By Richard Winters
My Rating: 7 out of 10
4-Word Review: He’s afraid of heights.
Dr. Richard Thorndyke (Mel Brooks) is hired as the new resident psychiatrist at the Psycho-Neurotic Institute for the Very, Very, Nervous where he is to replace another Dr. who died under suspicious circumstances. While there he becomes aware of many odd things occurring making him believe that the people running the hospital, Dr. Charles Montague (Harvey Korman) and Nurse Diesel (Cloris Leachman), have a scheme going on where they take in rich patients and pretend their conditions are worse than they really are, so that they can keep the patients hospitalized for indefinite periods and thus bilk the patient’s rich families for large sums of money. Richard, together with Victoria (Madeline Kahn) who is the daughter of another patient that is being held there against his will, become determined to expose the scheme, but his adversaries use nefarious tactics to try and stop him by taking advantage of his extreme fear of heights.
Per an interview that Mel Brooks gave with NPR in 2013 he revealed that he wrote a letter to Hitchcock in 1976 telling him that he wanted to do a parody of his movies and was interested in getting his feedback. Hitch wrote back saying that they should get together in his office to go over ideas. In fact it was Hitch’s suggestion to have the scene involving the birds pooping on Brooks. When the film was completed he got his own private screening and afterwards he sent Brooks a case of expensive French wine with the note: “A small token of my pleasure, have no anxiety about this.”
Two of my favorite moments include a Psycho parody where a bellhop (played by a young and soon-to-be famous director in his own right, Barry Levinson) who stabs Brooks with a newspaper while he’s in the shower. The afore mentioned Birds parody is good too with the bird droppings made up of mayonnaise and chopped spinach, but because a helicopter was used during the segment it scared a lot of the pigeons causing real bird do-do to get mixed in with the fake stuff.
I enjoyed the bits involving a parody of the ‘gliding camera’ a technique used in many films where a camera shot begins on the outside of a building, but then somehow ‘glides through’ a wall and goes inside a place without any barrier. Here the camera shatters the glass as it tries to ‘glide through’ the window of the hospital, but Brooks almost ruins the moment by having the characters react by looking up to where the noise occurred, but then going back to their conversation, which makes no sense. If a camera operator has just crashed through a window, most people would get up from their seats and inspect the damage, which would’ve overplayed the joke, so they should’ve just had the characters not respond to the crashing noise at all. This same issue occurs at the end where the camera operators are heard talking just before they crash through a wall, but the scene would’ve played better without the banter.
The plot, as thin and goofy as it is, has some interesting moments. I especially enjoyed the segments done inside the lobby of the Hyatt Regency in San Francisco and the way it takes advantage of the glass elevators there. The scene involving actor Ron Carey blowing up a picture that he took there in order to solve a crime is cool because it goes back to the old way of developing film, which will be a good education for today’s younger viewers who are more used to digital.
The performances are first-rate with Brooks in an uncharacteristic straight part though he still gets in a few zany moments including a segment where he’s a baby who falls from his high-chair. Leachman though steals it in a brilliant send-up of Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. In fact it’s her contorted face with no make-up and a faint mustache that leaves a lasting impression. She has stated that she disliked doing the role, but it’s so hilarious that I wished her part had been given a wider storyline.
My Rating: 7 out of 10
Released: December 25, 1977
Runtime: 1 Hour 34 Minutes
Director: Mel Brooks
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Video, YouTube