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The Nanny (Seth Holt, 1965)


     The Nanny, Seth Holt’s Hammer thriller about a maniacal caretaker and the boy that she terrorizes, might represent the point of diminishing returns in Bette Davis’s late-career re-emergence as a scream queen. Nonetheless, thanks to a wily screenplay, convincingly motivated characters, and a sure sense of its own pace, it emerges as a solid enough assemblage, scarcely disappointing. Following up on the stateside successes of the Davis vehicles What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte, this production might not offer up the sustained hysteria of either of those films, but it yields subtler pleasures of its own.


     Due to its plot structure, in which audience sympathies are initially aligned against a singularly rotten and suspicious kid, the first hour of The Nanny really only becomes truly terrible in retrospect. For much of the movie’s duration, it’s not particularly creepy, much less scary, unfolding more as a drama with a strong psychological bent than anything else. Placing the story in the (then-)contemporary era and choosing the setting of a posh, modern apartment building costs The Nanny some of the gothic atmosphere that helped distinguish Davis’ films of the era. Also notably reduced is the camp factor. Hammer Film Productions, it seems, was less giddy while doling out its mayhem than its American cousins. Chalk that up to British reserve.


     This air of reserve similarly appears to have had some effect on Ms. Davis. She’s less the star and more the actress than usual, subsuming her personality into the titular role with greater success than is typical. Perhaps, playing a domestic requires this kind of humility, but she tones down her star power, lurks in the corners of the frame, and manages to be legitimately believable in the part.  While Davis’ work in The Nanny is not the kind of performance that brought her fame, it does show that she had real range when she chose to exercise it. Less successful, to the detriment of the overall effort, is the shrill turn by Wendy Craig. Overly emphatic in relaying her neuroses, she makes the weak-nerved matron of the household a figure to root against.


     The Nanny is not especially ambitious, so one must settle for the small pleasures and chills that it offers. Its surprising cruelty, revealed both in the boy’s antics and the nanny’s flashbacks, manages to overcome plotting that often feels too transparent. Director Holt works valiantly to ensure that the black-and-white movie never feels visually repetitive, despite being almost entirely confined to one apartment. His time-shuffling storytelling wrings much of what could be wrung from The Nanny’s too-obvious setup.



Jeremy Heilman