The Nanny (1965) – Tuesday’s Forgotten Film

Bette Davis gives a subtle and nuanced performance as the title character in this small-scale suspense movie that deserves to be much better known. It is easy to succumb to the temptation to lump it together with What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) and the other  excursions into grand guignol that helped revive the flagging careers of such Hollywood grand dames as Davis, Crawford and Stanwyck (amongst others) around that time, but it does the film a real disservice. Although made by Hammer, this is a  restrained study of family grief and emotional dependence painted in shades of grey. It’s a classy film, tackling a challenging theme with intelligence and style, largely eschewing histrionics  …

The following review is offered as part of the Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme hosted by Todd Mason over at his Sweet Freedom blog and you should head over there to see the many other fascinating titles that have been selected.

“There’s no key in the bathroom door”

We begin in sedate fashion with a title sequence showing Davis as she makes her way home through the park where she feeds the ducks and stops to buy some flowers before arriving at an expensive London address. As we cut to the interior, there is a long, meticulously crafted tracking shot as we follow her into the house, past a room where a couple are rowing. She ignores this, puts a parcel in the kitchen, and then goes into her own room to remove her coat. We look at the series of framed family photos on her dresser and then we cut to Davis and see that she is wearing a uniform. She is a servant in the household of a well-to-do family and has bought a cake for 10-year-old  Joey. His mother is in tears, wracked with doubt about his ‘return’, while her husband merely bellows at her in frustration. Eventually he asks ‘Nanny’ to get his wife ready so they can go and pick up the boy and bring him home. The mother (Wendy Craig) is clearly fragile and in the end feigns a headache, so nanny is sent in her place. What is she so worried about? We get an idea from a  brief flashback in which she plays with her young daughter, who now seems to be missing from the house …

We get more than an inkling that something truly dark is going on when we arrive at the private clinic where the boy has been housed for the last two years.  The exact details are withheld for the moment, but we discover from Joey’s psychologist (a nicely understated cameo from Maurice Denham) that he has been under their care following some unspecified event. Although the boy is apparently still made violently angry when near middle-aged women and tends to be a fantasist, he is being sent home. He has had many of his earlier symptoms remedied (like his refusal to eat) but is still potentially quite disturbed. This is reinforced in a scene reminiscent from the opening of cult classic Harold and Maude (1971) in which a nurse finds the boy hanging in his dorm – she runs away screaming and he climbs down and calmly puts away the rope so he can doubtless play his ‘practical joke’ again once he gets home. He is clearly glad to see his father but is immediately rude to nanny (we never find out her actual name) and refuses to sit with her in the back of the car.

At home he behaves much worse – refusing to eat anything she has cooked, essentially a really destabilising and malevolent rendition of the kind of problem behaviour that any parent is likely to encounter, only much worse and a great deal more sinister. The boy says that nanny wants to poison him and insists on barricading himself in his room at night. He eventually makes friends with a 14-year old girl living upstairs (Pamela Franklin) and tells her coolly, matter-of-factly, that he is blamed for the death of his sister in a bathroom drowning. But of course he blames his nanny, who he says is out to get him for some unspecified reason. She has been part of the family ever since his mother and her sister were children – one of the finest sequences in the film is also one of the simplest, in which we see nanny comb the mother’s hair to try to console her after the latest defeat at the hands of her quisling child. Who is the real child here, who is the parent – and ultimately, what is the truth surrounding the tragic death of the little girl?

Familiar and recurring elements from writer-producer Jimmy Sangster‘s previous Hammer thrillers (for the titles of these, with links to my reviews, see the list below) are all present and correct – these include a drowned body, mentally unstable protagonists released from an asylum, characters being put under psychological strain as part of a terror campaign. plots that repeat the pattern and events of a previous trauma – and a major twist at the halfway mark. These are certainly all present in The Nanny too, but here the effect is quite different and in some fundamental aspects completely reversed, especially when it comes to the major plot twist, which in fairness can’t be discussed but which is not the kind of big surprise that makes you feel cheated. Rather, it opens a new view on the story and is presented very much in this fashion with several interlocking flashbacks to clarify events, very deftly shot and edited together with smart use of sound in particular, to really change how we view the characters and their actions. Where the earlier thrillers were all about plot machinations, surprise twists and scares and shocks, this is a film about a mounting sense of dread, about something awful in the characters’ past that is now being revisited upon them.

