A precocious 10-year-old boy (William Dix, Doctor Doolittle) returns home after spending the last two years in a mental health facility. Immediately after his arrival, the little boy engages in a battle of wills with the family’s housekeeper (Bette Davis), whom the boy hates for unexplained reasons.
Reaction & Thoughts:
“Nanny, what are you doing?”
In the 1960s Hollywood went bananas trying to duplicate the unexpected success of Robert Aldrich’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? England caught the fever too. British film company Hammer Productions immediately went to work and came up with a slew of fun Baby Jane wannabes. Hammer’s The Nanny is, in my opinion, not only one of the best Baby Jane knock-offs, but also one of Hammer’s very best thrillers.
Hammer alumnus Jimmy Sganster (The Brides of Dracula and The Horror of Frankenstein) produced the movie and wrote the script, an adaptation of Evelyn Piper’s novel of the same name. The Nanny was initially prepared for Greer Garson (Mrs. Miniver), but she, thank goodness, changed her mind. Bette Davis was hired and it’s hard to imagine any other actor in the part.
According to Charlotte Chandler, author of The Girl Who Walked Home Alone, Davis was very proud of her performance. She did have issues with director Seth Holt — Davis allegedly called him “a monument of evil” (I giggle every time I read the quote!). Davis eventually admitted that Holt was “a bloody good director.” She added: “I felt Holt was one of the best English directors. He deserved to be better known.”
Holt meticulously constructs the film one scene at a time. The deliberately drawn-out pace creates a creepy, thoroughly captivating atmosphere. You aren’t really sure where the movie is heading — “what’s really going on here?” — and that’s an effective way to keep the viewer engaged from beginning to end.
I loved how Harry Waxman’s (Twisted Nerve and The Wicker Man) camera lingered on objects and faces — it was very unnerving and darn effective. The deliciously creepy music score was written by Richard Rodney Bennett (Nicholas and Alexandra and Murder on the Orient Express) — it’s simple but still manages to get the job done.
Although Davis is fantastic, I thought little William Dix was the film’s ace in a hole. I don’t know where they found him, but Dix is wholly believable as the impudent boy. I was particularly impressed with Dix’s scenes with Davis. The little guy holds his own against the legendary actress and that’s something few actors have been able to do. Davis credited Holt with directing Dix “brilliantly with great sensibility.”
Pamela Franklin (The Innocents) plays Dix’s teen friend and she is, as usual, excellent. Franklin’s role is small, but she is one of those actors I’m always glad to see in a movie. Wendy Craig (Room at the Top) plays Dix’s long-suffering mother and Jill Bennett (The Haunting of Julia) plays Dix’s feisty aunt with a weak heart.
Conclusions & Final Thoughts:
The Nanny is a deliciously moody and sly thriller (a critic described the movie as “an antidote to Mary Poppins“). The endless Baby Jane knock-offs varied in quality. The Nanny came closest to achieving the kind of stylish schlock that made Baby Jane so much fun to watch. Thanks to director Holt’s crafty hand, excellent performances and an intelligent script, The Nanny is a fun thriller. B&W, 91 minutes, Not Rated.