Friday, June 28, 2024

High Anxiety: Mid-Level Mel Brooks

What would we do without Mel Brooks? He’s been the comic genius behind TV (Get Smart) and movies (2000 Year Old Man), but I associate him mostly with movies, as a writer, a director, and sometimes a star. His first directorial outing was in 1967, as writer/director of The Producers, which introduced the world to the outrageous combination of Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder, as well as to the most hilariously tasteless production number of all times, “Springtime for Hitler.” I suspect that if you watch the film you’ll agree it runs out of steam midway though, but Brooks would later enlarge it into a Broadway musical blockbuster.

 I’m fond of The Twelve Chairs, Brooks’ off-the-wall 1970 look at Tsarist Russia. (I’ve adopted its original song, “Hope for the Best, Expect the Worst,” as my own personal philosophy of life.) But Brooks’ greatest year was arguably 1974, when he introduced not one but two comedic masterworks, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein. Both showcase Brooks’ talent for parody, his success at spoofing familiar genres like the Western and the classic monster flick. Next came the considerably more effortful Silent Movie, featuring Brooks favorites Marty Feldman and Dom DeLuise, along with a cast of Hollywood stars in cameo roles. In 1977 it was back to a genre spoof: Brooks’ High Anxiety (despite its title’s witty nod to High Society) is dedicated to poking fun at the suspense classics of shockmeister Alfred Hitchcock. Many critics have noted that Hitchcock’s films are themselves frequently tongue-in-cheek, and don’t need to be parodied. Still, there’s fun to be had in seeing how many Hitchcock references you can spot.

 First of all, the jaundiced look at the whole field of psychiatry reminds us of Hitchcock’s 1945 Spellbound. Here Brooks himself plays an eminent psychiatrist, Dr. Richard Thorndyke, who has flown out to California to lead the Psycho-Neurotic Institute for the Very, Very Nervous,  a place that is clearly not as salubrious as it seems. (Thorndyke’s name is an immediate reminder of Cary Grant as Roger Thornhill in  North by Northwest.) Despite his sterling reputation, Thorndyke is suffering from a Brooksian psychological ailment called “high anxiety,” which seems a cross between vertigo and acrophobia. He is not helped by the institute’s location, high above the rocky shoals of the Pacific, and his troubles are compounded when he’s victimized by a flock of pooping pigeons, à la Hitchcock’s The Birds.

 Things go from bad to worse when Thorndyke attends a conference in San Francisco, where he’s housed on the 14th floor of the brand-new Hyatt Regency. This real locale was famous in its day for being built around an enormous atrium that would make almost anyone dizzy if she were on the top floor looking down. Of course there’s a beautiful, mysterious Hitchcock blonde (Madeline Kahn) who needs his help, leading to the film’s single most hilarious scene: when they sneak a gun past airport security by posing as the world’s most annoying traveling couple. Predictably the film’s climax is staged as an homage to Hitchcock’s Vertigo, with Dr. Thorndyke forced to pursue the bad guys up the high twisted staircase of the institute’s bell tower. Of course villains like Cloris Leachman and Harvey Korman get their comeuppance, and everyone else lives happily ever after.  Kudos to the 1940s-style black & white cinematography and the surreal elements borrowed from Salvador Dali’s Spellbound dream sequence.

 I’m told Hitchcock himself was mightily amused. He reportedly sent Brooks a case of six magnums of fine wine with a note that read, "A small token of my pleasure, have no anxiety about this."

 A very happy 98th birthday to the 2,000-Year-Old Man! 




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