The Nanny

The Nanny (1965)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
Cast: Bette Davis, Wendy Craig, Jill Bennett, William Dix
Extras: Restoration Comparison, Trailer, TV Spots, Interactive Pressbook, Still Galleries

One of the great stars of the classical Hollywood era, Bette Davis, like so many actresses before and after, saw a steady decline in decent roles as she approached middle age. By the late 1950s, her film career had become stymied, with only a smattering of successful parts in films that usually featured other prominent stars. Her luck changed in the early 1960s when director Robert Aldrich hatched the brilliant idea of casting her alongside her longtime rival Joan Crawford as feuding sisters in the gothic horror masterpiece "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" (1962). The critical and financial success of that film helped kick off a cycle of horror films showcasing aging actresses as terrorized or terrorizing hags, a subgenre that flourished but also grew increasingly ridiculous as the decade wore on. Davis and Crawford, both in need of money, courageously rode the waves of these often demeaning films, but none of their later output topped the artistic or box office achievement of "Baby Jane."

Of the two actresses, Davis emerged the least scathed thanks to a couple of features that managed to rank above the typical schlock that characterized the genre. One was "Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte" (1964), Davis' follow-up effort with Aldrich. The lesser known but arguably better of the two was Seth Holt's "The Nanny," produced in England by Hammer Film Productions and released in 1965. Emphasizing suspense and good old-fashioned mystery over cheap gore, "The Nanny" defied its relatively low budget with an effective premise and an atypically low-key approach.

Davis stars as the trusted nanny to the upper-class Fane family, who seem to be plagued by misfortune. Following the drowning of their daughter, the family sent elder son Joey (William Dix) to a mental institution, believing that he was responsible. Two years later, the now 10-year-old boy is released after the doctors find him impossible to treat. Returning home, Joey takes an extreme disliking to dear old Nanny, constantly rebuffing her assistance. A disturbingly morbid young boy, he prides himself on being able to tie a hangman's knot and threatens to "do something" when he cannot have his way. His behavior is exasperating to his father (James Villiers), a Queen's Messenger who is rarely home, and frightening to his mother (Wendy Craig), who has been emotionally distraught since her daughter's death. Nanny is the only person with the strength and patience to put up with Joey's antics, though even she begins to crack as the boy's tricks become more shockingly grotesque.

Beneath his callous attitude and antisocial behavior, Joey harbors deep suspicions of Nanny. He refuses to eat anything she cooks, accusing her of trying to poison him. When Mrs. Fane apparently falls ill to food poisoning, all fingers are pointed at Joey, whose refusal to eat severely incriminates him. Further evidence turns up when a bottle of Nanny's medicine is found under his pillow. With his father away on business and his mother in the hospital, Joey pleads not to be left alone in the house with Nanny. To calm him, his aunt Penelope (Jill Bennett) is called to spend the night with them on the condition that he behave so as not to upset her weak heart, which cannot bear sudden excitement. However, as the boy and the nanny both seem convinced that the other is a killer, Penelope unwittingly subjects herself to the face-off that follows.

Where most of the 1960s "hag" films tended to veer into melodrama and high camp, Seth Holt keeps this film simple and fairly tranquil until the dramatically charged climax. Part of this is achieved by his sparing use of music. The score is only brought into play at the most crucial moments, otherwise leaving the film to play out in relative silence. This simultaneously heightens the suspense and grounds the film in mundane reality. Another key to the simplicity of the film is the acting. Bette Davis gives one of her more restrained performances here, often saying much more through her famous wide eyes than through dialogue. She speaks in a soft, high-pitched voice and remains emotionally vacant, alternately coming across as sympathetic or chilling as the scene calls for. Young William Dix is also impressive as Joey, appropriately cold and detached without resorting to the annoying brattiness so often mistaken for childhood malice in films. He and Davis play well off of each other with no scenery chewing between them.

As Mrs. Fane, Wendy Craig gives a somewhat overwrought performance, serving as the only weak link in an otherwise good cast. The best supporting performances are given by Jill Bennett as the sickly Aunt Penelope and teenage Pamela Franklin as a neighbor girl who becomes Joey's confidante. Bennett effectively captures the no-nonsense quality and reluctant understanding needed to keep Joey in line, attributes that his parents both lack. Franklin adds some welcome humor as the sarcastic and equally morbid young girl who comes to believe Joey's stories. It is no wonder that Joey's scenes with these characters far outweigh those with his parents and that the film greatly improves in its second half (when both of the parents are out of the picture).

Starkly filmed in black and white, "The Nanny" makes prominent use of high-contrast lighting and deep shadows. Frequently shot from low and ever-so-slightly distorted angles, the film seems to tell its story from Joey's warped point of view, and it makes for a compelling visual presentation. Seth Holt was not a prolific director, having come off of a more notable career as an editor. This most likely remains his best-known film, and his skills as an editor no doubt contribute to the movie's overall efficient style and lack of excess. He knows how to tell the story without resorting to the over-the-top camp of his contemporaries, and for this reason "The Nanny" holds up considerably well today as a slight, but unsettling, thriller.

Available for the first time on DVD from 20th Century Fox, "The Nanny" is available individually and as part of Fox's new Bette Davis Centenary Celebration Collection box set, which also includes "All About Eve," "Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte," "The Virgin Queen," and "Phone Call from a Stranger." The film is presented in anamorphic 1.85:1 widescreen. Image quality is very good, with excellent contrast and rich black levels nicely bringing out the gothic appearance. The picture is sharp, revealing fine details. Gray tones look natural. Some occasional white specks appear here and there but are hardly noticeable. In general, this is a fine presentation, especially for a film that has been absent from the digital format for so long.

The audio is available in English and Spanish tracks, both mono. This is not a major setback, as the film is generally quiet, relying on long passages of silence and little music to build suspense. Voices are adequately presented. There is nothing spectacular here, but as mentioned, the film's soundtrack really does not warrant anything more sophisticated. Optional subtitles are provided in English, Spanish, and French.

Special features are predictably scant, starting with a restoration comparison. Judging from what was shown, not much was done to the film except for the removal of some dirt and blemishes. Aside from that, the picture looked pretty good before. A trailer and some TV spots follow. The most interesting bonus is an interactive pressbook gallery with original articles and photos. A poster gallery, lobby card gallery, and still gallery round out the disc. As this film has been a minor favorite of mine for several years now, I would have enjoyed a nice commentary, but considering the film's relative obscurity I'm actually surprised Fox included as much as they did.

Though Bette Davis' creative output took a substantial dive toward the end of her career, "The Nanny" allowed her one brief moment of redemption as it showcased her natural abilities unhampered by grotesque makeup or unhinged histrionics. The film's strengths lie in the director's wisdom to let the story and characters speak for themselves, resulting in a quietly compelling drama of murder and secrecy. Flaws notwithstanding, "The Nanny" remains creepily effective today without sacrificing credibility or Davis' dignity.