One of a handful of macabre films Bette Davis made in the 60's, The Nanny from 1965 is best approached as a suspense thriller in the vein of Shadow of a Doubt, rather than a full-blooded Hammer Horror. In the film, a 10 year old boy returns home from an institution for disturbed children where he was being treated for a breakdown following the death of his younger sister. In the two years that have passed, Joey has developed a hatred for middle-aged women which is now directed at the family nanny (played by Davis) who he claims murdered his sister and is now trying to kill him. Joey's accusations are dismissed as paranoid fantasy but behind the prim and proper persona of the nanny lies some dark secrets...
Shot simultaneously with Dracula Prince of Darkness (whose production was soaking up the bulk of Hammer's resources and talent), The Nanny was part of a line of cheaply made mystery thrillers which the studio produced alongside the more lavish Gothic films. Hammer had become something of a nuisance for the BBFC with their increasingly explicit Technicolor horrors, but the studio could prove equally adept at handling serious issues with discretion and subtlety, like child molestation (in the 1960 film Never Takes Sweets from a Stranger) or the dangers of psychological dependence and the dysfunctional family unit, explored in Jimmy Sangster's sensitive screenplay for The Nanny.
Unlike the barn-storming antics of later films like The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, The Nanny is a far more sedate affair, the film remaining on an ambiguous footing until the third act when the circumstances of the death of Joey's sister are finally teased out. Bette Davis, in the first of two pictures she made for Hammer turns in a perfectly judged performance, her English accent flawless and when the cause of her break from reality is fully revealed, she becomes a tragic figure, a world apart from the toxic bitch she played in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Davis is almost outgunned by her co-star, William Dix, extremely impressive as Joey, playing the kind of mature, intelligent and resourceful adolescent Stephen King would routinely write into his fiction.
Ultimately what impresses the most about the film is Seth Holt's precise direction which perfectly compliments Jimmy Sangster's thoughtful screenplay. The film is almost entirely set indoors but Holt still manages to make the film visually arresting with a combination of moody monochrome photography courtesy of Harry Waxman, and some striking camera angles - at times the apartment seems utterly enormous, as it would do seen from the perspective of a little boy. In some ways the film has a certain affinity with Repulsion1 - like Polanski's film, Holt's use of spacial disorientation gives The Nanny an almost hallucinatory quality and both films feature female protagonists whose sanity is being gradually eroded.
Optimum's DVD of The Nanny features a gorgeous 1.85 transfer that really showcases the film's luminous photography. The picture is crisp and sharp, struck from a fresh looking print. The mono audio is fine too. An audio commentary by Jimmy Sangster is the sole extra. Overall, a fine addition to the Hammer box.
1. Roman Polanski doesn't figure in the Hammer story except for a very brief moment when Polanski first arrived in London following the international success of his debut feature Knife In the Water. Polanski announced he was available for work, and calls were made to Hammer president James Carreras who passed on an opportunity to work with the Polish director. At the time Polanski was planning a film based on a 16-page screenplay entitled Lovelihead, which eventually mutated into Repulsion. Ironically, the director's 1967 film The Fearless Vampire Killers is often mistaken for a Hammer production.