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High Anxiety is a 1977 comedy, directed by Mel Brooks. It is an Affectionate Parody of the films of Alfred Hitchcock. While there are numerous allusions to almost any Hitchcock film between The Lodger (1927) and Family Plot (1976), the main plot and setting are taken from Spellbound and Vertigo. There are also minor allusions to films not directed by Hitchcock, such as The Pink Panther and The Spy Who Loved Me, with characters resembling Jacques Clouseau and Jaws.
Dr. Richard H. Thorndyke (the H. stands for "Harpo") is assigned as the new administrator of The Psycho-Neurotic Institute for the Very, Very Nervous. He arrives at Los Angeles to take his position and meets the eccentric staff: Dr. Montague (Harvey Korman), Dr. Wentworth (Dick Van Patten), and Nurse Diesel (Cloris Leachman). Diesel is extremely domineering and is soon revealed to be in a BDSM relationship with the submissive Montague. Thorndyke also meets violent patient Arthur Brisbane (Albert Whitlock), a wealthy industrialist who had a nervous breakdown the year before. He currently thinks he is a cocker spaniel.
Wentworth wants to leave the institute but Diesel refuses to let him. She agrees after an argument. When Wentworth is driving home that night, his radio blasts rock music loudly and will not shut off. He is trapped in his car, and he dies from an ear hemorrhage. The following day, Thorndyke books a room in the vertigo-inducing Hyatt Regency (hotel of ) San Francisco. He is suffering from a sense of vertigo but finds his room located at the top floor.
Thorndyke is contacted by Victoria Brisbane (Madeline Kahn), "the Cocker's daughter". She wants him to take a closer look at her father's case. He does so and discovers that his patient may not be the actual Brisbane. The Institute apparently could use the money from the Brisbane family, and keeps the real Arthur prisoner. Diesel decides to get rid of her boss. She hires the assassin Braces (Rudy De Luca) to frame Thorndyke for murder. Richard has to clear his name before resolving the case.
High Anxiety provides examples of:
- All Women are Doms, All Men are Subs: Diesel and Montague.
- Alter Kacker: The "loud and annoying" characters Thorndyke and Victoria use to hide in plain sight at the airport.
- Battleaxe Nurse: Nurse Diesel.
- Bedlam House: The Psychoneurotic Institute for the Very, VERY Nervous, which is less interested in curing its rich clientele than in keeping them indefinitely and thus getting more of their money.
- Bowdlerization: Thorndyke is put in an awkward position when giving a speech on penis envy and other decidedly adult subjects, when one of the psychiatrists in the audience brings his kids along.
- Brown Note: Dr. Wentworth gets trapped in his car and killed from an ear hemorrhage caused by the loud rock music blaring from the car radio.
- Camera Fiend: Brophy. It comes in handy later on.
- Chair Reveal: Subverted. Professor Lilloman, Thorndyke's mentor, is found like this. He is slumped over horribly with his eyes and mouth hanging open, apparently long dead. When people start screaming, Lilloman wakes up. He was only sleeping.
- Climbing Climax: Parodying the one in Vertigo, naturally.
- Embarrassing Middle Name: For renowned psychologist Dr. Richard H. Thorndyke, his middle name "Harpo" is embarrassing.
- Enhance Button: Parodied. As a secondary character blows up a photograph, he pins up a series of even greater enlargements until he finally gets one roughly 20 feet across, which he examines with a magnifying glass before exclaiming, "Aha!"
- Epiphany Therapy: Parodied. Lilloldman talks Thorndyke through the causes of his "high anxiety" while he's hanging from a broken staircase, and the epiphany cures him instantly, allowing him to pull himself up and run the rest of the way.
- Fake-Out Make-Out: While Victoria is in Thorndyke's hotel room, someone else comes in. She immediately kisses Thorndyke in an absurd attempt to avoid attention.
- Later on he des this to her in the park, to avoid attention from some cops.
