Monday, 21 November 2011

Notes on 'The Nanny' (1965)

Wes at Plutonium Shores put me on to this one in his excellent REVIEW. I hadn’t heard of the film but I watched it the other night and what a good film it is. It is impressed me so much that I wanted to add some thoughts of my own.

The Nanny is last of a series of ‘psycho-thrillers’ made by Hammer in the early 1960s (Fanatic, Maniac etc.) written by Jimmy Sangster. The interesting thing about it is that it isn’t really a thriller, more of a psychological drama about class in the style of Losey’s ‘The Servant’; a film with which (along with ‘Repulsion) it shares some striking similarities but actually pre-dates by a couple of years.

The Nanny opens with a young boy, Joey, returning home after being institutionalised for a breakdown following the death of his three-year-old sister. He has developed a pathological hatred for his nanny, played Bette Davies, whom he believes killed his sister and is now plotting to kill him.

Like ‘The Servant’, The Nanny concerns itself with the power struggle between an emotionally fragile upper-middle class family and the loyal (but as it turns out equally fragile) 'help' who is the bedrock of the household and has been for many years. What really impressed me about this film, though, is its tremendous compassion for the characters: all are victims of social conventions – even the father, who responds to family tensions by absenting himself, warrants sympathy.

The Nanny was made in 1965, a time when parenting-styles were changing. People were beginning to reject the doctrines of Frederick Truby King, who advocated a tough-love approach to child rearing, in favour of the ‘hugs-and-kisses’ ideas of Dr Benjamin Spock (no relation to Leonard Nimoy). The upper-middle class, were, however, still bound by the conventions of wet nurses, nannies and private boarding schools which inhibited a closer relationship between parents and children.

As Wes notes, ‘The Nanny’ is concerned with the dangers of the dysfunctional family unit. The mother in the film, played with extraordinary rawness by Wendy Craig, has been usurped by the Nanny as Joey’s primary carer and has fallen into a state of hysterical collapse because she feels she has no purpose within the family. This manifests itself in her psychological dependence on the nanny. Joey, on the other hand, resents the nanny because she is his main carer rather than his mother. For the nanny too, the situation is unhealthy; she has neglected her own daughter for sake of her adoptive family and has become equally dependent emotionally on providing them with the care that she has not been able to give her own flesh-and-blood.

Similar to ‘The Servant’ are the class anxieties that this situation throws up: reliance on the nanny conveys power to her, and the nanny exercises this power over Joey and Virginia when her position within the family is threatened.

It is at this point in the film that things threaten to spill into the territory of ‘Gothic Melodrama’ in the vein of Bette Davies’ previous films, ‘Whatever Happened to Baby Jane’ and ‘Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte’. It is to Sangster’s great credit that he manages not to do that. Instead he shows that it is overwhelming love and need for the children of her employees, who have taken the place of her own children, that has created an emotional ‘schizm’ in the nanny – she, too, is a victim of class social conventions and realises that the only solution is to leave the family.

Jimmy Sangster has reservations about the final scene of the film – which shows Joey and Virginia reunited following the nanny’s departure – but I felt that this gave the film a genuine progressive quality. It is only by breaking those social conventions that we can go on to have genuine ‘caring’ relationships.

No discussion of 'The Nanny' should fail to mention Seth Holt’s intelligent direction. The film is incredibly well made by Holt and his cameraman, Harry Waxman. Again, it pre-dates 'The Servant' in its use of deep focus photography to emphasise the power relationships within the family, which, together with Waxman’s low-key lighting, gives the film a claustrophobic feel at times. The performances are all excellent, particularly from Davies who imbues the film with emotional honesty in showing the part (that exists in all of us) that needs to give care to others.

So thanks to Wes for recommending this great film.


Wes M said...

Thanks for the kind word Jon. Excellent review and far more contextualised than my effort. I must see more of Sangster's women-in-peril films - A Taste of Fear (which I have but so far unwatched), and Paranoiac (I must pick up the Eureka Blu)

Jon T said...

Aw, thanks Wes. I must say I was impressed by Sangster's commentary. It made me want to watchmore of those films too, especially A Taste In Fear because Holt impressed me too.