Magnificently ludicrous title? ‘Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key’. Check!
Genre stalwart in the director’s chair? Sergio Martino. Check!
Twisty turny plot? We’ll attempt a synopsis in a minute (minor spoilers will apply), but for now: Check!
Black gloved killer? Uh-huh, and with a penchant for using a scythe. Check!
J&B? Let’s put it this way: play the giallo drinking game (rules here) while watching ‘Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key’ and you’re liable to be carted off to get your stomach pumped long before the viciously ironic denouement. Check!
Edwige Fenech? Present, correct and indulging in mucho plenty kit-offery. Check!
I stumbled across this movie on a video sharing site last night. Never released in the UK and with the Region 1 DVD out of print and changing hands for stupid amounts of money (anywhere between £50 - £70; ie. $80 - $110), I’d pretty much written off any chance of seeing it in the near future. Then, having cruised said site for ‘Black Mama, White Mama’ and a certain notorious Ruggero Deodato film, I decided to chance my luck and fed Edwige Fenech’s name into the search box. Like the Promised Land revealed to Moses, like the doors of perception cleansed to Aldous Huxley, like Hugh Hefner surveying the Playboy mansion and reflecting smugly that he ain’t doing bad for an old dude who wears his dressing gown all the time, I beheld the glory and majesty of … oh well, fuck it, let’s just call it a midweek Something For The Weekend and post these three shots:
Okay. Now before you rush out to splurge that £50 (or $80) you saved for a rainy day/found down the back of the couch/mugged a little old lady for [delete as applicable], let me just mention that there is a very slight downside to this movie. La Fenech doesn’t put in an appearance until almost the 40 minute mark. In a 97 minute flick, this presents something of a test of the patience. Particularly since we have to spend that first third in the company of the resolutely shitty Oliviero Ruvigny (Luigi Pistilli) and his brittle, much put-upon wife Irene (Anita Strindberg).
Oliviero is a once-successful writer whose books are now out of print and who uses his grumblings that “the novel is dead” as an excuse that he hasn’t been able to write worth a damn for years. When Hemingway decided he couldn’t write worth a damn any more, he chewed on the business end of a shotgun. Oliviero channels his failure differently: he hosts decadent parties for beatnik friends, obsesses borderline Oedipally over his dead mother, sexually harasses his maid and humiliates his wife. That’s on a good day. On a bad day, he beats her. Oh, and he runs around with other women, too. Like bookshop assistant and his former student Fausta (Daniela Giordano). When she meets a nasty fate (business end of a scythe) while waiting for him at a tryst, the police come calling. There’s no hard evidence and, of course, Irene takes his side during questioning. She’s too scared to do otherwise.
Then the maid buys the farm (same modus operandi) and Oliviero panics and hides the body. He insists that he didn’t kill her but daren’t risk the police discovering she was killed in his house. He demonstrates his innocence and deep-cleaned conscience by walling her up in the wine cellar. By now, Irene is fearing for her life and freaking out every time Oliviero’s cat, the charmingly named Satan, leaps out at her or gets nasty with its claws. (‘Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key’ is nominally based on Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Black Cat’. As in: there’s a cat, it’s black and somebody gets walled up in a cellar. Oh, and the mechanics of the denouement follow Poe’s template as well.)
It’s not a happy household and these aren’t particularly likeable people. Mercifully, it’s at this point that Oliviero’s sexpot niece Floriana decides to pay them a visit and all kind of shenanigans ensue. Turns out that Floriana’s not exactly a nice person either, but what the hell, she’s played by a never more gorgeous Edwige Fenech and she’s often naked. I hate to sound shallow, oikish or hairy-palmed, but in the world of gialli this is the kind of thing that can make or break a film.
What follows is kind of like ‘Knife in the Water’ without the boat and with the pressure cooker atmosphere of sexual tension actually resolving itself. In short order, Floriana worms her way into Irene’s confidence via the simple expedient of worming her way into her bed (thank you, Sergio Martino, you are great and wonderful man); catches the eye of local delivery guy and motocross rider Dario (Riccardo Salvino) and gives him an altogether different form of ride (Christ, my usual cerebral standards of film writing are taking a nose-dive!); and finally gets Oliviero hot under the collar in a scene that’s as sexy as hell so long as you keep your eye on Fenech and don’t remind yourself that Pistilli (grey-haired and wearing a crap sweater) is actually onscreen as well.
Then there’s a surprising revelation about the murders and the film takes a different turn. Martino has fun playing with convention and pulling the rug. What starts out as a study of a dysfunctional and sado-masochistic relationship, with the odd sidestep into the more easily recognisable giallo territory of fetishistic death scenes, suddenly veers into the realms of the erotic thriller, while teasing the viewer with subplots about the black cat and Oliviero’s mother which weave in and out of the narrative seemingly at random, before a series of reveals paint the last 15 or 20 minutes in the darkest shade of black. As well as the brightest shade of red.
Even in a genre not renowned for happy endings, redemptive character arcs or a sunny depiction of human nature, ‘Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key’ is singularly cynical and mean-spirited. You can’t empathize with or root for anyone. If Fenech wasn’t so throat-tighteningly beautiful, you’d lose interest in Floriana pretty quickly. More than one character gets their just desserts, but there’s no catharsis. ‘Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key’ is a damn good giallo – arguably one of the greats – but fuck me, it’s bleak.