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Film / High Anxiety

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High Anxiety is a 1977 comedy film directed by (and starring) Mel Brooks. It is an Affectionate Parody of the films of Alfred Hitchcock. While there are numerous allusions to almost every Hitchcock film, 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.

Brooks plays Dr. Richard H. Thorndyke (the H. stands for "Harpo"), who is assigned as the new administrator of the Psycho-Neurotic Institute for the Very, Very Nervous. He arrives in 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:

  • Aborted Arc: Nurse Diesel and Montague are both heavily implied if not outright stated to have killed Thorndyke's predecessor, Dr. Ashley, but this aspect of the movie is all but forgotten as soon as Thorndyke meets Victoria and discovers her father's been replaced by an impostor.
  • Accidental Innuendo: In-Universe example: At one point Thorndyke calls Victoria from a phone booth, but gets attacked by Diesel's Professional Killer before he can say a word, who starts strangling him. Victoria thinks it's an obscene phone call of some sort, and, while she's annoyed at first, eventually starts playing along. Thorndyke eventually manages to kill the guy and tells Victoria it's him, at which point she responds with "Richard! Richard! I knew it was you!"
  • All Periods Are PMS: Victoria's so wound up at one point she states "I'm sorry I am so close to my menstrual cycle I could scream." And then she does.
  • 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, a stern, strict woman who is also the dominant half of a kinky relationship.
  • 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.
  • Bird-Poop Gag: As a parody of The Birds, every pigeon in San Francisco decides to take a dump on Thorndyke all at once.
  • The Body Parts That Must Not Be Named: 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, and substitutes with childish euphemisms that his audience also end up using. He ultimately gets an ovation for saying that "peepee envy" should be considered no more significant than a woman's "balloons" or "where the babies come out, the woo-woo."
  • Brick Joke:
    • Brophy's trouble with heavy objects ("I got it! I got it! ... I don't got it.") comes up again during the final chase up the stairs.
    • The Camera Abuse during Thorndyke's first dinner scene at the institute is revisited at the very end.
  • 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.
  • Camera Abuse: At the start of Thorndyke's first dinner scene at the institute, the camera zooms in and breaks through the window. While the characters notice, they don't comment on it. Then it happens again at the very end.
  • 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, and says he likes to sleep that way because it scares people.
  • Chekhov's Skill: Brophy's photography, which proves useful in clearing Dr. Thorndyke's name.
  • Climbing Climax: Parodying the one in Vertigo, naturally. It was even filmed in the same tower.
  • Convenient Photograph: Dr. Thorndyke is framed for murder by an assassin disguised as him. Thorndyke insists he was in the elevator when the murder occurred, and his assistant Brophy, who took a photo of the event, examines it for proof. In a parody of Blow Up, Brophy keeps enlarging the photograph until it's as big as the wall in his studio.
  • 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: Brophy tends to repeat phrases, repeat phrases.
  • Dies Wide Open: Both parodied and subverted; just before the climax, Thorndyke returns to the institute to find Professor Lilloman seemingly dead, albeit with eyes wide open and staring into space. However, it turns out that Lilloman just Sleeps with Both Eyes Open.
  • 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 Thorndyke's agonized gasping for an obscene phone call, and when Braces gets impaled on a glass shard, his dying gasp is taken as a particularly passionate noise by Victoria.
  • 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 maniacally all the while.
  • Dysfunction Junction: Every single character is nutty as a fruitcake. Especially ironic considering most of them run an asylum.
  • 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. Lilloman 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 is the last person in the world who needed a shower scene, especially compared to Janet Leigh in the scene from Psycho that is being parodied. Of course, this is a deliberate factor of the comedy.
  • 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: A variation— Nurse Diesel's bustline isn't improbably large but rather improbably pointy.
  • Gaslighting: Played for Black Comedy. Thorndyke wants to see a patient who should have been released a long time ago, concerned that he is still institutionalized when he's been healthy. As the patient describes the symptoms he came in for (sharp neck pains and dreams of werewolves), Dr. Montague slings paperclips into his neck and makes faces at him with plastic fangs all without Thorndyke noticing or the patient realizing he's being tricked. Thanks to Montague's efforts, the patient is a wreck and determined unfit for release.
  • Good Hair, Evil Hair: The villainous Dr. Montague has a pencil mustache.
  • Handing Over the Crap Sack: Thorndyke politely hands a used vomit bag to the flight attendant standing by the door of the plane as passengers disembark. She is stuck holding it as the other passengers leave.
  • Herr Doktor: Professor Lilloman.
  • Impaled with Extreme Prejudice: Braces, thanks to Thornydke pulling him onto a broken shard of glass in the phone booth. Braces broke that glass himself trying to kill Thorndyke.
  • Jerkass: Dennis, the hotel bellhop, is kind of rude and cranky even before Thorndyke bugs him about 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.
    • Harvey Korman as Doctor Montague. His masochistic screaming as Nurse Diesel spanks him caps it all.
