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Nanny, The (1965)

Courtesy of Canal+ Image UK ltd

Main image of Nanny, The (1965)
35mm, 93 minutes, black & white
DirectorSeth Holt
Production CompanyHammer Film Prodns;
 Associated British Prodns
ProducerJimmy Sangster
ScreenplayJimmy Sangster
CinematographyHarry Waxman
MusicRichard Rodney Bennett

Cast: Bette Davis (the nanny); Jill Bennett (Pen); Wendy Craig (Virginia Fane); James Villiers (Bill Fane); William Dix (Joey Fane); Angharad Aubrey (Susy Fane)

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A disturbed ten-year-old boy, returned from the institution he was sent to following the death of his sister in suspicious circumstances, horrifies his parents when he accuses the nanny of trying to murder him.

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It would not be too fanciful to see The Nanny as Hammer's horror version of Mary Poppins (US, 1964). Its eponymous heroine is actually referred to as 'Mary Poppins' at one stage and the family seems to see her in an idealised light as the devoted domestic who lightens the family load; it is only Joey who insists she is trying to kill him. This is not the first time Seth Holt has been involved on a film about a lethal lady in a nanny-ridden England, for he was also the associate producer on The Ladykillers (d. Alexander Mackendrick, 1955).

Cinematically, The Nanny is a knowing film. With its dark deeds around a shower-curtain and bathtub, and deranged monologues to the dead, it teasingly invokes Psycho (US, d. Alfred Hitchcock, 1960). The casting of Bette Davis, fresh from her tour-de-force in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (US, 1963), brings frissons of fear, and there is a smart allusion to one of her most famous moments of screen villainy when, as in The Little Foxes (US, 1941), she refuses to fetch the medicine that might save someone's life.

Yet there is also a compelling restraint and conviction about the film, quite different in style from Hammer's characteristic Gothic rhapsodies but typical of Holt, where suspense is generated from suggestion more than melodrama. Events and characters have an intriguing intricacy of perspective. The film's core tragedy is both poignant and appalling in its consequences. Joey might initially seem a monster (as a nurse describes him) but his behaviour can also be explained by his anger at not being believed and his exasperation with ineffectual parents, who allow Nanny a disproportionate influence on the household. Nanny is eventually revealed as the real monster, but her behaviour too has a plausible psychological base, being a desperate bid for self-protection after a single act of carelessness, at a moment of personal trauma, has threatened to undermine the life of service to which she has devoted herself. In other hands, Nanny's final rescue of Joey from drowning might seem contrived; here it is movingly rendered as a guilty woman's grasp at redemption. Bette Davis is particularly awesome here, and indeed all the performances are splendid. Seth Holt's subtle and unerring command of pacing, composition and structure compels one to ponder anew Christopher Lee's claim for him as 'one of the best British directors ever'.

Neil Sinyard

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Video Clips
1. Disturbed trick (4:36)
2. Mary Poppins (2:17)
3. Puzzled (4:33)
Production stills
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Craig, Wendy (1934-)
Denham, Maurice (1909-2002)
Fowler, Harry (1926-2012)
Hinds, Anthony (1922-2013)
Holt, Seth (1924-1971)
Waxman, Harry (1912-1984)
Hammer Horror