Monday, August 31, 2015

Bette and Joan Go Hammering

In the 1960s and 1970s, it wasn't unusual for faded classic film stars to find steady work in the horror genre. Examples include Joseph Cotten (Baron Blood), Ray Milland (Terror in the Wax Museum), and Joan Crawford (Trog). Today, we look at two Hammer films starring classic film icons Bette Davis and Joan Fontaine. Ms. Davis had dabbled with horror earlier when she appeared in Robert Aldrich's black comedies Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962) and Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964). She made two Hammer films; the second was The Anniversary, but our pick for this post is...

Would you trust this woman?
The Nanny (1965). Frankly, I'm baffled as to why this well-done psychological drama remains little more than a footnote in Bette Davis' distinguished filmography. Hammer regular Jimmy Sangster specialized in this genre and penned several fine suspense films (e.g., Scream of Fear, Nightmare). The Nanny ranks with the best of them.

A nicely framed shot from director Seth Holt.
Bette stars as the title character, who initially comes across as an older Mary Poppins (in fact, one character compares her to the practically perfect Poppins). Nanny (her name is never revealed) is beloved by Mrs. Fane, one of her former charges, but is reviled by 10-year-old Joey Fane (William Dix). Joey has just returned home from two years in an institution, to which he was confined following his alleged involvement with his little sister's drowning death. Joey not only hates Nanny, but believes that she is trying to kill him. He refuses to eat any food prepared by Nanny (for fear of poisoning) and he locks the loo door when taking a bath (for fear of being drowned). Little Joey is an unadulterated brat and, as his former psychiatrist claims, he may be mentally disturbed. But could he be right about Nanny?

Pamela Franklin.
While the plot's outcome lacks surprise, The Nanny works wonderfully thanks to Sangster's sharply-written script and a bevy of strong performances. Young William Dix is excellent as the pouty, bratty Joey (he only made two other films). Wendy Craig expertly captures the childlike nuances of Joey's incompetent mother. Finally, Pamela Franklin adds some bite as a cynical 14-year-old who lives in the apartment above Joey's. It's an impressively natural performance and reminded me how talented she was in films like The Innocents, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, and The Legend of Hell House.

In their book Hammer Films: An Exhaustive Filmography, authors Tom Johnson and Deborah Del Veechio claim Ms. Davis "gave what is probably the best performance by an actress in a Hammer film." I wouldn't go that far (Martita Hunt in Brides of Dracula springs to mind immediately). However, Bette convincingly makes the viewer question whether Nanny will be the heroine or the villain. She battled the flu--and director Seth Holt--throughout much of the production. Oddly, she was not the first choice for the role. Writer-producer Jimmy Sangster first met with Greer Garson, but could not convince her to take the part.

Joan Fontaine.
The Witches (aka The Devil's Own) (1966). After recovering from a nervous breakdown, spinster Gwen Hayfield (Joan Fontaine) accepts a teaching position at a school in the rural British hamlet of Haddaby. The village seems idyllic at first, but that turns out to be a facade that masks unnatural behavior and, ultimately, a deep-rooted evil.

Screenwriter Nigel Kneale was one of the most important British television writers of the 1950s and 1960s, his best known works being the Quatermass miniseries and films. His adaptation of Norah Lofts' novel The Devil's Own is ambitious, but also unsatisfying. The opening scenes work well enough and establish a nice sense of unease. One character who is introduced as a clergyman later reveals that he likes to dress that way because it makes him "feel secure." However, the plot grows sillier as it progresses and climaxes in a ludicrous (and lengthy) pagan orgy. The existence of pagan rituals amid modern society is a theme that Kneale would explore later and more effectively in the Quatermass miniseries (1979).

What's on Kay Walsh's head?
Joan Fontaine appears appropriately puzzled as Miss Hayfield, but it's merely an adequate performance. Indeed, she is upstaged by British veteran Kay Walsh, who attacks her role as the villain with such zest that she almost pulls off wearing the silliest high priestess headdress in film history.

I've probably made The Witches sound worse than it is. It's a respectable Hammer effort, but you're far better off watching Bette Davis in The Nanny.

4 comments:

  1. Bette is of course great in THE NANNYand outrageous in THE ANNIVERSARY. Joan Crawford also did a campy British horror, but not for Hammer: BERSERK!. Fontaine's THE WITCHES is enormous fun now, Joan is indeed upstaged by Kay Walsh who seems to have thought the only way to play the role was as a full-on lesbian and that pagan ritual is a scream.

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    1. I haven't seen BERSERK in way too long and now need to look for it. Of Joan's 1960s horror/suspense films, my favorite is probably STRAIT-JACKET.

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  2. Will be on the look-out for The Nanny. This kind of film is not really my thing, but who can resist Bette Davis and a good script?

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  3. Bette is quite fun in "The Nanny" and of course one's first thoughts are that the little boy behaves horribly. Then the story starts to unfold . . .

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