A Hammer film in black and white, that’s character-driven, favours the psychological over the gothic, boasts a script by Jimmy Sangster that’s an exercise in slow-burn tension rather than an overwrought piece of hack-work, and features a performance by Bette Davies that’s as good as anything she ever did in the American studio system?
Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to ‘The Nanny’. A week ago, picking up some groceries in Sainsburys, I came across ‘The Best of Hammer’, a 5-disc box set. My 13 for Halloween series was ticking along nicely and I figured ‘Dracula: Prince of Darkness’ would be an ideal entry. Of the other four titles in the set, ‘The Devil Rides Out’ is a minor classic, ‘Frankenstein Created Woman’ (recently reviewed on Antagony & Ecstasy) is one of the key Peter Cushing titles, and ‘Quatermass and the Pit’ is a splendidly entertaining bit of low-fi sci-fi. The remaining film, ‘The Nanny’, was the only one I’d not seen.
On it went.
Set almost entirely in a well-appointed London townhouse, its pressure cooker atmosphere of class-defined tensions inexorably rising to the boiling point of an inevitable revelation, ‘The Nanny’ is one of those peculiarly British films into which a darkly foreign aesthetic has crept and the result is something that is both a time-capsule of the year it was made (1965 in this case) and yet somehow out-of-time in its off-kilter atmosphere and provocative approach to the material. Focusing on a twisted reversal of the toff/servant relationship, incorporating such peripheral issues as mental illness and back-street abortions, and with the mystery at the heart of the narrative centred around a possible case of infanticide, ‘The Nanny’ is the kind of film you’d have got if Polanski had directed ‘The Servant’ instead of Joseph Losey. Or if someone had stuck ‘Bunny Lake is Missing’, ‘Séance on a Wet Afternoon’ and ‘The Innocents’ in a blender.
Comparisons with ‘The Servant’ (made two years earlier) are difficult to avoid, not just thematically but in the presence of Wendy Craig. Her hysterical matriarch Virginia Fane, still catered to by her childhood nanny (Davies), is a more emotionally unstable version of her brittle society girlfriend in Losey’s film. Similarly, ‘Innocents’ alumnus Pamela Franklin turns in a deliciously precocious performance as chain-smoking 14-year old party-girl-in-waiting Bobbie, with whom Virginia’s 10-year old son Joey (William Dix) forms a friendship on returning home after two years in an institute.
Joey’s been under the care of Dr Beamaster (Maurice Denham) since his involvement – the exact details of which remain unrevealed for most of the film – in the death of his infant sister Susie (Angharad Aubrey). The good doctor has been unable to reach the boy and releases him back into his parents’ care in an admission of defeat. His mother frets and fusses, dreading his return. His father, Bill Fane (James Villiers), is a stiff upper lip mounted on a stuffed shirt, the whole construct held together with an old-school tie and an anally-inserted rod. He’s a civil servant for whom his job is everything and his gentlemen’s club an escape from domestic responsibility. He talks up a storm about disciplining the lad, but it’s all empty threats.
The actual business of keeping things together and trying to marshal the Fanes into at least some semblance of a family unit falls to Nanny. Yes, even Bill and Virginia and Virginia’s ailing sister Pen (Jill Bennett) call her that: “Nanny.” But this is a film where the adults behave like children, wailing and throwing tantrums and having to be spoon-fed when they refuse to eat.
Nanny does her best to make Joey’s transition make into the Fane household easy on everyone, but Joey proves particularly truculent – this, after all, is a boy who is first introduced pretending to hang himself in order to freak out the staff at the institution – with a special hatred reserved for Nanny.
In the pantheon of creepy kid vs. grown woman cinematic smackdowns, from creepy kid vs. Lee Remick in ‘The Omen’ to creepy kid vs. Vera Farmiga in ‘Orphan’, this would normally be a no-brainer. But this is creepy kid vs. Bette fuckin’ Davies. The battle lines are drawn.
Adapting a novel by Marryam Modell, director Seth Holt keeps the facts surrounding Susie’s demise offscreen for as long as possible. Instead he keeps the tension simmering by simply observing the strained interactions between a petulant and morbid child, his pathetically inept parents, a pill-popping and booze-swilling relative, and the nanny who has come to be a surrogate parent to all of them. After about half of an hour with this motley bunch, the question isn’t so much who is to blame for Susie’s death but whether the poor little mite ever really had a chance in the first place.