mrs. Danvers and ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST’s Nurse Ratched. Madeline Kahn (Victoria), draped in a blonde wig, spoofs Hitchcock leading ladies like Grace Kelly and Tippy Hedren. Ron Carey, Charlie Callas, and Jack Riley add to the fun, and Oscar-winning Special Effects genius Albert Whitlock (who worked on nine Hitchcock films) plays the real Brisbane. Even Mel’s co-writers get into the act, including future director Barry Levinson (DINER, RAIN MAN) as a deranged bellboy.

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Fans of the Master will get most of the jokes right off the bat. Besides the obvious shower scene from PSYCHO and Mel being chased by THE BIRDS (pigeons who shit all over him… hey, nobody ever said Mel Brooks was subtle!), there are references to THE 39 STEPS, FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT, SABOTEUR, SPELLBOUND, REAR WINDOW, DIAL M FOR MURDER, NORTH BY NORTHWEST, and of course VERTIGO. Even Hitchcock supposedly liked HIGH ANXIETY, sending Mel a case of expensive wine after watching it with a note reading, “A small token of my pleasure, have no anxiety about this”(1). Movie fans will have a ball picking out the Hitchcock allusions in HIGH ANXIETY…. once they stop laughing!

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(1) quote from “It’s Good to Be the King: The Seriously Funny Life of Mel Brooks” by James Robert Parrish (2008, Wiley & Sons, ISBN 9780470225264)

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9 Replies to “Egging The McGufffin: HIGH ANXIETY (20th Century Fox 1977)”

  1. If life was fair, comedy film fans would fund a full-sized replica of the statue of Liberty, placed above the Hollywood sign, with Mel Brooks’ face and holding a bagel aloft. You can’t love movies without loving Mel. He gets it.

    Liked by 1 person

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