Thursday, May 4, 2017

Hitchcock by Way of Young Frankenstein, or Thoughts on High Anxiety

 High Anxiety (1977), Mel Brooks’ accurate and very, very silly pastiche of Alfred Hitchcock and his films Psycho (1960), Vertigo (1958), and The Birds (1963) remains to date one of the best Hitchcock parodies and an affectionate tribute.  Written, directed and starring Mel Brooks, he portrays Dr. Richard Thorndyke (and if you think Richard Thorndyke sounds like Cary Grant’s character Roger Thornhill from North by Northwest you’re not wrong), chief psychiatrist for the Psycho-Neurotic Institute for the Very Very Nervous who suffers from (cue musical theme, which he also wrote and sings) high anxiety, or vertigo (get it?). 
Every aspect of the typical Hitchcock movie is parodied, including his filming style; there’s a long tracking shot that moves in smoothly until it crashes into the french doors; the actors jump, look at the camera, then shrug and continue with the scene.  It’s silly, it’s genius, and it’s signature Mel Brooks.  From the Saul Bass inspired credits to the tone-perfect Bernard Hermann-esque soundtrack, the movie is a bawdy love letter to a very specific genre and era in filmmaking.
Regrettably, Mel Brooks’ particular brand of humor has not aged well in our culturally sensitive decade.  Unapologetically racist, sexist, homophobic, and yet still one of my favorite filmmakers, the jokes are broad, the laughs are cheap and quick, and if you miss one there’s a dozen just as offensive around the corner.  Humor is meant to be transgressive and offensive, at its very core you are literally laughing at other people.  There’s a basic viciousness to it that we all share but rarely indulge in, and that may not be a bad thing, but that doesn’t mean we're forbidden to appreciate it or laugh along.
With Madeline Kahn as the Louis Vuitton obsessed Victoria Brisbane, Harvey Korman as Dr. Charles Montague, Ron Carey as Brophy, who doesn’t got it, and Cloris Leachman doing a variation on Frau Bl├╝cher (horse whinny) as the dominatrix Nurse Diesel.  And be sure to watch out for director Barry Levinson of Diner (1982), Good Morning Vietnam (1987), Rain Man (1988), Bugsy (1991) and Wag the Dog (1997) in an early film appearance as Dennis, the bellboy who finally brings Dr. Thorndyke his paper.

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