“You don’t approve of pillows …”

Depictions of pre-teen childhood in cinema usually fall into combinations of two main types: comic or dramatic coming-of-age stories or more nostalgic reflections on times past. Occasionally though there are more sinister stories, cuckoo-in-the nest studies in abnormality and cruelty. These can vary from the science fiction of Village of the Damned (1960) to the horror of  The Innocents (1961) and inevitably The Omen (1976, et seq). The new film adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s controversial novel We Need to Talk About Kevin starring Tilda Swinton is perhaps the most recent approach to this, though there are other examples in film and literature such as Ian McEwan’s The Good Son (1993), and Patrick McCabe’s 1992 novel The Butcher Boy (filmed 5 years later by Neil Jordan with mixed results). All of these to some extent seem to flow from William March’s 1954 novel The Bad Seed about a child murderer. When Maxwell Anderson adapted it for the Broadway stage the following year it became hugely successful and this was turned into a movie in 1956 and is one the one of the earliest examples of children as being potentially malevolent – and The Nanny is another.

William Dix as the disturbed Joey Fane gives a truly impressive performance, his apathy and potential cruelty conveyed convincingly without resorting to obvious tricks. More importantly he is also able to sustain several important long-ish scenes, his performance not obviously created in the cutting room as is so often the case when dealing with child actors. His scenes with his neurotic mother, his young upstairs neighbour and especially opposite the mighty Davis are all equally impressive. Equally good, perhaps even better, are the scenes with his cool aunt, played by the great elan by Jill Bennett. She comes to stay when the mother is poisoned with something taken from nanny’s medicine cabinet. When the offending bottle found in Joey’s room she takes this in her stride as a mere prank, which is a surprising mild response in the circumstances. However when Joey comes screaming at her that nanny just tried to drown him in the bath, the story quickly becomes much darker as her anxiety starts to grow as she suffers from a heart condition and is clearly starting to be rattled by the boy’s mounting hysteria.

“You can’t walk hand-in-hand with death without feeling something”

The film was adapted by Sangster from a novel by American author Merriam Modell published under her ‘Evelyn Piper’ pseudonym. That same year another of her novels would be transplanted to London and turned into a movie, Bunny Lake is Missing, which also takes a walk on the wild side of abnormal psychology, though it is a much more obviously tricksy narrative. Having said that, there are also surprises aplenty in The Nanny, mostly in the closing 20 minutes, which also includes a great cameo from Alfred Burke as a local GP working in London’s poorer districts. This is a film that, while it can be classed as a story of psychological suspense, is unlike the other films that Jimmy Sangster wrote and produced for Hammer in the 50s and 60s as it deals with the death of a child and with an even more essentially transgressive idea – potentially of a child as murderer. Taste of Fear director Seth Holt makes a great job of tackling this material sensitively to create a superior and markedly different suspense yarn and gets a terrific performance out of Hollywood legend Bette Davis. Apparently the relationship between director and star was not an easy one, but the fine results speak for themselves. Initially her appearance, with heavily blacked up eyebrows and heavy face makeup, seem a bit too similar to Baby Jane, but this is a much subtler movie that could, stripped of a few genre elements, have been easily made by Joseph Losey and written by Harold Pinter. It’s really that good in terms of its spare, to the point dialogue, it’s adroit and intelligent use of overlapping narratives and a willingness to let restraint be the watchword throughout, even in the dramatic death and attempted murder that occur in its final stages.

Holt demonstrates tremendous skill in his orchestration of the scenes and a meticulous eye in his mise-en-scene that mixes hand-held cameras and complex tracking shots with complete mastery and virtually practically never puts a foot wrong. In addition he also draws performances of great uniformity from a very disparate bunch of actors, including a really credible turn from Pamela Franklin, who had already starred in The Innocents and would go on to play another equivocal youth in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969). The only false note in the entire film comes, frustratingly, right at end – the story is over, the great emotions have all been expended in a thundering if low-key and slightly ambiguous climax, and now all that should be left is silence – and instead 20th Century Fox insisted on tacking on a boring 60 seconds of explanations for those sitting in the cheap seats in the style of Psycho. It is utterly phoney and was clearly shot after the end of principal photography being dramatically anodyne and flatly lit – let’s not speak of it any longer as it is best forgotten and very easy to ignore.

This was Sangster’s favourite among his own films after Taste of Fear – and it’s easy to see why.

DVD Availability: Although the region 1 release has a slightly sharper and smoother image, the region 2 version also offers a pretty decent anamorphic transfer with the added bonus of an audio commentary recorded in 2006 hosted by official Hammer historian Marcus Hearn and featuring Jimmy Sangster and the film’s script supervisor, Renée Glynne. Click here for further details about her career.

