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High Anxiety: A Movie Review

Updated on December 13, 2016
wingedcentaur profile image

The first step is to know what you do not know. The second step is to ask the right questions. I reserve the right to lean on my ignorance.

Star and director of the film, Mel Brooks, in full Hitchcock mode.
Star and director of the film, Mel Brooks, in full Hitchcock mode. | Source
The amazing Madeline Kahn, in High Anxiety. Truly one of the great sirens of 1970s cinematic comedy.
The amazing Madeline Kahn, in High Anxiety. Truly one of the great sirens of 1970s cinematic comedy. | Source

The film is High Anxiety (1977) starring Mel Brooks and Madeline Kahn, with Harvey Korman (of The Carol Burnett Show) and Cloris Leachman. Mel Brooks also directed this movie, as usual. Let me get something out of the way at the outset: I absolutely loved everything about this movie; and I hope you do too, if you haven't seen it yet.

Now, I was born in 1970; and I feel that there are things I need to say about this movie, for the benefit of those of you reading this, who were born in, say, 1990. High Anxiety is a comedy. That is true but an insufficient label for our purposes. I know what you're thinking: What's the big deal? Funny's funny, right?

Well... actually, no, but that's another matter.

This film, broadly speaking, is a comedy. But you should think of it, more specifically, as a farce. By "farce," I mean that the film is a satirical treatment of a particular genre of filmmaking, in addition to being about the business of laying whatever story is contained within the plot. High Anxiety is a satirical treatment of the crime thriller genre in film; just as Spaceballs (1987), and Blazing Saddles (1974)---two other Mel Brooks films---are satirical treatments of the ultra-futuristic space adventure and Western genres, respectively, and, therefore, farces.

For those of you born after 1980, what I am about to say will be difficult for you to understand.

In order to conceptually contextualize this movie for you, I need to say something about the way Mel Brooks movies tend to do comedy.

But in order to make that happen, I need to tell you that, to a certain extent, Mel Brooks comedic movies, are an outgrowth of the way, say, television comedy was done from, let's say, 1950-1980. I am thinking specifically of classic variety shows like: The Carol Burnett Show, The Jack Benny Show, the "skit" portions of The Johnny Carson Show, and, perhaps Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In.

For our purposes, the defining feature of this kind of television comedy---which made its way into the movies of the 1970s and, perhaps, early-1980s, with Mel Brooks movies in particular---is what I shall simply call peek-a-boo.

1. First came the stage, then came radio, and then came television. Like old Roman towns, one medium never supplanted another; but they were built on top of each other.

When radio came into use, the medium retained features of the stage for a long time. Indeed, before radio became its own thing, so to speak, it was largely the repository of the stage. That is to say, it was the stage on the radio waves, if you get my meaning.

Now, when television came into use, on the heels of both radio and the stage, the medium retained the features of both radio and the stage for a long time, before it, TV, again, became its own thing. That is to say, before television became its own thing, it was largely nothing more than the repository of the radio and stage.

So, television's initial function was as the visual representation of radio and stage. It was the radio and stage made visual and recordable.

2. When I talk about the way the Jack Benny Show or the Carol Burnett Show did comedy, I am invoking an older tradition of television, in that the medium behaved more like a repository of stage and radio, and less like its own thing, as it does today. Do you follow me?

Mel Brooks, experiencing his "High Anxiety."
Mel Brooks, experiencing his "High Anxiety." | Source
This is Harvey Korman in High Anxiety. He is seen, here, without his old reliable comedic foil, Tim Conway---who is not in this movie. Mr. Korman and Mr. Conway were the mainstays of The Carol Burnett Show. And yes, he is pretending to be a vampire.
This is Harvey Korman in High Anxiety. He is seen, here, without his old reliable comedic foil, Tim Conway---who is not in this movie. Mr. Korman and Mr. Conway were the mainstays of The Carol Burnett Show. And yes, he is pretending to be a vampire. | Source
Cloris Leachman in High Anxiety.
Cloris Leachman in High Anxiety. | Source
Because Mrs. Leachman was the consummate character actress, I thought it only fair to show her as she really appeared. This shot is from The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
Because Mrs. Leachman was the consummate character actress, I thought it only fair to show her as she really appeared. This shot is from The Mary Tyler Moore Show. | Source
And look how glamorous she was during the black and white "Golden Age" of cinema. Cloris Leachman again.
And look how glamorous she was during the black and white "Golden Age" of cinema. Cloris Leachman again. | Source

3. Incidentally and as a side note, those of you born after 1980, may not be aware that many of the television shows you grew up watching as reruns, perhaps, and that your parents grew up watching, started their lives as weekly radio programs.

