High Anxiety is not a great film, but it was made at a time when Mel Brooks was at his most creative and successful. The film itself is essentially a send up of Alfred Hitchcock movies, and parodies the most famous scenes in those films. But there really just isn’t the love shown here in this film that we’ve known from Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein. In Young Frankenstein, it’s obvious how much Brooks loved the original film, as he went right down to getting the original laboratory props from Frankenstein to put in his film. High Anxiety is more in the vein of Spaceballs, and while I do enjoy Spaceballs, again, it just doesn’t have the true love of Brook’s passion behind it, and for the most part it just feels like a riff on the Star Wars Trilogy. But High Anxiety has two things going for it that make it worth watching: Cloris Leachman’s Nurse Diesel and Harvey Korman’s Dr. Montague. It’s worth it because the two of them are not only among the funniest characters of Brook’s creations, but they are also fun memorable villains.
As much as I love Harvey Korman though, I’m really here to talk about Cloris Leachman. I love her. She’s hilariously brilliant, and while she will always be memorable as the disturbing creature of every horses nightmare, Frau Blucher, she’s given far more room in this film to shine with her comedic skills. Nurse Diesel just has this wonderful, pliable face as she comes up with the most disturbing and disjointed mouth shapes you’ve ever seen. Her hunched back and boobs you could spear a man with just make her all the more hilarious as you wonder out of what back alley did this woman really come from. And on top of that…she’s a dominatrix to her boyfriend Korman who is completely and utterly submissive to her. In some ways, she seems to be a combination of Nurse Rachett and Mrs. Danvers from Hitchcock’s “Rebecca”, with the dominatrix personality thrown in for good measure.
Her scenes add the pick me up this movie needs whenever it slows down. Sometimes the actual parodying of Hitchcock movies doesn’t seem to add much to the overall story…even though that’s what Brooks is known for, in this case I found those scenes kind of held the movie back as if to stop everything to tell a joke instead of the parody being more integrated in the story, like Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles. But there are a few scenes I love in this film. I love the scene with Harvey Korman terrifying the patient with his fear of werewolves as he plants the fake teeth in his mouth. The patient who thinks he’s a dog was brilliant. And there’s a great scene with Brooks and Madaline Kahn pretending to be an annoying Jewish couple as a way to get through airport security. It’s those places this film does shine.
But really, it’s Cloris Leachman to me who is the real star of this film. If anything, its worth watching this film for her performance alone. She is definitely one of the greats, and Nurse Diesel is definitely one of the craziest and most fun villains in film.