Film / High Anxiety

High Anxiety is a 1977 comedy, directed by Mel Brooks. It is an Affectionate Parody of the films of Alfred Hitchcock. While there are numerous allusions to almost any Hitchcock film between The Lodger (1927) and Family Plot (1976), the main plot and setting are taken from Spellbound and Vertigo. There are also minor allusions to films not directed by Hitchcock, such as The Pink Panther and The Spy Who Loved Me, with characters resembling Jacques Clouseau and Jaws.

Dr. Richard H. Thorndyke (the H. stands for "Harpo") is assigned as the new administrator of The Psycho-Neurotic Institute for the Very, Very Nervous. He arrives at Los Angeles to take his position and meets the eccentric staff: Dr. Montague (Harvey Korman), Dr. Wentworth (Dick Van Patten), and Nurse Diesel (Cloris Leachman). Diesel is extremely domineering and is soon revealed to be in a BDSM relationship with the submissive Montague. Thorndyke also meets Arthur Brisbane, a wealthy industrialist who had a nervous breakdown the year before. He currently thinks he is a cocker spaniel.

Wentworth wants to leave the institute but Diesel refuses to let him. She agrees after an argument. When Wentworth is driving home that night, his radio blasts rock music loudly and will not shut off. He is trapped in his car, and he dies from an ear hemorrhage. The following day, Thorndyke books a room in the vertigo-inducing Hyatt Regency (hotel of) San Francisco. He is suffering from a sense of vertigo but finds his room located at the top floor.

Thorndyke is contacted by Victoria Brisbane (Madeline Kahn), "the Cocker's daughter". She wants him to take a closer look at her father's case. He does so and discovers that his patient may not be the actual Brisbane. The Institute apparently could use the money from the Brisbane family, and keeps the real Arthur prisoner. Diesel decides to get rid of her boss. She hires the assassin Braces (Rudy De Luca) to frame Thorndyke for murder. Richard has to clear his name before resolving the case.

High Anxiety provides examples of:

  • All Women Are Doms, All Men Are Subs: Diesel and Montague.
  • Alter Kocker: The "loud and annoying" characters Thorndyke and Victoria use to hide in plain sight at the airport.
  • Axe Crazy: Braces. When he makes his first report to Nurse Diesel, something like four out of every five sentences includes a request for permission to kill someone.
  • Battleaxe Nurse: Nurse Diesel.
  • Bedlam House: The Psychoneurotic Institute for the Very, VERY Nervous, which is less interested in curing its rich clientele than in keeping them indefinitely and thus getting more of their money.
  • Bowdlerise: Thorndyke is put in an awkward position when giving a speech on penis envy and other decidedly adult subjects, when one of the psychiatrists in the audience brings his kids along.
  • Brown Note: Dr. Wentworth gets trapped in his car and killed from an ear hemorrhage caused by the loud rock music blaring from the car radio.
    • A second one occurs near the end of the film, involving pigeon dung, in a direct parody of The Birds.
  • Camera Fiend: Brophy. It comes in handy later on.
  • Chair Reveal: Subverted. Professor Lilloman, Thorndyke's mentor, is found like this. He is slumped over horribly with his eyes and mouth hanging open, apparently long dead. When people start screaming, Lilloman wakes up. He was only sleeping.
  • Climbing Climax: Parodying the one in Vertigo, naturally. It was even filmed in the same tower.
  • Crushing Handshake: Dr. Charles Montague does this to the main character when they're formally introduced, and during the handshake he says "I was the one in charge before you came".
  • Department of Redundancy Department: Brofy's schtick when he's first introduced.
  • Disconnected by Death: Subverted, along with tons of suspense film tropes, when the protagonist, Dr. Richard H. Thorndyke, calls up Victoria Brisbane and "Braces" attempts to kill him in the phone booth. She mistakes his agonized gasping for an obscene phone call.
  • Disney Villain Death: Nurse Diesel, who thinks she is a witch and tries to fly a broomstick out the tower window, riding it to her death on the rocks far below, cackling crazedly all the while.
  • Dysfunction Junction: Every single character is nutty as a fruitcake.
  • Embarrassing Middle Name: For renowned psychologist Dr. Richard H. Thorndyke, his middle name "Harpo" is embarrassing.
  • Enhance Button: Parodied. As a secondary character blows up a photograph, he pins up a series of even greater enlargements until he finally gets one roughly 20 feet across, which he examines with a magnifying glass before exclaiming, "Aha!" This would work in real life, assuming that one has photograph paper 20 feet across and the tools necessary to transfer a negative onto a paper that large.
  • Epiphany Therapy: Parodied. Lilloldman talks Thorndyke through the causes of his "high anxiety" while he's hanging from a broken staircase, and the epiphany cures him instantly, allowing him to pull himself up and run the rest of the way.
  • Fake-Out Make-Out: While Victoria is in Thorndyke's hotel room, someone else comes in. She immediately kisses Thorndyke in an absurd attempt to avoid attention.
    • Later on he does this to her in the park, to avoid attention from some cops.
  • Fan Disservice: Mel Brooks taking a shower.
  • Fanservice Extra: Just before Thorndyke begins his song in the bar, a waitress, wearing a very short skirt, passes by in the background, and actually bends forward a bit while speaking with some patrons.
  • Gag Boobs: Nurse Diesel - not their size, but their shape.
  • Good Hair, Evil Hair: The villainous Dr. Montague has a Pencil Mustache.
  • Herr Doktor: Professor Lilloman.
  • It Is Pronounced Tro PAY: Thorndyke addresses his mentor Lilloman as "Professor Little Old Man" (accent on Man), and is corrected: "Little-Oldman" (accent on Old).
  • Jackass: Dennis, the hotel bellhop, is kind of rude and cranky even before Thorndyke bugs him anout the paper.
  • Large Ham: Mel Brooks and Madeline Kahn at the airport, trying to get past airport security by being loud and annoying Alter Kockers.
    • Howie Morris as professor Lilloman.
  • Left the Background Music On: The dramatic music as Thorndyke drives from the airport comes from the Los Angeles Philarmonic tour bus.
  • Looks Like She Is Enjoying It: Thorndyke calls Victoria moments before getting attacked by a strangler. She immediately concludes that it's an anonymous dirty phone call. And while she does start with "I'm not that kind of girl", she almost immediately switches to "So... what are you wearing?"
  • Loud of War: As Brown Note details, one of the deaths is caused by a loud car stereo.
  • MacGuffin: Parodied. Thorndyke (who is terrified of heights) is checking into a hotel when the receptionist informs him that though the hotel had reserved him a lower-level floor, "a Mr. MacGuffin called and requested we change it to the 17th floor." Though MacGuffin is probably a reference to the villains stalking the main character, the name is never mentioned again.
  • Morally Ambiguous Doctorate: Dr. Montague and Nurse Diesel. Dr. Wentworth wants out of the scam, and ends up getting killed for it.
  • Mundane Made Awesome: Lampshaded. At the beginning of the film, Thorndyke walks through an airport accompanied by strident orchestral music. When he finally reaches the exit, he proclaims, "What a dramatic airport!"
  • No Fourth Wall: The Fourth Wall is literally broken. At the end, as the camera is pulling away from Thorndyke and his new wife as they occupy themselves on the honeymoon bed, it crashes through the fourth wall of the motel room, resulting in a huge hole in the wall and prompting the off screen camera operators to panic ("Just keep going!"). This is a parody of the through-the-wall tracking shot used in a few Hitchcock films.
  • Not in Front of the Kid: Dr. Thorndyke is giving a conference, and is about to discuss penis envy when a man comes in with his two kids, so he forces himself to talk about "peepee envy" and how it relates to the "woowoo".
  • Pretty in Mink: Victoria wears a fox wrap when on a date.
  • Psycho Strings: The Psycho shower scene parody uses the shrill cries of an angry bellhop in place of the strings: "Here! Here's your paper! Here's your lousy, stinking paper! Happy now?" Thorndyke's reaction? "That boy gets no tip."
  • Radio Voice: Parodied. Thorndyke asks his secretary to repeat her intercom message without holding her nose. She replies in a perfectly normal voice.
  • Refuge in Audacity: To get past airport security, Victoria and Richard act like a bickering couple, knowing that the louder and more obnoxious they act, the more people would ignore them.
  • Scare Chord: Lampshaded when the characters react to it.
  • Sophisticated as Hell: An entire discussion in a psychological conference is, due to one psychologist bringing his children, conducted using such technical terms as the peepee, balloons, and caca-doody.
  • Shout-Out: An extended one - Thorndyke pesters a bellboy with repeated requests about getting a newspaper, wanting to look in the obituary for information concerning Dr. Wentworth's demise. He then takes a shower, during which the bellboy comes and in a frenzy mimics stabbing Thorndyke with the paper while screaming "Here's your paper! Happy now?! Happy?" The paper's ink runs down the drain, a reference to Psycho. Bonus points for the bellboy's shrieks emulating the violin shrieks from the original.
  • Stairwell Chase: The Belltower scene of Vertigo is both replicated and parodied.
    • In the very same tower, no less.
  • The Stinger: A scene of Thorndyke running across the San Francisco Bay, right underneath the Golden Gate Bridge is superimposed underneath the credits.
  • Window Pain: Parodied. Thorndyke , the new head of a mental asylum, receives a (very big)rock to the window with a message — a friendly welcome note from the psycho ward.