The Nanny (1965)
Director: Seth Holt
Producer: Jimmy Sangster
Screenplay: Jimmy Sangster (from the novel by Evelyn Piper)
Cinematography: Harry Waxman
Art Direction: Edward Carrick
Music: Richard Rodney Bennett
Cast: Bette Davis, Wendy Craig, Jill Bennet, James Villiers, Alfred Burke, Maurice Denham, Jack Watling, Pamela Franklin, William Dix (as Joey)

The full list of Sangster / Hammer thrillers is as follows:

My dedicated microsite on Hammer Studios and its thriller films is here.

***** (4 fedora tips out of 5)

This entry was posted in Hammer Studios, Jimmy Sangster, London, Scene of the crime, Tuesday's Overlooked Film. Bookmark the permalink.

37 Responses to The Nanny (1965) – Tuesday’s Forgotten Film

  1. Pingback: Jimmy Sangster (1927 – 2011) | Tipping My Fedora

  2. Colin says:

    Seth Holt did a great job getting such strong performances out of the younger memebers of the cast – no mean feat in itself. In a sense, this reminds me of Carol Reed, who also seemed to have a real knack for drawing believable turns from children.

    Davis too was mightily impressive – far more so than in, what I believe to be, the overrated “Baby Jane”. Over the years, I’ve become convinced that Aldrich and Davis achieved something far stronger and more affecting in Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte.
    In The Nanny, she held back and kept the viewer uncertain right to the end, and it was very effective.

    • Hi Colin, thanks for the comments. That’s so interesting, I feel exactly the same way – I always thought Hush … Hush was the better film, even if so obviously derivative of Les Diaboliques. Having said that, I don’t know why but Baby Jane, at least when I was a kid in the 70s and 80s, never seemed to get played very often compared with Hush … Hush. It’s a shame Crawford didn’t get to be in the latter (especially as there are those intriguing stills taken of her scenes before she left the production) though I quite like de Havilland in it – especially because it suits that air of haughty detatchment verging on insincerity that one can find in several of her later performances. Never been able to watch Lady in a Cage though …

      • Colin says:

        You know, I actually thought about doing a piece on Lady in a Cage a few years back. In the end, I gave up on it as I found it such a bleak and misanthropic movie with a plain nasty air about it that I just couldn’t work up the enthusiasm. I haven’t watched the film since either.
        Re “Sweet Charlotte”, I’m kind of glad Crawford didn’t continue and was replaced by de Havilland. I think the whole Davis/Crawford rivalry thing would have overtaken the movie and turned it into the kind of camp, grotesque parody that “Baby Jane” flirts with.

        • I think I’ve only ever seen clips of Cage and that was yonks ago. I really enjoy Noir and quite bleak arthouse cinema, but I have very little tolerance for downbeat horror/suspense movie because I think you have to offer something to the viewer and in genre cinema it probably isn’t going to be some grand existential discussion and style can only take you so far. But if all you get is 2 hours of relentless pumelling you have to be a very superior product to get away with it – Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Straw Dogs are to my mind two of the few examples of really depressing suspense movies that tip well in to horror but which I also respect as serious movies. I know lots of people who gobble up bleak 70s horror movies but I just can’t do it myself.

          You’re probably right about the advantage of avoiding the Crawford/Davis dynamic in Charlotte though it would have been, my mind, a better role for Crawford than in Baby Jane – best left to the land of what if casting. I would liek to watch some of the Robert Bloch suspensers from that era like William Castle’s The Night Walker though … you can get it illegally on YouTube (in Italian too) but I’m surprised they’re not out on disc yet …

          • Colin says:

            I guess we’re spinning off on tangents here, but I saw The Night Walker years ago on TV and wasn’t hugely impressed. It has a cheap and trashy feel to it – well, it is a William Castle picture I suppose. The most interesting part was seeing Robert Taylor and Stanwyck working together years after their split.

          • Tangent would be my middle name (if I had one …). From my teenage years I have fond memories of watching some of these Castle movies from the 1960s like Straight-Jacket, which was also written by Robert Bloch, and I Saw What You Did, adapted by William P. McGivern (of The Big Heat fame) mainly for their stars of yesteryear and the decent genre writers who worked on the scripts. I’d love to get a decent copy of Project X, adaped from a couple of novels by the great LP Davies for instance, but I agree that they are not great movies.

