Mar 202019

High Anxiety (1977) (IMDB) is a comedy film, directed by Mel Brooks, written and directed by Mel Brooks and Ron Clark.

High Anxiety is Mel Brooks’ parody of Alfred Hitchcock’s thrillers, which often had some psychosexual weirdness driving their plots. E.g. voyeurism in Rear Window, gender confusion in Psycho, fetishism in Vertigo. In this case, it’s female sadism and male masochism.

Nurse Charlotte Diesel, played by Cloris Leachman

Some of the movies and TV episodes discussed in this project include BDSM as a major element, while others feature it in only a single scene or even a single moment.

I operate on the theory that, first, nothing in a film is an accident, no matter how small the detail. If there’s even a hint of BDSM, it’s there for a reason. Second, these scenes and moments may be a person’s first exposure to the concept of sadomasochism, and may inform their later development as sadomasochists.

Queer people of earlier generations became adept at reading against the text, finding queer relationships and dynamics within seemingly heteronormative works. I believe that kinky people do the same, privately cataloging those scenes and moments that resonate.

Brooks plays Dr. Thorndyke, a psychiatrist with acrophobia who takes over a mental institute. The plot, such as it is, is that Dr. Montague (Harvey Korman) and Head Nurse Diesel (Cloris Leachman) are keeping their patients in highly expensive care instead of treating them. While Montague was the head of the Institute until Thorndyke arrives, Diesel is really in charge, as made clear in the dinner scene, when she punishes him for being a few seconds late.

Montague (Korman) and Diesel (Leachman) plot.

Right off the bat, this character is ill-conceived. She’s named “Nurse Charlotte Diesel.” (No doubt a reference to “Nurse Ratched” of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.) The “Diesel” is presumably a reference to “diesel dyke”, i.e. a butch lesbian. She also has a bit of facial hair, and enjoys cognac and a cigar after dinner. However, she doesn’t show any interest in other women (not that there are any apart from Thorndyke’s love interest, played by Madeline Kahn).

Late at night, Thorndyke hears someone crying out and investigates Nurse Diesel’s room. She says it was just the TV, looking extraordinarily suspicious. When Thorndyke leaves, Diesel takes off her bathrobe, revealing a stylized prison guard uniform, complete with cap and high-heeled boots. She has Montague literally chained up in her closet, in his pyjamas.

Montague (Korman) and Diesel (Leachman) have some fun.

Montague: “I can’t help it. You’re hurting me. You’re going too hard tonight.”

Diesel: “Oh, get off it. I know you better than you know yourself. You live for bondage and discipline.” [tightens bonds]

Montague: (moans) “Too much bondage, too much bondage. Not enough discipline.”

Diesel: “You want discipline?” [spanks him]


Montague: “Mommy!”

This is the familiar pairing of sexual deviance with moral deviance. Of course people this deviant would be capable of anything, such as gaslighting their patients and plotting to have Thorndyke killed. As a submissive man paired with a dominant woman, Montague and Diesel are held up as obviously funny. I wouldn’t take this personally, as the whole movie is a parody. Of course the characters are cardboard.

Following other standard tropes, the deviant couple of Montague and Diesel are contrasted with Thorndyke and his love interest, Victoria. At the climax, Thorndyke must overcome his acrophobia (via a flashback to his infancy) to rescue Victoria’s father. Diesel plummets to her death (with a black cape and a broomstick, no less) and Montague immediately surrenders.

Montague: “I like you. I’ll be on your side. I’ll do anything you say. I’m good at that. And if I don’t behave, you can beat the living crap out of me. I wouldn’t mind.”

Even in the realm of comedy, the domineering woman and the masochistic man must be punished, and normative heterosexuality is valorized.

I’m not saying that Mel Brooks is kinkphobic or set out to make an anti-BDSM piece of propaganda. He just followed the paradigmatic tropes laid down by other films: “Deviant sex is funny” and “Sexual deviance corresponds to moral deviance.” It wasn’t his job to question those.

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