Seth Holt’s The Nanny (1965) is a really pleasant surprise from Hammer Studios. It’s a wonderfully atmospheric thriller whose central plot twist revolves around the emotional conflict between two generations of women with regards to the woman’s right to choose; evoking not just the political but also the emotional traumas of this conflict. Add to that Bette Davis as the titular Nanny and it’s really surprising that this film isn’t a more popular entry in the vast Hammer canon.
Hammer veteran Jimmy Sangster penned the screenplay for The Nanny, and it’s clear in just the first act that he’s working in top form. The film reveals information piecemeal, and is very careful to keep our sympathies and perspective grounded in the character of Joey. Seth Holt’s strengths as a director have also been for creating a tense atmosphere, so he really elevates Sangster’s script effectively. We, the audience, are with Joey all of the way. Then, in the final act, that changes drastically as we move into Nanny’s flashback sequences.
Holt and cinematographer Harry Waxman give these flashbacks a deep focus flooded with flat lighting, helping to obscure all minor details, evoking the vagueness and flexibility of human memory. In this formal aesthetic style the story of Nanny plays out, with Bette Davis going all in with her performance as traumatized victim and guilt ridden mother, each in turn. This section of the film ranks with the opening of Frankenstein Created Woman (1967) as some of the best work to ever come out of the infamous Hammer Studios.