Film Review: High Anxiety (1977)
Updated: Aug 3, 2021
Self-Importance of Parody Film
High Anxiety (Dir. Mel Brooks; 1977) was and still is the best satirical comedy master piece ever. This film always referred as a homage and satire to Hitchcock films however it is quite independently satisfiable as a suspense comedy. On the contrary to what many mainstream media critics wrote about this film's lack of 'self-importance,' Mel Brooks's highly successful film was praised by Hitchcock himself with complemental words and priceless wines (six magnums of 1961 Château Haut-Brion) .
"A small token of my pleasure, have no anxiety about this."
- Alfred Hitchcock (1)
His other satirical comedy master piece Young Frankenstein (1974) could not get this primary response from whom Mel Brooks paid a homage to due to the original film director James Whale's early death (1957). Mel Brooks is good at grabbing core essence of classical films he made parodies.
The successful satire and parody can revive and develop original films into more laughable and socially realistic comedy in the present filmmaking conditions. High Anxiety (Dir. Mel Brooks; 1977)'s social reality is fictionally represented by Nurse Charlotte Diesel (Cloris Leachman) who institutionalises wealthy people as 'madmen' to extort millions of dollars from their victims. Like Arthur Brisbane who is trapped by Nurse Charlotte Diesel and her fraud partner Dr. Charles Montague (Harvey Korman).
Mel Brooks cinematically maximised and criticised the really horrible fraud plot of ''milking patients'' at mental hospitals. This dramatically core conflict in this film is a serious social reality which perfectly expressed in this parodical way. This is his remarkable creative sense and entertaining talent. As the result, not only this film is the idealistic satirical comedy but also it is a serious social comment at the same time dialectically. Film is not about individualistic identity but it is for enlightenment, truth.
Some Hitchcock films are referred in this film, for instance, The 39 Steps (1935) , Rebecca (1940), Foreign Correspondent (1940), Suspicion (1941), Spellbound (1945), Notorious (1946), Under Capricorn (1949), Dial M for Murder (1954), Rear Window (1954), To Catch a Thief (1955), The Wrong Man (1956), North by Northwest (1959), Vertigo (1958), Psycho (1960), The Birds (1963), Frenzy (1972) and Family Plot (1976). Thus, it is not just a parody of Vertigo or Psycho at all.
These film features are just covers of this parody and fully reorganised into this independently meaningful comedy thriller. It does not like an ''imitation'' of Hitchcock films. Highly original approach to the social context with references to Hitchcock.
ACT 1 is that a ''high anxiety'' sufferer Dr. Richard Thorndyke (Mel Brooks)'s inauguration of being the director of the Psycho-Neurotic Institute for the Very, Very Nervous where antagonists Nurse Charlotte Diesel (Cloris Leachman) and Dr. Charles Montague (Harvey Korman) milk wealthy ''patients.''
Inciting incident is formed by two key incidents. One is when Dr. Montague takes Thorndyke to the shiny light's source which is originated from the room of ''patient Arthur Brisbane.'' Not obviously Brooks makes this shiny light a SOS sign from the real Arthur Brisbane but some edits also caused it so vague. It is better than being any implication of encountering of fake ''Arthur Brisbane.'' This editorial solution works so well. The other key incident is Dr. Philip Wentworth (Dick Van Patten)'s argue with Diesel and the resulted death by loud music. Dr. Philip Wentworth and hospital driver Brophy oppose what Diesel and Dr. Charles Montague are doing in the hospital. If Dr. Philip Wentworth is alive, Thorndyke won't go to San Francisco conference which he dislikes. These incidents drive Dr. Richard Thorndyke to go to San Francisco for his scientific presentation at the end of ACT1. Mysteries and suspense are created. This film's inciting incident is unique that it contains double blows.
ACT 2 really starts when Victoria Brisbane (Madeline Kahn) who is the daughter of Arthur Brisbane bursts into Thorndyke's room. The newspaper conflict with Dennis (Barry Levinson) is mechanically filled the first half of ACT2 but this pure parody of Psycho is not actually a driving element of the entire story. The following bar scene is a musical insert however it reveals the real Brisbane's photo when Victoria drops her wallet accidentally, thus it is not an ordinary Three Act structure. Beside this, not all characters appear in ACT1. Such as Victoria Brisbane and the JAWS like assassin "Braces" (Rudy De Luca ).
