High Anxiety

High Anxiety is a 1977 American satirical comedy film produced and directed by Mel Brooks, who also plays the lead. This is Brooks' first film as a producer and first speaking lead role (his first lead role was in Silent Movie). Veteran Brooks ensemble members Harvey Korman, Cloris Leachman, and Madeline Kahn are also featured.

High Anxiety
Theatrical release poster
Directed byMel Brooks
Produced byMel Brooks
Written by
Music byJohn Morris
CinematographyPaul Lohmann
Edited byJohn C. Howard
Distributed by20th Century Fox
Release date
  • December 25, 1977 (1977-12-25)
Running time
94 minutes[1]
CountryUnited States
Budget$4.015 million[2]
Box office$31.1 million[3]


Arriving at Los Angeles International Airport, Dr. Richard Thorndyke has several odd encounters (such as a flasher impersonating a police officer, and a passing bus with a full orchestra playing inside it). He is taken by his driver, Brophy, to the Psycho-Neurotic Institute for the Very, Very Nervous, where he has been hired as a replacement for Dr. Ashley, who died mysteriously. Brophy has a condition of nervousness, and he takes pictures when he gets nervous. Upon his arrival, Thorndyke is greeted by the staff, Dr. Charles Montague, Dr. Philip Wentworth, and Nurse Charlotte Diesel. When he goes to his room, a large rock is thrown through the window, with a message of welcome from the violent ward.

Thorndyke hears strange noises coming from Nurse Diesel's room and he and Brophy go to investigate. Diesel claims it was the TV, but it was actually a passionate session of BDSM with Dr. Montague. The next morning, Thorndyke is alerted by a light shining through his window. It is coming from the violent ward. Dr. Montague takes Thorndyke to the light's source, the room of patient Arthur Brisbane, who thinks he is a Cocker Spaniel.

Wentworth wants to leave the institute and argues with Diesel. After she lets him go, he drives home, but the car has been rigged to blast rock music loudly through the radio. Wentworth is trapped in his car, his ears hemorrhage, and he dies from a stroke, aggravated by the loud music.

Thorndyke and Brophy travel to San Francisco, where Thorndyke is to speak at a psychiatric convention. He checks into the Hyatt Regency San Francisco, where, much to his dismay, as he suffers from "high anxiety", he is assigned a room on the top floor, due to a reservation change by "Mr. MacGuffin". He pesters the bellboy with repeated requests for a newspaper, wanting to look in the obituaries 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.

After his shower, Victoria Brisbane, the daughter of Arthur Brisbane, bursts through the door. She wants help in removing her father from the institute. She says that Nurse Diesel and Dr. Montague are exaggerating the illnesses of wealthy patients so the institute can milk rich families of millions of dollars. Thorndyke agrees to help after discovering that the patient he met was not the real Arthur Brisbane.

To stop Thorndyke, Diesel and Montague hire "Braces", the silver-braced man who organized Dr. Ashley's and Wentworth's murders, to impersonate Thorndyke and shoot a man in the lobby. Now with the police after him, Thorndyke must prove his innocence. After he is attacked by pigeons, he contacts Brophy, and realizes Brophy took a picture of the shooting. The real Thorndyke was in the elevator at the time, so he should be in the picture.

He requests Brophy to enlarge the picture. When he goes to call, "Braces" tries to strangle him; however, Thorndyke is able to kill him with a shard of glass from the phone booth. Brophy enlarges the photo, and Thorndyke is indeed visible in the picture. Nurse Diesel and Montague capture Brophy and take him to the North Wing. Thorndyke and Victoria head back to Los Angeles where they rescue Brophy and see Montague and Diesel taking the real Arthur Brisbane to a tower to kill him.

Due to Thorndyke's high anxiety he is prevented from climbing the tower's steep stairs and helping Brisbane. But with the help of Professor Lilloman, he overcomes his phobia. Thorndyke knocks Diesel's orderly out a tower window, saving Brisbane. Nurse Diesel leaps out from the shadows and attacks Thorndyke with a broom, but falls out the tower window. She falls to her death, laughing hysterically and riding the broom. Dr. Montague appears from the shadows and gives up before being accidentally knocked unconscious by a trapdoor being opened. Victoria is reunited with her father, gets married to Thorndyke, and they go on their honeymoon.


Featured players
  • Mel Brooks as Dr. Richard Harpo Thorndyke, the main character of the story. Throughout the movie, Thorndyke suffers from a neural disorder called "High Anxiety", a mix of acrophobia and vertigo, and tries to overcome the infliction.
  • Madeline Kahn as Victoria Brisbane, the daughter of Arthur Brisbane. She teams up with Thorndyke to exonerate her father, who is believed to be insane.
  • Cloris Leachman as Nurse Charlotte Diesel, the main antagonist of the story. She plans to institutionalize wealthy people, claim they are mentally ill, and extort millions of dollars from their families.
  • Harvey Korman as Dr. Charles Montague, the supporting antagonist of the story. He shares a romantic relationship with Nurse Diesel.
  • Ron Carey as Brophy, Thorndyke's driver who takes photographs when he is nervous.
  • Dick Van Patten as Dr. Philip Wentworth, a doctor who wants nothing to do with the institute, and is killed by "Braces" because of this.
  • Howard Morris as Professor Lilloman, a former tutor of Thorndyke who had diagnosed him with the disorder "High Anxiety".
Other cast members
  • Jack Riley as a desk clerk at the Hyatt Regency San Francisco.
  • Charlie Callas as a deranged patient who thinks that he is a Cocker spaniel.
  • Ron Clark as Zachary Cartwright, a patient believed to be deranged. Clark also worked as a writer on the film.
  • Rudy De Luca as "Braces", an assassin hired by Diesel to murder Wentworth and Thorndyke. De Luca also worked as a writer on the film.
  • Barry Levinson as Dennis the bellhop. Levinson also worked as a writer on the film.
  • Lee Delano as Norton, an orderly working for Diesel and Montague. He has half a mustache because one of the patients supposedly attacked him.
  • Albert Whitlock
  • Beatrice Colen

