Psychiatrist Dr Richard Thorndyke (Mel Brooks) is flying into a San Francisco airport to take up his position as the new head of the Institute for the Very, Very Nervous, but he's not a happy man, for he suffers from "high anxiety" which makes aeroplane journeys sheer hell for him. Glad to get off the aircraft, he makes his way through the airport when suddenly he is stopped by a man (Robert Ridgely) who requests Thorndyke to go with him, and the doctor duly follows - into the bathroom, where the man reveals he wasn't wearing anything under his coat and asks him if he finds what he sees attractive. The sooner Thorndyke gets to the institute the better...
Or not, as the case may be, for in Mel Brooks' spoof of Alfred Hitchcock movies he stuck close to his inspiration, and the institute resembles the one from Spellbound so isn't exactly the most calming place for someone of Thorndyke's neuroses (it's built atop a cliff, for a start). At the time, Brooks was criticised for his hamfisted sending up of the Master of Suspense's classics, and it's true there are very few moves toward subtlety, but when he hit inspiration he could, as in his other comedies, attain some giddy heights of daftness that made all the other limp gags worth enduring.
Working with three other scriptwriters, including future director Barry Levinson who also appears as an irritated bellboy, Brooks seems to have picked out about ten Hitchcock thrillers that he could effectively parody, and assembled a somewhat shoddy narrative around them, aware that nobody was watching this for the storyline. They wanted those silly jokes, and they got them, if not perhaps on a level with his previous classics, so that there are those who mark High Anxiety as the beginning of a gradual decline in the comedian's quality threshhold. No matter, as there is a very decent quotient of laughs to be gained here.
For a start, Brooks may have been dubious leading man material, but he was backed up by some seasoned players who exhibited great flair with a oneliner or bit of business. In fact, some actors such as the great Harvey Korman could have done with more screen time, as you miss the double act he has with Cloris Leachman as the envious second in command at the institute and the head nurse he has as humorously sordid relationship with respectively. Brooks does something that Hitch would never do, and that's show who the villains are from the start, removing that element of suspense and leaving us awaiting the next quip or set-up, so we're in no doubt who is behind the plot against Thorndyke.
There is something a little odd about High Anxiety in its cast when you compare it to the gagfest style of comedy Brooks spawned further down the line, which is that you wouldn't get a spoof with an almost exclusively middle-aged cast these days: even glamorous love interest Madeline Kahn as Victoria, daughter of one of the patients, was approaching forty at the time this was shot. This does mean you get plenty of experience to illustrate the best way to wring a laugh out of a gag: watch Kahn's brilliant playing of the heavy breathing phone call scene to see a true talent at work, although when it's left to Brooks alone he does leave you feel as if you're watching a television sketch show (the spoof of The Birds is crowbarred in apropos of nothing much). If not vintage Brooks throughout, there are some highly amusing bits like the sanitised "frank" discussion at the conference which generate some truly hilarious moments, and there's not a mean target in it. Music by John Morris.