I quite enjoyed High Anxiety, even if it didn’t rank quite as high as some of Brooks’ other efforts. While it still possesses the same wonderful wry moments, High Anxiety is a Mel Brooks film that arguably works better as a farce than as a parody. I suspect that this has something to do with the director’s intended target. While Westerns were ripe for mockery in Blazing Saddles and old horror films were perfectly suited to the sense of humour in Young Frankenstein, it always seemed like Alfred Hitchcock was aware of his own filmmaking style, and seemed to occasionally be gently mocking it himself, rather than playing his heightened suspense with a po-faced sincerity. I think that parody and satire work best when they represent an attack on a target that suffers from a little bit too much self-importance, while Hitchcock’s films are generally a little more self-aware than that.
For example, there are several moments in High Anxiety that are actually difficult to identify as spoofs, because they don’t seem to push a particular concept any further than Hitchcock himself might have. At the climax of the film, a character is left dangling out of a tower on one leg for an extended period of time, but it doesn’t feel any longer than it would in a Hitchcock film, where the director had a tendency to extend the moment of suspense for… an… absurdly… and… improbably… long… time.
I find it hard to believe that Hitchcock offered these pulpy moments without something approaching a sly grin, and it’s very hard to parody something that has already pushed itself well past the extremes. While we knowBrooks is mocking these moments because… well, it’s a Brooks comedy, one gets the sense that any of these moment might have worked within a Hitchcock comedy itself, particularly the ones that take a moment of suspense or revelation and just extend it out as much as possible.
That not to diminish Brooks’ incredible skill. There are any number of scenes that work remarkably well, demonstrating the director’s considerable talent. In particular, there are two moments where the zoom-in-through-a-window or pull-out-through-a-wall bits are hilariously toyed with, to the point where even the actors notice the intrusive camera angles. There also a rather wonderful Psycho bit, but it’s one that I admire more for being clever than for being funny. Our hero is, of course, attacked in a shower, but with a newspaper rather than a knife. As the recognisable string section plays he lies there, and the ink in the paper runs down the drain – black ink against a white bathtub, cleverly emulating the black-and-white shot of the blood draining. It’s a sequence that I really like, just because it’s clever, rather than because it’s hilarious.
Here, Brooks’ is better served by broader farce than by parody. His physical comedy is always a treat, as is his dialogue. After kissing the heroine for the first time (Madeline Kahn, of course), he suggests, “We have to separate.” This prompts her to observe, “Gosh, you’re so fickle.” Brooks is a talented physical comedian, so it’s never unamusing to watch him throw himself around or crawl across a bedroom to secretly close a the blinds on the window. There are moments of surreal weirdness, almost illustrating that Brooks was searching for material to mock, including a very strange interlude emulating The Birds.
High Anxiety is a pleasant enough little spoof. It isn’t Brooks at his very finest, but it’s still miles ahead of most modern “spoof” films. I’m not as big a fan of Brooks as most, but I got a good laugh out of it. However, one gets the sense that Brooks might have been better served to have chosen a better target.