And the radio programs, your grandparents and great grandparents grew up listening to---many of them---in turn, began their lives as stage plays.

4. Now we return to the television comedy of The Jack Benny Program, and others. These types of comedies tend to invoke, more, the older theater tradition.

You know what? Let's pause here and set the matter up in a different way.

Pretend this is "Men in Black" and that I waved one of those memory-wiping wands at you.

Here's the thing.

First you have the stage (perhaps we really should use the term American vaudeville), functioning both as a repository and visual representation of well-established literature (old, classic plays, stories, and novels, and so forth); and as a host to original content made within and for the medium of the stage (singing, magic, juggling, stand up comedy routines, skits, anything).

But everybody cannot afford to go to the theater all the time, and/or it is otherwise logistically prohibitive. Radio comes along as an affordable way to beam and receive the entertainment of vaudeville into millions of American homes, on a regular basis. Of course, with radio you lose the visual element of the stage; your imagination is asked to supply that.

We can say that radio began its life as mass produced and distributed de-visualized vaudeville. Radio passed through this stage before it became its own thing, as it were, airing content made within and for that medium. That is to say, that radio came to a place where it no longer principally functioned as the repository of vaudeville.

Next came television. We notice that with the coming of this medium, the visual element of the stage is restored, with modifications---nothing ever stays exactly the same. I am arguing, then, that the early life of television was what was I call television-as-reconstructed vaudeville.

I believe that we can say that television started its life as reconstructed vaudeville. After it passed through this stage---let's say 1950-1985, or thereabouts----before it became its own thing, as host for content made within and exclusively for that medium.

Two Takeaways

1. As I said before, "High Anxiety" is a comedic movie brought to you by Mel Brooks. It is a satiric treatment of the crime thriller genre. Incidentally, Mr. Brooks tended to satirize genre in his movie-making. It was just his thing.

2. This movie comes from the comedic tradition, which it is useful to think of television-as-reconstructed vaudeville. I offered The Carol Burnett Show, The Jack Benny Show, Rowan and Martin's Laugh-in, and the skit portions of the old Johnny Carson Show, as what I think of as exemplars of television shows rooted in this tradition. (You might also throw in the news headline skit portions of Saturday Night Live, currently).

Anyway, this is the context, within which I want you to understand Mr. Brooks' movie, High Anxiety: as the cinematic amplification of the general style of comedy that seems to have been featured on television, in the era in which it functioned as television-as-reconstructed vaudeville.


When I talk about, say, The Carol Burnett Show as an exemplar of a television show representative of a comedic tradition rooted in television-as-reconstructed vaudeville, what do I mean?

For our purposes, I want to keep this simple. I am saying that The Carol Burnett Show, as a television show, nevertheless, retained certain features of the vaudevillian stage.

The main thing, as I see it, is spontaneity, player-audience interaction, and a willingness to have the actors slip the mask of their characters to engage with the audience (peek-a-boo).


Here's what I mean by that. Let's go back to The Carol Burnett Show. Let's consider its two mainstays: Harvey Korman and Tim Conway. These performers were hilarious together. For those of you old enough to relate to the terms, I would call Mr. Korman the straight man of the pair; and Mr. Conway was the dopey, funny guy, the one who actually scored with the punchlines.

Well, frequently, Korman and Conway would appear together, in their appointed roles, for various "skits." Mind you, they were very funny skits to start with.

One can tell, very easily, that these two men make each other laugh in real life. They find each other very funny; but I would say this is especially true for Mr. Korman in relation to Mr. Conway. That is to say, Mr. Korman found Tim Conway to be, perhaps, one of the funniest people he has ever known.

This was always very easy to determine by simply watching The Carol Burnett Show and watching the two men in their skits.

They would frequently let slip the masks of the specific characters they were supposed to be playing, to laugh as themselves, the persons of Tim Conway and Harvey Korman; that is to say, as two ordinary people who are, themselves, being entertained and greatly amused by the proceedings.

Does that make sense? Many of you young people might have a hard time understanding what I'm saying. What I'm saying might seem utterly un-relatable to you and rather picayune. But I can assure you, people of my generation and earlier, found this feature quite charming.