Production and shooting locations

The film is a parody of suspense films, most obviously the films directed by Alfred Hitchcock: Spellbound, Vertigo, Psycho and The Birds. The film was dedicated to Hitchcock, who worked with Brooks on the screenplay.[4] It also contains spoofs of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup, and Orson Wells' Citizen Kane, in the camera tracking through walls, and even James Bond films with an assassin who shares a similarity with Jaws.

Most of the story takes place at the fictional Psycho-Neurotic Institute for the Very Very Nervous, with exteriors filmed at Mount St. Mary's University in Los Angeles. The Los Angeles International Airport also appears at the beginning of the film. Near the middle of the movie, the story moves San Francisco, taking advantage of settings used in Hitchcock's Vertigo, including the Golden Gate Bridge and the Mission San Juan Bautista tower. It also includes the then-new Hyatt Regency Hotel with its tall atrium lobby.

Mel Brooks took great pains to not only spoof Hitchcock films, but also to emulate the look and style of his pictures. In an interview he said, "I watch the kind of film we're making with the [director of photography], so he knows not to be frivolous. He's got to get the real lighting, the real texture. For High Anxiety, it was 'What is a Hitchcock film? What does it look like? What does it feel like? How does he light them? How long is a scene? What is the cutting? When does he bring things to a boil?' We just watch everything."[5]

After viewing the film, Hitchcock sent Brooks a case containing six magnums of 1961 Château Haut-Brion wine with a note that read, "A small token of my pleasure, have no anxiety about this."[6]


High Anxiety currently holds a 72% "Fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 29 reviews. The critical consensus states: "Uneven but hilarious when it hits, this spoof of Hitchcock movies is a minor classic in the Mel Brooks canon."[7]

Roger Ebert gave the film two-and-a-half stars out of four and wrote, "One of the problems with Mel Brooks's 'High Anxiety' is that it picks a tricky target: It's a spoof of the work of Alfred Hitchcock, but Hitchcock's films are often funny themselves. And satire works best when its target is self-important."[8] Vincent Canby of The New York Times agreed, writing that the film "is as witty and as disciplined as 'Young Frankenstein,' though it has one built-in problem: Hitchcock himself is a very funny man. His films, even at their most terrifying and most suspenseful, are full of jokes shared with the audience. Being so self-aware, Hitchcock's films deny an easy purchase to the parodist, especially one who admires his subject the way Mr. Brooks does. There's nothing to send up, really."[9] Pauline Kael of The New Yorker shared the same objection, writing that "Brooks seems to be under the impression that he's adding a satirical point of view, but it's a child's idea of satire; imitation, with a funny hat and a leer. Hitchcock's suspense melodramas are sparked by his perverse wit; they're satirical to start with."[10] Gene Siskel gave the film three stars out of four and wrote that the parodies of Psycho and The Birds "are clever, funny, and recommend the film." He also wrote, however, that too much of the film "is piddled away with juvenile sex jokes" that "are simply beneath a comic mind as fertile as the one that belongs to Mel Brooks."[11] Charles Champlin of the Los Angeles Times called it "probably the most coherent of the Brooks movies since 'The Producers,' in the sense of sustaining a tone and story line and characterizations from start to finish. As an homage, it is both knowing and reverential. As such, it is I suppose also the quietest of the Brooks films, with fewer bellylaughs and more appreciative chuckles."[12] Gary Arnold of The Washington Post wrote, "The film rarely rises above the level of tame, wayward homage ... 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."[13]


  1. "High Anxiety (A)". British Board of Film Classification. January 26, 1978. Retrieved September 18, 2016.
  2. Aubrey Solomon, Twentieth Century Fox: A Corporate and Financial History, Scarecrow Press, 1989 p258
  3. "High Anxiety, Box Office Information". The Numbers. Retrieved January 29, 2012.
  4. "Mel Brooks: 'I'm An EGOT; I Don't Need Any More'". NPR.org. December 27, 2013.
  5. Weide, Robert (2012). "Quiet on the Set!". DGA Quarterly Magazine (Summer). Retrieved October 24, 2019.
  6. Parish, James Robert (2008). It's Good to Be the King: The Seriously Funny Life of Mel Brooks. John Wiley & Sons. p. 221. ISBN 9780470225264.
  7. "High Anxiety". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved December 11, 2018.
  8. Ebert, Roger. "High Anxiety". RogerEbert.com. Retrieved December 11, 2018.
  9. Canby, Vincent (December 26, 1977). "Mel Brooks in 'High Anxiety'". The New York Times. 30.
  10. Kael, Pauline (January 9, 1978). "The Current Cinema". The New Yorker. 70.
  11. Siskel, Gene (February 3, 1978). "'Anxiety' is good but not as crazy as it should be". Chicago Tribune. Section 2, p. 3.
  12. Champlin, Charles (December 23, 1977). "Mel Brooks' 'High Anxiety'". Los Angeles Times. Part IV, p. 1.
  13. Arnold, Gary (February 1, 1978). "Brooks Meets Hitchcock". The Washington Post. B1, B11.
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