The films of Alfred Hitchcock were such a genre unto themselves that it was probably inevitable that Mel Brooks would have a swing at them and, while Brooks does connect with the ball, this film is anything but a home run. More like a dribbler back to the pitcher.
The problem is that, while Brooks hits some of the notes, including spoofs of recognizable Hitchcock set pieces, he gets the music all wrong. Neither the story nor the characters feel like they belong in Hitchcock film. The pitch-perfect tone he found in Young Frankenstein is missing here. Aside from a few recognizable references to The Birds, North By Northwest, Vertigo and Psycho, this is more of a standard Mel Brooks film than a send-up of the Master of Suspense.
The real problem is with Brooks casting himself in the lead role. He’s not a good stand-in for the typical Hitchcock leading man, like Cary Grant or James Stewart. Costar Harvey Korman probably would have filled the bill a lot better, rather than largely repeating his role from Blazing Saddles. Also, with Mel Brooks as the star, there’s no room to satirize the most recognizable Hitchcock gimmick: the director’s cameo.
The story has Dr. Richard Thorndyke (Brooks) taking over the Psycho-Neurotic Institute for the Very, Very Nervous after the mysterious death of his predecessor. Dr. Montague (Korman) expected to take over the job. His head nurse, Nurse Diesel (Cloris Leachman) is a cross between Nurse Ratched and Frau Blucher. There’s a plot involving wealthy clients being kept at the institute even though they’re cured and an attempt to frame Dr. Thorndyke for murder. Madeline Kahn is on hand as one of the patient’s daughter. While she looks the part of the classic icy Hitchcock blonde, Kahn’s character doesn’t resemble any of the director’s female leads that I can recognize.
The movie does work as a broad farce and there are numerous genuinely funny moments, especially when characters react to an overdramatic spoof of Bernard Herrmann score, the one Hitchcock element that this movie gets right. Other jokes seem lifted right out of Brooks’s early films, including riffs on the Hedley Lamarr gag and the Count Basie gag.
So, High Anxiety fails as a spoof or satire of its target but still works as a Mel Brooks comedy, despite not being one of the director’s more original films.