After a two-month hiatus, Giallo Sunday returns with Sergio Martino’s 1971 giallo ‘The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh’, his first foray into the genre and his first teaming with Edwige Fenech. How is it awesome? Let me count the ways.
Firstly, its success kicked off a string of stone-cold classic gialli from Martino: ‘The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail’, ‘All the Colours of the Dark’, ‘Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key’ (its title, one of the most magnificent in all of cinema, suggested directly by ‘The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh’) and ‘Torso’, two of which reunited him with Fenech.
Secondly, it features stellar turns from three giallo legends: Fenech, George Hilton and Ivan Rassimov. Rounded out by Cristina Airoldi (who has one of the most memorable scenes in ‘Torso’), Alberto de Mendoza (a character actor extraordinaire with an incredible eight-decade career in cinema), Carlo Alighiero (who played Dr Calabresi in Argento’s ‘Cat o’ Nine Tails’ the same year) and Bruno Corazzari (one of the “go to” guys for all-purpose villainy in Italian cinema), the cast is tip-top.
Thirdly, it marries stylish thrilleramics with a psychological imperative (the “let’s scare Edwige to death” syndrome: cf. ‘All the Colours of the Dark’) and delivers the whole thing in such a twist-heavy package (the last third of the film is pretty much one narrative curveball after another) that it’s deliriously difficult to keep your eye on the ball.
Fourthly, it delivers a generous helping of much-loved giallo tropes, including extended, operatic death scenes (a protracted bit of business in a park bears comparison with Argento’s ‘Four Flies on Grey Velvet’, made the same year), bottles of J&B all over the shop, a beleaguered but still gorgeous heroine, and black-gloved killers with sharp implements. Seriously, take a look at this little collection of screengrabs and tell me if they don’t scream giallo:
I could continue enumerating all the ways in which ‘The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh’ is one of the defining examples of its genre, but I’d probably end of with a repetitive article that segued into a several thousand word love letter to Edwige Fenech, so let’s get things back on track with a plot synopsis.
Julie Wardh (Fenech) has entered into a marriage of convenience with career-obsessed diplomat Neil (de Mendoza) – a man so stultifyingly dull that he dishonors the name Neil (plus, how dare someone who’s obsessed with work share the same name as me? I hate work) – in order to get away from her domineering and possessive ex, Jean (Rassimov). Jean, it is revealed in flashback, is the chap who happily pandered to Mrs Wardh’s eponymous weird kink. And the kink in question? “Blood both excites and repels her.” Hence Jean making love to Julie on a bed of broken glass. (Don’t try this home, kiddies!)
Returning from a trip abroad with Neil, Julie is unnerved by the ministrations of a psychopath targeting women in their neighborhood, and by the fact that Jean seems to be trying to inveigle his way back into her life – the two, she worries, might not be unrelated. Hanging out with BFF Carol (Airoldi), Julie meets Carol’s playboy cousin George (Hilton), whose attentions provide a welcome distraction from her worries. When a blackmailer observes her passionate interlude with George and threatens to spill the beans to Neil, Carol offers to deliver the pay-off in Julie’s place. Things go badly wrong and Julie’s life spirals into chaos and paranoia.
Any fuller synopsis than that would lead us into spoiler territory, so many great things about this film will have to go by the board, particularly anything relating to that aforementioned last third. I will give a nod, however, to the way Martino seems to wrap things up with a bit of expositional dialogue between two characters which leads to much (perverse) hilarity between them; Martino plays the scene as if he’s about to homage Clouzot’s raised-middle-finger-of-irony ending to ‘The Wages of Fear’ (I was even prepared to forgive him the plagiarism, it was done so gleefully), only to subvert expectations and deliver an equally delicious irony but effected by quite different means.
As with any labyrinthine plot, too much analysis can sometimes be fatal. The climactic revelations depend on alibis aplenty for more than one character, and the lacunae are pretty tenuous in places. Still, it’s no small measure of the film’s success that Martino is pulling unexpected moments out of the hat right till the end.
His direction is energetic. The camera prowls with POV-centric menace à la Argento. The set-pieces – including a cat-and-mouse scene in an underground car park, and a nervy exploration of an old dark house lit only by the guttering flame of a cigarette lighter – are confidently handled. ‘The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh’ was only his second non-documentary feature (after the spaghetti western ‘Arizona si scatenò... e li fece fuori tutti’), yet every frame demonstrates that with the giallo Martino had found his métier.