  3. iluvcinema says:

    I was surprised by how well I liked this film. My initial assumption about this film (mainly going off of Davis’ appearance) was that this was just another in a growing line of those 60’s camp Davis performances. But this film is a well made, intense piece.

    Great write up!

    • Thanks very much for the kind words. It was a genuinely pleasant surprise for me too – I remembered the creepier moments fine from a viewing years ago but I’d managed to somehow forget that it’s an intelligent and sensitive adult drama too. Which was a relief frankly given the fairly heavy subject matter. I am a big fan of Davis in serious mode too though, so I am probably a little bit biased in my appreciation.

  4. John says:

    Really a great thriller – kind of a landmark of sorts and really underappreciated because it so often is lumped together with those two Aldrich movies when it has little in common other than Davis. Your observations are so keen and once again you’ve taught me some things about a movie I’ve enjoyed but could never really put my finger on why it stood out for me. I’m surprised you didn’t mention this film’s subtle similarities to “the boy who cried wolf” subgenre best exemplified by THE WINDOW. But here in THE NANNY the child is presented to us as mentally ill and that gives it a very different tone than a boy who merely tells fibs as a hobby. One could argue that Tommy in THE WINDOW is not just a tall tale teller but a pathological liar and therefore mentally ill. I think I’ve found a movie analogy post idea!

    Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte is a great favorite of mine, too. I talk about it all the time. I have even alluded to it repeatedly in the plays I wrote when I was in college. I was obsessed with that movie for a while. Lady in a Cage is nothing but cruelty on film, I think. It’s like “sadism porn,” kind of a forerunner to the “torture porn ” schlock we burdened with now. It’s a movie that can only be “enjoyed” I think by young men who hate women – especially older women. That whole category of film has nothing to do with suspense or thrillers or even horror. To me it’s misogyny on celluloid. Bleech.

    Interesting that so many of the movies being brought up in the comments and your review above came from suspense and crime novels written by women. Evelyn Piper and Ursula Curtiss were on the screen a lot in the 1960s. Curtiss wrote the novel on which I Saw What You Did was based. She also had another of her novels turned into one of those middle-aged women killer movies — Whatever Happened to Aunt Alice? with an impressive (sometimes maniacal) performance from Geraldine Page as a murderous companion who kills her employers for their money.

    • Dear John, really glad you enjoyed the post and thanks very much for the fulsome comments too! I certainly don’t think I’ll be watching Lady in a Cage in a hurry then – sounds even worse than I thought.

      I was kind avoiding mentioning the ‘boy who cried wolf’ element for fear of getting into spoiler territory but you are of course dead right – and indeed this is a movie that, in its final parts, has a lot of the intensity of a Cornell Woolrich story.

      Having gone out of my way to say that The Nanny isn’t really like so many of the films made in the wake of Baby Jane, it is astonishing to realise just how many films of that type were released in the decade that followed. Must be about two dozen at least post Psycho so as to count as a real sub-genre in which middle-aged (or older) ladies were put through the emotional wringer in semi-horror flicks. These would have to include Gloria Swanson as a precursor in Sunset Boulevard (1950) and then the likes of such Hammer productions as Fanatic (Die! Die! My Darling (1965) starring Tallulah Bankhead and The Witches (1966) with Joan Fontaine; Picture Mommy Dead (1966) with Zsa Zsa Gabor; Joan Crawford in Berserk! (1967); The Big Cube (1969) starring Lana Turner (a DVD of which I just got in the post today weirdly enough); I’ve never seen the Aldrich-produced What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice? (1969) or the similarly titled What’s the Matter with Helen? (1971)with Debbie Reynolds and Shelley Winters, the latter also appearing in Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? to which Sangster contributed (as well as Gavin Lambert) and a whole bunch of other ones – does Aldrich’s later The Killing of Sister George (1968) count? It has some of the same heavy atmosphere but it’s a different genre really. There’s whopping list of these ‘psycho-biddy’ films over at Wikipedia.

      I think you are right to put to some deep-rooted fear of women behind some of these stories, though it only seems fair that every 100 male psycho movies there should be at least one female one, surely …

  5. Steve Lewis says:

    I’d like to echo Colin’s very first comment when he mentioned the performances of William Dix (the boy) and Pamela Franklin (the teen-aged girl who lives upstairs). Both roles are very well done. Make that extremely well done. Bette Davis was the star, of course, but if Dix hadn’t been absolutely believable as the 10-year-old Joey, the movie wouldn’t have gone anywhere.

