"High Anxiety," opening today at area theaters, is more of the same from Mel Brooks: a clever comic title worked out in a motley comic style. Intended as an affectionate spoof of scenes from vintage Alfred Hitchcock thrillers, the movie has its moments, although they don't necessarily derive from Hitchcock. Brooks' best moment happens to be refinement of his old Frank Sinatra impression, a gratuitous comic act that emerges as the most assured and enjoyable interlude in the show.
"High Anxiety" is a low-intensity, absent-minded pastiche. One anticipates something funnier from the colision of Brooks' American Jewish crazyman's temperament and Hitchcock's droll, perverse, British Catholic sense of humor.
Unfortunately, Hitchcock's work doesn't seem to inflame Brooks' imagination. Somehow Brooks has lost sight of the fact that both he and Hitchcock became famous and successful by sublimating their anxieties in distinctive, entertaining ways. The film rarely rises above the level of tame, wayward homage, even though the principal setting, a disreputable mental institution called the Psycho-Neurotic Institute for the Very, Very Nervous, ought to have Brooks and his writers swinging from the rafters with satirical abandon.
Brooks plays the lead, a character named Dr. Richard H. Thorndyke. The name is obviously derived from Cary Grant's Roger Thornhill in "North by Northwest." The roles is an unfinished composite of the Gregory Peck character in "Spellbound" and the james Stewart character in "Vertigo": Thorndyke is the new director of a psychiatric clinic, and he suffers from a fear of heights.
Nutty and convoluted as they are, the plots of "Spellbound" and "Vertigo" haven't been exploited for either practical or playful purposes. In fact, the movie opens with a busy-busy sequence of an airplane landing and passengers departing that qualifies as a belated glancing blow at the "Airport" films,which Brooks whould have kidded mercilessly years ago. By the time Brooks finishes indulging Ron Carey's repetitive shtik as the white face Mantan Moreland assigned to chauffeur the doc, the movie is well down the road before sighting a Hitchcock landmark.
ONce sighted, the Hitchcock landmarks seem to inspire only fleeting interest. Thers's a neat tefhnical joke at the expense of Hitchcock's habit of tracking through doors and windows. Brooks' parody of the shower sequence in "Psycho" is cleverly conceived and executed.
Amusing as they are, these minor triumphs are outnumbered by the set pieces that fall apart or look atrociously designed from the outset. Dick Van Patten, playing an hoenst but frightened staff member who has tried to warn Thorndyke about his dastardly colleagues -- Harvey Korman as the devious Dr. Montague and Cloris Leachman as the momolithic Nurse Diesel -- departs on a rainy night for what one presumes to be a comic variation on Janet Leigh's storm-tossed drive in "Psycho."
Suddenly, he's knocked off by a dumb variation on a dumb gag about rock 'n' roll music cribbed from Billy Wilder's "One, Two, Three." Brooks returns to Fort Point, the famous San Francisco location in "Vertigo" where Stewart rescued the Kim Novak character from drowning, but he can't seem to recall what this site was used for and what he should do to bring it back with a humorous twist.
Brook's take-off on "The Birds" may prove the giant crowd-Pleaser he obviously intended. But if something witty motivated this all-too-predictable resort to scatology, the wit escapes me. If anything, smirky, homely scatological humor has became a sort of security blanket for Brooks.
The same insecurity must accont for a lame sadomasochistic blackout in which Leachman, decked out in Nazi gear, spanks a trussed-up Korman. Brooks may know his audience, but there's a world of difference between this unsightly wheeze and the delightfully deft moment when Brooks, doing his Sinatra number, cracks the microphone cord like a bullwhip and Madeline Kahn, eyeing him from a seat at the piano bar, gives a little shudder of excitement. Now that's comec acting and comic filmmaking style.
Kahn, cast as a would-be mystery woman named Victoria Brisbane, doesn't get much opportunity to shine. She might have been marvelous in a fole conscioulsy, humorously patterned after the Novak character in "Vertigo." Brooks seems to run out of ideas after fitting her with a long, unflattering blonde wig. He doesn't let her go to town with the traits of the Novak character -- her deviousness and her fake somnambulism.
Brooks evidently expects a funny first impression to last his performers the entire show. He even inhibits himself by pretending to be a dignified shrink, maintaining a restraint that doesn't really become him.
Despite its occasional bright ideas, the movie lacks a unifying bright idea about how to exploit the cast in a sustained, organically conceived parody of Hitchcock. The script is plot-heavy, yet it fails to contrive an amusing plot from Hitchcock sources. What prevented a genuine fusion of elements from "Spellbound" and "Vertigo"? For instance, Brooks as a distressed Peck-Stewart type beloved by Leachman as an Ingrid Bergman-Barbara Bel Geddes type but attracted to Kahn as a Novak type? Instead of exaggerating her Frau Blucher from "Young Frankenstein," Leachman might have created a new sort of comic caricature, drawing partly on Bergman and Bel Geddes and partly on her own lovelorn roles.
Out of numerous possibilities Brooks seems to have chosen the least imaginative and most arbitrary: miscellaneous parodies of scenes from Hitchcock held together by a ho-hum contunuity. It would probably be a blessing in disguise if Brooks' audience shrank just enough to shake him up and inspire him to seek a novel pretext for humor. "High Anxiety" is his fourth consecutive genre spoof. The last, "Silent Movie," was more interesting when it seemed to be reflecting contemporary Hollywood than imitating silent slapstick.
Brooks may still reign as the king of the vulgar spoof, but he is slowly losing his oomph.