- Gag Boobs: Nurse Diesel - not their size, but their shape.
- Good Hair, Evil Hair: The villainous Dr. Montague has a Pencil Mustache.
- It Is Pronounced "Tro-PAY": Thorndyke addresses his mentor Lilloman as "Professor Little Old Man" (accent on Man), and is corrected: "Little-Oldman" (accent on Old).
- Large Ham: Mel Brooks and Madeline Kahn at the airport, trying to get past airport security by being loud and annoying Alter Kackers.
- Looks Like She Is Enjoying It: Thorndyke calls Victoria moments before getting attacked by a strangler. She immediately concludes that it's an anonymous dirty phone call. And while she does start with "I'm not that kind of girl", she almost immediately switches to "So... what are you wearing?"
- MacGuffin: Parodied. Thorndyke (who is terrified of heights) is checking into a hotel when the receptionist informs him that though the hotel had reserved him a lower-level floor, "a Mr. MacGuffin called and requested we change it to the 17th floor." Though MacGuffin is probably a reference to the villains stalking the main character, the name is never mentioned again.
- No Fourth Wall: The Fourth Wall is literally broken. At the end, as the camera is pulling away from Thorndyke and his new wife as they occupy themselves on the honeymoon bed, it crashes through the fourth wall of the motel room, resulting in a huge hole in the wall and prompting the off screen camera operators to panic ("Just keep going!"). This is a parody of the through-the-wall tracking shot used in a few Hitchcock films.
- One-Scene Wonder: Future big time director Barry Levinson is cast as a high-strung bellboy who gets progressively more irritated with Brooks' requests for a newspaper until he goes in Norman Bates-mode. It is considered among the most memorable scenes of the film.
- Psycho Strings: The Psycho shower scene parody uses the shrill cries of an angry bellhop in place of the strings: "Here! Here's your paper! Here's your lousy, stinking paper! Happy now?". Thorndyke's reaction?: "That boy gets no tip".
- Radio Voice: Parodied. Thorndyke asks his secretary to repeat her intercom message without holding her nose. She replies in a perfectly normal voice.
- Refuge in Audacity: To get past airport security, Victoria and Richard act like a bickering couple, knowing that the louder and more obnoxious they act, the more people would ignore them.
- Scare Chord: Lampshaded when the characters react to it.
- Sophisticated As Hell: An entire discussion on penis envy in a psychological conference is, due to one psychologist bringing his children, conducted using such technical terms as the peepee, balloons, and hoo-hoo.
- Sorry I Left the BGM On: the dramatic music as Thorndyke drives from the airport comes from the Los Angeles Philarmonic tour bus.
- Shout-Out: An extended one: Thorndyke pesters a bellboy with repeated requests about getting a newspaper, wanting to look in the obituary for information concerning Dr. Wentworth's demise. He then takes a shower, during which the bellboy comes and in a frenzy mimics stabbing Thorndyke with the paper while screaming "Here's your paper! Happy now?! Happy?" The paper's ink runs down the drain, a reference to Psycho. Bonus points for the bellboy's shrieks emulating the violin shrieks from the original.
- There's also a scatological take on The Birds.
- Most of the names are borrowed from other Hitchcock films. Thorndyke, for instance, is used in both Rear Window and North by Northwest.
- The name in North by Northwest is actually Thornhill, but close enough.
- Braces is a takeoff on Jaws from then-recent The Spy Who Loved Me. Rather a departure from the Hitchcock theme, but Rule of Funny is in effect.
- Stairwell Chase: The Belltower scene of Vertigo is both replicated and parodied.
- In the very same tower, no less.
- What Do You Mean It's Not Awesome?: Lampshaded. At the beginning of the film, Thorndyke walks through an airport accompanied by strident orchestral music. When he finally reaches the exit, he proclaims, "What a dramatic airport!"
- Window Pain: Parodied. Thorndyke , the new head of a mental asylum, receives a rock to the window with a message -- a friendly welcome note from the psycho ward.