    • Cloris Leachman as Nurse Diesel plays out her nasty grimaces and drawls as far as she can, and also puts on an outlandish performance in the spanking scene.
  • Latex Perfection: The killer wears a mask that makes him look exactly like Thorndyke.
  • Left the Background Music On: The dramatic music that plays on the drive to the Institute, specifically when Brophy mentions that he suspects foul play in Dr. Ashley's death, is revealed to be coming from a passing Los Angeles Philarmonic tour bus.
  • 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.
  • Match Cut: When Nurse Diesel declares her intentions to dispose of Dr. Wentworth, the camera zooms in on her eyes before fading them into the headlights of Wentworth's car, which kills him through a loud, tampered-with radio.
  • Mistaken for Spies: The man in a Conspicuous Trenchcoat who lures Thorndyke into the bathroom? He's actually a gay stripper.
  • 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: On multiple occasions, Hitchcock's cinematography is parodied by making the audience very aware of the camera's physical presence in the scene— twice where the camera breaks through a building's wall or window rather than zooming in or out through it, and once where it films through the bottom of a glass table while Diesel and Montague cover it with tableware, forcing the camera to keep moving to get a view of them.
  • 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".
  • Pesky Pigeons: Thorndyke is surrounded by pigeons in the park, in a reference to The Birds, who all follow him across the park. He desperately takes shelter in a shed...only to find out the shed has an open roof, on which all the pigeons are perching, butt-inward. And then they all defecate on him.
  • Pretty in Mink: Victoria wears a fox wrap when on a date.
  • Pronouncing My Name for You: The protagonist of addresses his mentor as Professor Little Old Man (accent on Man), and is corrected: Lilloman (accent on o).
  • "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 will ignore them. When Thorndyke gets caught in the metal detector, he starts such an outrage that the TSA agents drop the matter to pacify him.
  • Screams Like a Little Girl: As Thorndyke badgers the bellboy about getting a newspaper, the bellboy, increasingly irritated, asks what's so important about the newspaper, in an increasingly raised, increasingly higher-pitched voice ("GET THE NEWSPAPER! GET THE NEWSPAPER! GET THE STINKIN' NEWSPAPER!"). While shoving the newspaper in Thorndyke's face while he's in the shower, the bellboy hysterically screams at him, in a ridiculously high-pitched voice, "HERE! HERE! HERE!!! HERE'S YOUR PAPER!!! HERE'S YOUR PAPER!!! HERE'S YOUR PAPER!!!! HAPPY NOW?!? HAPPY?!?! HAPPY NOW?!?!?!"
  • Scare Chord: Lampshaded when the characters react to it on two occasions.
  • Shutting Up Now: After Brophy finds out Thorndyke isn't the real killer by enlarging the newspaper picture until he can be seen in the background, the bad guys show up and plan to kill him, but Diesel points out the same picture is on the front page of every local newspaper and they can enlarge it as well. Montague comes with a ridiculous plan to buy every newspaper in the city before anyone can see it. Diesel and Norton just glare at him, and he eventually realizes how stupid he sounds and trails off.
  • 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, cockie-doody, and woo-woo.
  • 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 instead of blood, completing the reference to Psycho. Bonus points for the bellboy's shrieks emulating the violin shrieks from the original.
    Thorndyke: That kid gets no tip.
    • There's also a scatological take on The Birds.
    • Most of the names are borrowed from other Hitchcock films. Thorndyke, for instance, is similar to names used in both Rear Window and North By Northwest.
      • And Thorndyke meets up with someone at the "North By Northwest corner" of Golden-Gate Park.
      • Also borrowed from North by Northwest is the scene of the lead getting photographed at a murder scene while holding the weapon, ending up a fugitive whose photo is in the papers.
    • Braces is a takeoff on Jaws from then-recent The Spy Who Loved Me. Rather a departure from the Hitchcock theme, but Rule of Funny is in effect.
    • Another non-Hitchcock reference is when Brophy enlarges one of his photographs to find proof of Thorndyke's innocence, taken straight from Blow Up (which was at least influenced by Hitchcock).
    • Nurse Diesel riding her broomstick out the window to her death while cackling is another non-Hitchcock reference, to Dr. Strangelove and The Wizard of Oz.
  • Sleeps with Both Eyes Open: Professor Lilloman turns out to sleep in this manner. According to him, it freaks people out.
  • Stab the Salad: That wild, screaming old woman who pushes through the crowd and runs towards Dr. Thorndyke? She's actually overjoyed to see her husband returning home.
  • Stairwell Chase: The bell tower 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.
  • Symbolic Blood: In a parodic sense. Newspaper ink runs down the plughole of Thorndyke's shower after the enraged bellhop beats him up with a newspaper.
  • Those Wacky Nazis: Played with, as Nurse Diesel dresses up in an outfit that makes her look like the prison guard of a Nazi concentration camp as she tortures Dr. Montague in her bedroom.
  • Wicked Witch: Nurse Diesel re-creates the nun startle at the end of Vertigo by instead being dressed as a witch with a broomstick. She barrels out of the tower window and falls to her death due to not, in fact, being a witch.
  • 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 violent ward.
  • You Say Tomato: When describing the hotel, Brophy pronounces modern as "modren".


Video Example(s):


Mel Brooks vs. Pigeons

The film "High Anxiety" features a parody of the Hitchock film, "The Birds", in which a whole flock of pigeons poop on Mel Brooks.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (3 votes)

Example of:

Main / BirdPoopGag

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