Friday 1 January 2010

The Nanny (1965)

Director: Seth Holt
Star: Bette Davis
So I treated myself when Jeff Dolniak was kind enough to point out that was selling some box sets at scarily low prices in the run up to Christmas. I picked up a Hitchcock box and an Eric Rohmer box, a Coffin Joe box and a suitably huge Russ Meyer box, all of which you'll be able to see reviews from during 2010, I'm sure. Possibly best of all, I bought the Hammer Collection, 21 DVDs of mostly obscure Hammer films, including quite a few that I've never seen, even having grown up watching these things on late night British TV. I haven't seen The Nanny for well over two decades and while I couldn't remember the details I firmly remember that it scared the crap out of me as a kid. I wonder if it was the first time I ever saw Bette Davis, but if it was, what a way to begin!

Everything's sweetness and light as the film opens, in fact it's a fine English day of the sort that often seems almost mythological to ex-pats like me who moved away from the rain. The sun is out, kids are enjoying themselves in the playground, even the ducks in the pond seem happy. We're watching Miss Bette, looking like the epitome of austerity and capability, off for a brisk stroll and to pick up a 'Welcome Home Joey' cake. She's a nanny (in fact that's what everyone calls her), working for the Fanes, Virginia and Bill, but she's the only one in the house who seems to be particularly grounded. However as we soon discover, if she's supposed to be the rock that keeps the family glued together, she's not doing as effective a job as she would appear to be capable of. She may be an oasis of calm but everyone around her is at least half crazy.

Bill Fane is a clipped and apparently emotionless automaton who is absorbed in his work as a Queen's messenger, travels away often and runs off to the club when the tension gets a little too high. James Villiers does a fine job at playing someone so quietly loathsome, though we don't get to see too much of him. Virgie appears to be a hysterical neurotic who can't even face going to pick up her son, conjuring up every excuse in the book. She has a terrible headache, she can't tell her husband, Joey will like it if Nanny goes instead, you name it. It actually helps that she's played by Wendy Craig because she's always been an actress that rubbed me up the wrong way, not through any fault of her own or through any particular attribute I've ever been able to identify, but I instantly dislike anyone she plays. Here it just makes it even easier to believe her character is utterly worthless.

The biggest problem in the family seems to be their son, ten year old Joey Fane, who has been away from home at some sort of institution because he apparently drowned his sister Susy in the bath and promptly refused to eat or sleep. He's something of an unholy terror as he promptly proves by pretending to hang himself to scare his nurse, and child actor William Dix, only ten years old himself, is utterly believable in the role, which is effectively the male lead. He has that child's ability to be matter of fact about utterly serious things and he shines in his composed hatred of Nanny, something that presumably explains what the doctors at the institution call 'a pronounced antipathy to middle aged females'. He refuses to sit in the back of the car with her. He won't let her make his bed or unpack for him. He won't eat anything she prepares for him because he believes she wants to poison him.

So we're set for something of a war. On one side there's young master Joey, apparently incurable of his issues and far more capable and independent since his stay in the institution, something of a male version of The Bad Seed. On the other there's Nanny, apparently a paragon of virtue who was also nanny to the young Virgie and her sister, Joey's Aunt Pen, and who refused to leave after their mother died. Now she takes care of Virgie when she can't take care of herself, right down to brushing her hair and on at least one occasion we see even starting to feed her until she gets the hint and continues herself. It's a strange sort of war, with a ten year boy on one side and a 57 year old nanny on the other, but this is the post-Baby Jane Bette Davis when everyone was eager to revisit the ideas of grand guignol and we can't assume that things are as they might seem to be.
What's most interesting is that this is played believably and effectively. Joey is far older than his years, through chilling necessity, but he can't quite entirely free himself of childish logic. So after discovering that the bathroom door doesn't have a lock, he initially refuses to take a bath but then happily goes ahead as long as Nanny swears not to come in. In other words he firmly believes that she plans to murder him in the bath but would somehow honour a promise not to do it that night. It's a very peculiar kind of logic but it rings true. There are points where we see the young innocent Joey, lost in a world that he doesn't fully understand, and points where we see the fiercely independent Joey, a worthy opponent for Bette Davis. It's a joy to watch.

Miss Bette is superb here, perhaps even better than in her previous film, Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte, which was a sort of thematic follow up to What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? with Olivia de Havilland playing the Joan Crawford role. Perhaps its the peculiarly English restraint taken to this story that makes it so fascinating to me, a restraint that really ought to be diametrically opposed to everything that grand guignol stood for. Yet rather than causing schizophrenic storytelling, somehow the marriage of these two approaches makes the story even more sinister and chilling. In fact the latter is a word highly overused when it comes to thrillers and horror movies but however much I enjoy them I don't tend to get chilled by them. The Nanny is deliciously chilling and I'm still tingling from having revisited such a feeling after so long.

The story is by Jimmy Sangster, who fulfilled many functions at Hammer, producing and directing, but most importantly writing, with many of the studio's classics coming from his pen. He also wrote Bette Davis's next film, 1968's The Anniversary, among many other films and TV episodes. Given that his autobiography was appropriately titled Do You Want It Good or Tuesday? I can only assume he had a decent amount of time to write this film. It's based on a novel by Marryam Modell, who published under the pseudonym of Evelyn Piper. She also wrote Bunny Lake is Missing, which became a slightly less chilling but just as sinister movie made the same year by Otto Preminger. With this pair of films adapted from her work in one year, I'm amazed that her filmography ends there. She had at least nine books to her name to adapt.

I don't know if the humour comes from Modell or from Sangster but it's delightful. This is no comedy but there's a deliciously dark humour in much of the dialogue. 'What was so bad about Mrs Griggs?' asks Nanny about the nurse Joey scared with his hanging trick. 'She was like you!' he replies. When Virgie succumbs to food poisoning and Dr Medman has to explain to Joey why he's taking her to the hospital, he does so in that way adults have of talking down to kids, but Joey slices through that. 'Will she die?' he asks, as blatantly as he asks his father if he can sack Nanny. The Ben Casey scene is as hilarious as it's inappropriate, given the age of the children involved. Then again that's what makes it ring so true.

When he discovers that alcoholic Aunt Pen has a weak heart because of some childhood illness, I couldn't help but see Stewie from Family Guy scheming his schemes. Intriguingly Seth MacFarlane based the voice of Stewie on Rex Harrison and William Dix's only other film as a child actor was Harrison's Doctor Dolittle. I love synchronicity. The other child actor in the film, Pamela Franklin, went on to a much longer career than Dix, though she still retired at 31. Here playing a girl that Joey befriends who lives in an upstairs apartment, Franklin was obviously a capable actress even at fifteen and had found her way to horror movies four years before that, playing one of the two children in The Innocents. She'd make her way back to the genre in the seventies for a string of shockers, including Necromancy, Satan's School for Girls, The Legend of Hell House, and her last film, 1976's The Food of the Gods.

I'm blissfully happy to have ushered in 2010 revisiting this film, the last film Hammer made in black and white. What a great way to start a year!

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