    I watched the UK-Region 2 version. I don’t remember the last minute of expository material at the end. Doesn’t mean that it wasn’t there. It’s been a few years now, and maybe I just don’t remember it.

    • Hi Steve, thanks very much for the comments. They last 90 seconds or so are incredibly forgettable – flatly lit on a small set and apart from anything else you can see that Dix has grown older since he filmed the rest of the film (OK, I can’t prove that but he looked older to me lets put it that way). Dix is really good, I quite agree and the film could not work as well without him – he apparently only appeared in another Fox release, the Doctor Doolittle musical with Rex Harrison, and then pretty much left the scene.

  6. curtis evans says:

    Great article. I share the admiration for this film. Not a great fan of Baby Jane and this one is so much more subtle (it probably was too subtle for audiences). I liked better than Bunny Lake too, where the answer is telegraphed way too early, I think, undermining the suspense element.

    • Colin says:

      I found Bunny Lake quite effective – I kind of wish Preminger had called it a day on that one and gone out on a high.

      • What, you mean and deprive us of Skidoo? I agree with you really, although I remember quite liking Such Good Friends, especially Dyann cannon’s performance, though its been a bit since I’ve seen it!

        • Colin says:

          There are some moments of worth in later Preminger films, but in all fairness you could safely ignore everything he made post-Bunny Lake and not really miss anything.

          • He did get slightly caught in this trap of having to make ‘provocative’ films because he had been such a trailblazer in the 50s and you can’t sustain that for that long in the commercial sphere – but there is another filmmaker who got a 20 years worth of movies made, from Laura to Bunny Lake, so plenty to celebrate. Ever read David Thomson’s Suspects? It is very nicely bookended by charactes from two Preminger movies at each end of the original Film Noir cycle and is very nicely put together (and I say this as someone who is very far from being a Thomson devotee).

      • curtis evans says:

        I enjoy Bunny Lake, but I tend to agree more naturalistic acting in certain roles would have increased suspense and I did get a little bored with the playground bit at the end. Love Olivier in this.

        • The finale is weirdly protracted, behaving as if we hadn’t already had about a dozen similar movies in recent years with that kind of denouement. Which is not to knock it too much but when endings fall flat or are a bit soft it always seems to be particularly disappointing. I think it was Welles who said make sure you have a great opening and a great ending if you want any leeway in the middle and it’s hard to disagree, especially with in the murder mystery genre.

          • Colin says:

            I think you’re both basically right here – the ending of Bunny Lake is disappointing in its lack of originality. Still, as far as this movie is concerned, I reckon the fun is more in the journey than the destination.

            Olivier grounds the movie; he’s the one stable element amid a mass of weirdness, eccentricity and hysteria. But I love the strange mood that all those off-centre performances create. And when it all gets too much, there’s Olivier to drag it back to something approaching normality.

          • Definitely agree Colin – like the scene in the pub where they listen to ‘The Zombies’ play on TV – the acting is so good that you just want the scene to go on and on.

    • Hi Curtis, it looks like we’re in complete agreement here – I do actually quite enjoy Bunny Lake for the cast value, its sheer eccentricity and its splendid cinemascope cinematography – but as a story it doesn’t really hold together and it does slow down tremendously towards the end. Interesting though in that it has one of Olivier’s most completely naturalistic and least mannered film performances – which of course stands out as everyone else is either camping it up or just being plain weird! I have not read either novel however, so can;t comment on that side of things I;m sorry to say.

      • curtis evans says:

        Olivier is great, would have loved to have seen him in a police procedural series!

        • I certainly never thought I;d see the days where serious thesps like Branagh were starring in TV detective shows. Even if Olivier could not, it would have been great to have a weekly series from the 1960s shot in that kind moody black and white with those kind of resources. The closest I can think of is probably Public Eye starring Alfred Burke, which isn’t really similar (he’s a seedy private eye and the show was made mostly on video in the studio) but does have a similar noirish tone and a great star performance.

  7. Yvette says:

    I don’t remember ever seeing this, Sergio. Hmmmm……From your wonderful review, I guess I’ll have to change that. If it’s on Netflix, I’m adding it to my queue.

    This is not the sort of film I might normally watch now, but I simply can’t ignore your enthusiasm. 🙂

    • Thanks Yvette, I would really like to know what you make of it. But re-reading my admittedly very enthused review, I still stand by it (well, apart from the typos …). Really hope you like it.

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