The Nanny (1965) dir. Seth Holt
Starring: Bette Davis, William Dix, Wendy Craig, Jill Bennett, James Villers
“The Nanny” is a sharp yet little-known Hitchcockian thriller from the 60’s – the story of an obnoxious spoiled brat who returns home from boarding school and abrasively harasses his kindly old Nanny. It’s a slowly revealing creeper, that represents the best qualities of the 60's psycho-drama genre.
The film begins with the introduction of Joey Fane (William Dix), a spoiled British rich kid who is being ‘released’ from his boarding school back into the custody of his upper class parents. His father (James Villers) is the disciplinarian, but his mother (Wendy Craig) curiously dreads her child’s return with fear. In flashbacks we learn of Joey’s sister who died tragically (drowned in the bath tub) for which Joey took the blame.
According to the school masters Joey’s rehabilitation failed, which makes him a continued threat in the house. Joey immediately targets the Nanny (Bette Davis) with all his aggression. Joey commits pranks and pulls suck attacks in a desperate attempt to get Nanny to leave, or get fired. But Nanny holds firm and refuses to give into Joey’s tactics. Over the course of the film we learn there’s more to our combatants than what’s on the surface. The film’s darker elements are revealed gradually climaxing in a life-threatening battle of wills.
Psychological movies like “The Nanny” got turned into slasher bloodletting films in the late 70’s. If the film were made in the 80’s (or even now), when the true colours of the conflicting characters are finally revealed in the third act, a modern version of the film would be turned into a bloody action film by the end. "The Nanny's" salacious story elements are never embellished beyond the established tone of the film.
George Ratliff’s underrated 2007 creeper, “Joshua” is a close comparison. “Joshua” never turns into a bloodfest, nor an action film, and of course, the film sadly never became a hit. There’s never a big confrontation, fight, shouting match, or climatic killing. But like Ratliff’s film, “The Nanny” is left far more satisfying for being sparse and subdued and slightly oblique.
“The Nanny” has a lot in common with those great Roman Polanski thrillers from the 60’s and 70’s. The film takes place entirely in one apartment, with limited characters. Yet, like Polanski, Holt makes things very uncomfortable for the viewer and gradually changes direction in the film skillfully.
Holt keeps us guessing and on edge not with technical bravura but the direction of his actors. Bette Davis’ performance, of course, is fantastic. Despite Joey's efforts to break her, Bette Davis’ Nanny retains a strong and composed demeanor. She never flinches. William Dix plays Joey with similar emotional detachment. His superior manner of speech, honed through the influence of his stolid upper class father, and his snobby boarding school, never lets us into his true feelings and emotions. It’s not until the very end do we discover whether he is a monster, or just an innocent child.
“The Nanny”, which was made in 1965 – 30 years after her starlet hey day, shows us Bette Davis' great accomplished abilities. Sure Meryl Streep, Katherine Hepburn are fine actresses, but Bette Davis is officially my favourite. Enjoy.
“The Nanny” is part of the 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment “Bette Davis Collection”