Today! Because it’s very clear to me/I’ve got to give in/High Anxiety – you win!
High Anxiety (1977)
Directed by Mel Brooks (x3)
Starring Mel Brooks (x3), Madeline Kahn (x3), Harvey Korman, Cloris Leachman (x3), Ron Carey (x2), Howard Morris, Dick Van Patten (x4), Jack Riley (x2), Rudy De Luca (x2), Barry Levinson (x2), Robert Ridgely (x4), Charlie Callas, Lee Delano
If Mel Brooks could be said to have a forgotten movie, well, it’s The Twelve Chairs. But if it could be conjectured that he has another forgotten film, more surprising due to the legion of classic Brooks players involved, it’s almost certainly High Anxiety. Perhaps because it’s the only of his films from the era to be set in the era itself, it doesn’t have the more timeless qualities of a Young Frankenstein or even a Spaceballs. The jokes aren’t necessarily dated to the ’70s either – they are just sorta dated in that Catskills Mel Brooks way many of his jokes feel now. However, the other main thing working against this movie might be its focus of parodying Hitchcock movies – a terrific idea that really comes off well in the film, but does forever land it squarely in the purview of cinema nerds who also might enjoy Borscht Belt comedy. It’s a group I fear dwindles by the day, to the point that I worry no one will watch this movie twenty or thirty years from now, except Brooks completionists and Hitchcock-o-philes.
Which is a shame, because I think High Anxiety gets unfairly overlooked in Mel’s canon. It’s in the rare group of his films where he also plays the unquestioned lead – Silent Movie and History of the World were on either side of it, Life Stinks some years later – and it functions as a parody while also maintaining a fairly interesting, Hitchcockian plot of murder and phobias. Add in Kahn, Korman, and Leachman doing wacky supporting work, a solid bunch of set pieces mocking Psycho, The Birds, Vertigo, and so on, never mind the stand out title song, and you’ve got a solidly entertaining Brooks vehicle. So why doesn’t this movie get mentioned in the same breath as his more renowned classics? Is this entertaining even if you aren’t overly familiar with Hitchcock films? I think the jokes are still there, and it’s still silly enough in a general Brooks style way to be fun for most folks.
Over the next decade, Mel would only direct one movie – the critically savaged but personally adored by yours truly History of the World: Part I in 1981 – while also starring in the remake of To Be or Not To Be with his wife Anne Bancroft in 1983. He’d had a pretty great run through the ’60s and ’70s, so a solid reason for this hiatus isn’t obvious. And by the time he made his remaining four movies from ’87 to ’95, steam had largely run out of these productions (even if two of them – #198 Spaceballs and #395 Robin Hood: Men in Tights still made this list). And then came his glorious run as a Broadway writer/producer, and transformation into a generally beloved American icon. As of this writing, still going strong! Mel Brooks! Man, I hope that hasn’t changed by the time this publishes.
Not totally overlooked in its day, High Anxiety was nominated for Best Motion Picture Comedy or Musical at the Golden Globes and Best Actor for Mel as well. But really, no nomination for “High Anxiety” the song?! Crazy! They also could’ve carved out some little recognition for the film’s MVP – Howard Morris, as the hokily named Professor Lilloman (“Little old man, little old man. Feh!”).
Mel joins best friend Carl Reiner and fellow Your Show of Shows writer Woody Allen as the only Director and Actor Three-Timer club members, following Robin Hood: Men in Tights and Spaceballs, while a number of actors join or advance in the guilds, headed by newly minted Four-Timers Robert Ridgely (#275 Melvin and Howard, #185 Multiplicity, Robin Hood: Men in Tights) and Dick Van Patten (#366 Freaky Friday, Spaceballs, Robin Hood: Men in Tights)! Spotlight!