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The Critics Miss The Point Completely
on February 8, 2001
For some reason, High Anxiety is not nearly as admired as some of Mel Brooks' other films. I don't think I've ever read a truly glowing review of High Anxiety. No one really hates it, but no one really likes it, either. Roger Ebert explained that because Alfred Hitchcock's films contained so much humor, High Anxiety, as a satire was unnecessary and redundant.
If this is indeed the rationale for High Anxiety's lukewarm reception, then I personally think that ALL of the critics just don't get it. While it's true that Hitchcock films contain loads of humor (Robert Donat's political speech in The 39 Steps, the auction scene in North By Northwest and Alec McCowen's "gourmet" meals in Frenzy come to mind), the most vivid Hitchcock moments are dead serious. The burning of Manderley in Rebecca, the fight on the merry-go-round in Strangers on a Train, the bell tower scene in Vertigo, the cropduster attack in North By Northwest and, of course, the shower scene in Psycho are deadly serious scenes. These are the moments that Brooks spoofs in High Anxiety. The humor is dead on, giving the serious Hitchcock buffs several gigantic laughs throughout the film.
Take, for example, Brooks' take on the shower scene from Psycho. Director Barry Levinson plays a psychotic bellboy who is pushed over the edge by Brooks' repeated requests for a newspaper. He bursts into Brooks' hotel bathroom and "stabs" him with the newspaper. Brooks duplicates every angle and visual detail of the original, right down to Janet Leigh's fuzzy bathroom slippers. He uses ink from the newspaper to simulate the blood swirling down the drain in Psycho. It's a obvious target, but Brooks presents the scene with such care and such genuine affection for the original that it work beautifully as both satire and an homage.
Brooks recognizes that even though Hitchcock was one of the most innovative and technically brilliant filmmakers of all time, even he, like every other director, relied on favorite storytelling devices. For example, Brooks and Ron Carey are driving down the highway discussing a psychiatrist who recently died under mysterious circumstances. When Carey declares that he thinks it was murder, ominous string music, a la Bernard Herrmann, comes blasting onto the soundtrack. Brooks and Carey look out the window of the car and see the Los Angeles Philharmonic in a bus next to them, providing on-the-spot musical accompaniment. Because Hitchcock was such a master craftsman, these "cliches" never got in the way of the audience's enjoyment of the film. However, Brooks recognizes these "cliches" and brilliantly spoofs them.
I wish the critics would take another look at High Anxiety and recognize that it belongs right beside The Producers, Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, Silent Movie and History of the World Part I as one of Mel Brooks' best. If any director is a ripe target for satire, it's Alfred Hitchcock. It's a tribute to The Master that hits its target dead center.