Nobel prize-winning Harvard professor of psychiatry Richard Thorndyke (Mel Brooks) arrives in Los Angeles as the new administrator of the Psycho-Neurotic Institute for the Very Very Nervous to discover some suspicious goings-on – Dr Charles Montague (Harvey Korman) and Nurse Diesel (Cloris Leachman) are engaged in a nefarious plot to keep healthy rich people locked up in the institute and bleed their families and estates out of fortunes.
When he’s framed for murder, Thorndyke must confront his own psychiatric condition – acrophobia, or “high anxiety” – in order to clear his name, with the aid of his romantic interest Victoria Brisbane (Madeline Kahn).
It is dangerous to try and parody Alfred Hitchcock since Hitchcock was already in on the joke, but Brooks manages to score some hits in High Anxiety, largely by taking some of Hitch’s most famous set-pieces to their logical – usually sexual or scatological – conclusion.
The scene inspired by the attack of The Birds (1963) is easy enough to predict, but there’s a very funny spin on the shower scene from Psycho (1960) and a conclusion that manages to combine Vertigo (1958) with The Wizard of Oz (1939).
Brooks himself has never been so natural or so likeable on screen.
He’s in his element playing straight man to a host of grotesques and even has a very creditable stab at becoming a cabaret singer by devising a whole scene simply so he can sing the title song, complete with small talk and whiplashing the microphone cord.
Richard H. Thorndyke
Nurse Charlotte Diesel
Dr Charles Montague
Dr Philip Wentworth
Dick Van Patten
Albert J. Whitlock