This could happen with any skit, at any time, with any pair of performers. It could and did happen with Carol Burnett and Vicki Lawrence.

These days, those moments of loss of control are edited out and saved for the special blooper DVD.

I guess what I'm saying is just that anything and everything was incorporated into the performance. Shows were put on in front of live studio audiences in those days.

Something may occur that was not supposed to happen. Let's say it's a low-flying, noisy plane or something. Performers, in those days, on the kinds of shows I'm talking about, in the tradition of television-as-reconstructed vaudeville, were quite comfortable either: momentarily coming out of character to acknowledge it and then slip right back into character; or, somehow, remain somewhat in-character, and sort of, incorporate it into the storyline.

Its hard to explain to folks who may generationally unfamiliar with this kind of television, television-as-reconstructed vaudeville.

Does any of that make sense?

I'm sorry, but I did say that this would be difficult.


Let's move on.

We are coming to a close. There is one more feature of the film that I'd like to highlight, for your edification. What I am about to say will sound strange, at first. But the good news, I think, is that if you watch such shows like Family Guy, The Cleveland Show, and American Dad with any regularity, you will be prepared for it.

You may just find my terminology off-putting.

Let's talk about what I will call wandering tangentiality. The computer gave me the red line on that word, of course, but it is what I mean: tangentiality.

Let me give you a quick example, from the movie, of how this works.

Mel Brooks is being hypnotized by his old psychology professor. Brooks' character has a fear of heights, otherwise known as "High Anxiety." Get it?

The old professor urges Brooks' on, encouraging him to "fight" through the fear, and so forth.

Well, it comes to pass that the professor's admonitions take the form of repetition: "Fight it. Fight it."

Before you know it, the hypnotized subject, Brooks, is "fighting" it, just not in the way you'd think. In the process of "fighting" it, Brooks, hypnotized, imagines himself to be a professional prize fighter. In "fighting" it, he starts throwing punches, which connect with the professor.

The contacts gets the back up of the old professor, who declares, "You wanna fight. I'll give you a fight."

Now, both men have their jackets off and they are boxing in the middle of the office like prize fighters.

Enter Harvey Korman.

Korman's character is dressed in a white jacket, red and white striped shirt, and a solid black bowtie. Its important to note this.

Korman walks into the office, to see these two eminent psychiatrists "boxing" in the middle of the office.

Korman begins with a passing, weak exhortation to the two gentlemen to cease and desist with this appalling, undignified behavior.

But then, blink your eye and he takes off his jacket. The striped shirt and bowtie are then visible and it strikes you: Yeah, he does look like a boxing referee! But nothing of the kind ever occurred to me until that moment.

Now Korman's character is officiating the "bout," just as a prizefighting referee would do. He's breaking them up, saying things like, "Come on boys, break it up. They came to see a fight not a dance." And so forth.

Korman, the "referee," brings the "round" to a close by tapping a bell on the desk. The two "fighters" are then "sent to their corners."

But then, of course, the bit is over.

This movie and Mel Brooks movies, generally, are peppered with this sort of thing. As I said before, though, if you watch Family Guy on a regular basis, you should be prepared for that kind of thing. On Family Guy, as you know, they are always doing those flashback routines.


Since I began this review by saying that I love everything about this film, there is nothing more to say than this: The story, itself, is about an eminent psychiatrist (Mel Brooks), who becomes the new head of a sanitarium. He becomes aware of a nefarious plot to do away with a very rich patient. Harvey Korman and Cloris Leachman are the pair of villainous staff, who plan to do away with said rich patient; and arrange matters in such a way that they will come into possession of his lovely millions.

Thank you so much for reading.


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    • wingedcentaur profile imageAUTHOR

      William Thomas 

      4 years ago from That Great Primordial Smash UP of This and That Which Gave Rise To All Beings and All Things!

      Thanks for commenting, Robert. Yes, Brooks' spoofing of other genres was an important part of his own art.

    • Robert Sacchi profile image

      Robert Sacchi 

      4 years ago

      Thank you. Yes, High Anxiety is a great example of Mel Brooks humor. Specifically it is a spoof of the Alfred Hitchcock movies. The title High Anxiety is an odd way of saying Vertigo, an Alfred Hitchcock movie. There is a scene that spoofs The Birds. Another great Mel Brooks spoof film is Young Frankenstein. Familiarity with the genres Mel Brooks is killing enhances the these Mel Brooks movies.


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