Based on Marryam Modell’s mystery novel, Seth Holt’s The Nanny (1965) emerges as a rather disjointed thriller in which bewilderment and uncertainty generate more questions than answers. Initially, the project had been proposed to Greer Garson – who wisely could not see her way to playing either dowdy or demonic and thus bowed out of the film. In restructuring the novel in movie format, screenwriter Jimmy Sangster omits Modell’s references to possible sexual abuse, thus diffusing much of the logic for all the tension that is to follow.
Bette Davis is ‘Nanny’ – a proper English governess and housekeeper employed at the home of the Queen’s messenger, stoic Bill Fane (James Villier) and his emotionally fragile wife, Virginia (Wendy Craig). The two are supposed to retrieve their son, Joey (William Dix) from a nearby sanitarium where the boy had been placed for observation and disciplinary reformation after the death of his sister, Susy (Angharad Aubrey).
The institution’s headmaster, Dr. Beamaster (Maurice Denham) informs Bill that Joey is far from cured. In fact, Joey has recently accelerated his devilish pranks to terrorize the institution’s matron Mrs. Griggs (Nora Gordon). Joey reluctantly returns with Bill and Nanny to the family’s fashionable London flat, but he is increasingly bitter, rude and condescending to everyone – particularly Nanny and his mother.
Joey’s allegations – that Nanny is evil and out to poison him – seem unfounded conjecture at best. Indeed, Nanny goes out of her way to be kind to Joey. Meanwhile, Joey befriends Bobbie Medman (Pamela Franklin) the randy teenage daughter of Dr. Medman (Jack Watling) who is their upstairs neighbor. Bill is called away on weekend business. That evening, Virginia succumbs to a curious poisoning of her meat pie at dinner and is rushed to hospital by Dr. Medman to have her stomach pumped. Virginia’s sister, Pen (Jill Bennett) is called by Nanny to baby-sit for Joey.
So far, the narrative makes perfect sense with Joey being perceived as the evil in the Fane family home. Ah, but then screenwriter Sangster interjects a few plot twists which damage the credibility of his entire story. First up is a flashback sequence in which the audience is privy to Susy’s death. Previously, Joey has told Bobbie that Nanny forcibly held Susy’s head underwater in the bathtub.
Instead, the flashback reveals that the child lost her footing on the tub’s edge while trying to retrieve her doll – falling unconscious into the tub with the curtain drawn. Making ready a bath for the children, Nanny – who was not home at the time of the accident – starts the water without drawing open the curtains first. The tub fills with water and the child drowns accidentally. This big reveal deflates the prospect that Nanny is deliberately homicidal.
The second problematic element that Sangster infuses into the latter half of the film has to do with a rather sudden and unexpected escalation in violence directed at the family by Nanny. It begins with the reveal that Pen suffers from a heart ailment that requires her to take a daily regiment of pills in order to survive. Waking in the middle of the night, Pen – who does not believe Joey’s claims about Nanny – suddenly becomes suspicious when she finds Nanny standing in the kitchen with a pillow. Pressed to the point, Nanny reveals that the pillow is for Joey’s bed. Pen suffers an attack and Nanny, rather than saving her life, carries her to bed where she patiently waits for her to die. Nanny attempts to break into Joey’s bedroom where he has barricaded himself and smother him with the pillow. He is spared such a fate at the last minute and Nanny is brought to justice.
What is most confusing about these final few moments in the film is that they shift the onus of evil incarnate away from Joey – who until then has been the sole purveyor of diabolical mischief that he genuinely seems to derive pleasure from – to Nanny – who has displayed not one iota of referenced tendencies to do harm to the family unit.
The screenplay by Sangster offers no explanation for Nanny’s psychosis – no logical reason why she should suddenly turn on her lifelong commitment to the Fane family whom she has been involved with since Virginia’s rearing. If anything, the flashback reveal of Susy’s accidental death weakens the story’s credibility that Nanny is our villain. If anything, Nanny is a tragic figure – the wrong person at the wrong time whose actions unintentionally takes the life of an innocent child, but haunts her memory for the rest of film.
In truth, the character of Joey is the most problematic aspect of the film. As played by Dix, Joey is entirely unlikable or, for the most part, unredeemable. Take for example Joey’s emotionless response to being informed by Dr. Medman that his mother has been poisoned and will have to be rushed to the hospital. Herein, a ‘normal child’ might have seized the opportunity to inform Medman of his suspicions about Nanny and use the situation more wisely for leverage. Instead, Joey’s aloofness and lack of allegations play more like an extension of some innately perverse need to be self-destructive, conniving and manipulative.
Bette Davis’s performance is exemplary throughout – the very embodiment of English propriety and decorum. Pamela Franklin is enigmatic in the few brief scenes that she appears. The least affecting turn comes from James Villier – more menacing than fatherly and quite suspect for the chills and thrills until the screenplay jettisons him from the duration of the story. In the final analysis, The Nanny is diluted entertainment.
Fox Home Video’s DVD is disappointing at best. The anamorphic B&W image is faded throughout. Blacks are dull gray. Whites are dirty. Film grain is present as are age related artifacts. Contrast levels are weak and inconsistently rendered. The audio is mono but has a muffled characteristic at the beginning that renders some of the dialogue virtually inaudible. The orchestral music over the main title is shrill. Extras include a restoration comparison, TV spots, trailers and interactive press book.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)