Then Playing — High Anxiety; To Sleep with Anger; The Professionals

High Anxiety (Mel Brooks, 1977). Following hits spoofing Westerns, classic horror, and silent movies, Mel Brooks turned his attention to the oeuvre of Alfred Hitchcock, even consulting with the master himself on the screenplay. In its first half or so, High Anxiety feels more like a loosey-goosey framework for ring-tossing on every silly joke Brooks can think of, more akin to the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker gag machine that would first taxi into theaters a few years later than the tighter, more specific comedy of his best screen efforts. Eventually, the more direct Hitchcock homages start creeping in, which fortifies the structure. Brooks casts himself in the lead role, but it’s his supporting players, mostly drawn from his regular troupe, who do the most with the material. In particular, Madeline Kahn takes nearly all her lines and crushes them into gleaming comic diamonds.

To Sleep with Anger (Charles Burnett, 1990). Charles Burnett writes and directs this wily drama about a Los Angeles family that opens their home to a visitor from their bygone time living in the rural South. The visitor, Harry (Danny Glover in a marvelous, crafty turn), proves to be a troublesome presence, never doing anything particularly egregious and yet seeding discontent with small observation and comments. Burnett slow plays his narrative as effectively as his protagonist patiently works his schemes. To Sleep with Anger develops moods and themes like stews left to simmer on the stovetop, occasionally flicking in a little magical realism or absurdist comedy for layered flavor. It’s the small, perfectly deployed, atmospheric details that prompt the most pleasure. Chief among them is the sound of a neighbor boy bleating through ineffective practice on his trumpet. It made me laugh every damn time.

The Professionals (Richard Brooks, 1966). This Western dangles right over the era’s rapidly filling pool of revisionist tendencies without quite mustering the nerve to plunge in. Like a heist movie with horses, The Professionals is set into motion by a wealthy rancher (Ralph Bellamy) hiring a crew of crack experts in all the handy frontier arts (explosives, scouting) to bring back his young wife (Claudia Cardinale) who is back in her homeland of Mexico, he claims because of a kidnapping. The crew goes on the mission with hints of weariness and exasperation; this is one of the few films of its kind to emphasize that spending full days trudging across arid landscapes is hot work. Brooks directs with crisp efficiency, properly showcasing the sharp cinematography of Conrad L. Hall, collecting one of his first Hollywood credits. The film also relies on unfortunate bandito stereotypes that take away some of its shine. As one of men dispatched across the border, Burt Lancaster operates with typical amused ease.

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