Midpoint is when Thorndyke sees a real photo of her father Arthur Brisbane and realises the patient he met is a fake. This is a moment of truth. Point of no return. ACT2's main conflict is that "Braces" sets up Thorndyke by pretending to be him and shooting a man in the lobby of the hotel. The most intensified tension is how Thorndyke proves his own innocence. His driver Brophy's photos of the scene prove his alibi, then, Thorndyke who gets Victoria's help asks Brophy to enlarge the elevator on the photo where he is in at that moment of the shooting. Later Brophy's interrupted by the antagonists.
Then, Nurse Diesel and Montague order "Braces" to assassinate Thorndyke. The failure of the assassination leads protagonists to go back to the hospital to save Brophy and the real Arthur Brisbane. Brophy is caged at North Wing and informs protagonists whereabout of real Arthur Brisbane.
The mechanical and physical conflict with Dennis at hotel, the impersonation attempt of Thorndyke and the assassination attempt of Thorndyke by "Braces" are triple blows to the protagonist Thorndyke.
ACT3 is the north wing and tower sequence, in where Thorndyke solves his trauma with the help of Professor Lilloman and climbing up the tower's steep stairs bravely to save real Arthur Brisbane from the antagonists Norton, Diesel and Dr. Charles Montague. This film is not about self-identification, it is about enlightenment, it is not only important for audience but also it is equally important for the protagonist himself. Lack of love of his parents, fear of not being loved by his own parents caused his high anxiety. The truth prevailed and the film story finished.
For some technical aspects, unprecedented creative solutions must be mentioned. Flash CUT at LAX is a more sophisticated solution than what Hitchcock did in The Birds (1963)'s explosion of gas station scene without any still camera. In which Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren)'s surprising responses to the bird attack are dealt with a series of still shots but this film deals with a series of Brophy's photos on Thorndyke taken at the airport. It is more natural and defamiliarises the image of Thorndyke. Photos within a film gives a character a fictional reality and dimensions.
Editing techniques are diversified in this film. SMASH CUTs are remarkable and effective. When the gay man shows his body in the toilet scene, Mel Brooks quickly cuts to short close shot of the gay man's annoying medium shot then cuts back to the full shot. The action itself is disrupted but it creates visual impact that Thorndyke is supposed to have when he sees it. This is a typical editorial technic in Sergei Eisenstein (1898-1948)'s films. The other one is Dr. Charles Montague scares the patient with werewolf fangs during Thorndyke's mental check on the patient who supposed to be normal. One quick close up of Dr. Charles Montague inserts in to the middle of the scaring action, then cuts back to continue the action. It a disruption but it actually creates a visual impact.
Transitional edits are also unique and complicated. Stop motion plus fade out at the end of opening title credit, ''stop motion plus fade out and in'' after the conversation between Thorndyke and Professor Lilloman (Howard Morris) enhance visual rhythm and express anxiety. Red in/ out between the end of bar scene in where "Braces" notices Thorndyke finds the truth and Diesel and Dr. Charles Montague's discussion scene on the fate of Thorndyke. Focus in/ out are also used in this film, when Thorndyke wakes from flashbacks. Shape match cut between eyes of Diesel and the flash lights of the car in which Dr. Philip Wentworth gets killed by loud music. Transitional cuts are not just mechanical methods to connect shots but they themselves are creative expressions of psychology and meaning of the situation.
Sound Cut with orchestra symphony in the bus is a visually astonishing sound cut. It is one of creative innovations of this film. When Thorndyke hears about devastating situation of politics at the hospital from his driver, tension music starts and Thorndyke gets nervous, then cuts to the bus in which orchestra symphony plays the exactly the same music. It breaks the fictional barrier between music track and the cinema world itself.
Beautiful editing trick is fake Thorndyke taking off his mask. That is done by Mel Brooks's close up with action of taking off a mask, then continuously cuts to "Braces"'s medium shot with the continuous action. It is the best example of action match cut. And it is creatively higher than any ordinary match cut. It has its narrative meaning not just a mechanical cut.