Hammer Film Productions' adaptation of the novel The Nanny by Evelyn Piper is one of the companies most stylish, intelligent, disturbing and thought provoking films. To audiences accustomed to the stylisation of the highly melodramatic gothic horrors for which Hammer were best known The Nanny might come as a surprise, but within the context of Hammer’s production at this time it is not an aberration at all. The first half of the 1960’s had seen a certain amount of diversification for the British company - offering audiences historical adventures (pirate narratives, oriental set dramas, and swordplay films) as well as the odd departure into science-fiction. But more prominent were a series of black and white psychological chillers which took their inspiration from Les Diaboliques (1955) and Psycho (1960). Unfortunately past examples such as Nightmare (1964) and Paranoiac (1963) had overemphasised the plot complexities and wrapped themselves in all kind of narrative knots. The visual elegance of the monochrome cinematography had always meant these films were pleasing on the eye - but Jimmy Sangster (who wrote most of them) struggled to rise above the shackles of derivation that was the result of following templates laid down by Robert Bloch, Alfred Hitchcock, Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac. Only with Taste of Fear (1961) and The Nanny was Sangster able to make important contributions to this sub-genre.
Much of the suspense is generated by the fact that we are not sure until the end whether the boy speaks the truth, and the performance of Davis and certain choices of composition and camera angle by Holt lead us to sympathise with The Nanny. Joey’s bad behaviour and mischievousness is purposefully heightened in order to lead us to side with The Nanny and this is one of many techniques used in the film to make us take sides. Both characters have flashbacks of the tragic afternoon in which the little girl drowns (the scenes involving Susy pull at the heartstrings and are oddly harrowing). And it becomes clear that the accidental death of Susy is a punishment for The Nanny’s own failure to live up to her parental responsibilities. What makes the film truly disturbing is the manner in which innocent trust is manipulated and abused by damaged adults. The Nanny has deluded herself with repressed guilt, and this eventually tortures her to the extent where she commits murder. But this is only possible in a household with a brusque and unapproachable father who is absent and a mother unfit for the job. The vision of an upper class family reliant and dependent on those they employ for the tasks beneath them (and that includes raising children) is bleak and unforgiving. This depressing message is brought to life by the vile and dirty backstreets where The Nanny’s daughter meets her premature death and in this flashback sequence is the key to the whole film. The themes of loss, guilt, repressed memories and trust are brought to life by beautiful cinematography courtesy of Harry Waxman and a delightful soundtrack by Richard Rodney Bennett. The single apartment setting makes for a claustrophobic and paranoid spatial scheme that is rendered in the most elegant of cinematic terms by Seth Holt. Without doubt one of Hammer’s most retrained, graceful, and clever films.
© Shaun Anderson 2010