The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh (Sergio Martino, 1971)

SHAKING WITH DESIRE, TREMBLING WITH FEAR

AV_Inferno_DVD_.inddScream queen, Edwige Fenech (Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key), stars in this violent masterpiece as Julie Wardh, a restless ambassador’s wife caught between her jealous ex-lover, her husband, and her current lover, any one of whom could be a mysterious serial killer viciously murdering women and possibly stalking Julie herself.  Written by celebrated screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi (All the Colors of the Dark), Sergio Martino’s first giallo film also stars genre regulars George Hilton (The Killer Must Strike Again), Alberto de Mendoza (The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail), Conchita Airoldi (Torso), and Ivan Rassimov (Shock).  This stylishly erotic and sleazily surreal thriller features a mesmerizing score by Nora Orlandi and stands as one of the most celebrated giallo films of all time.

Special Features:

  • Brand new 2K restoration from the original camera negative
  • High definition Blu-ray (1080p) and Standard Definition DVD presentation
  • Original Italian and English soundtracks in mono audio (uncompressed PCM on the Blu-ray)
  • Newly translated subtitles for the Italian soundtrack
  • Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing for the English soundtrack
  • Brand new interview with Sergio Martino
  • Dark Fears Behind the Door, interviews with director Sergio Martino, producer Luciano Martino, writer Ernesto Gastaldi, and stars George Hilton and Edwige Fenech
  • Sound Photography, James Gracey on the film’s score and composer Nora Orlandi
  • Footage from the Venice Film Festival screening
  • Theatrical trailer
  • Poster and stills gallery
  • Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly-commissioned artwork
  • Collector’s booklet featuring an essay by Michael Mackenzie

(New embed!  No subs!)

Director Sergio Martino cut his teeth on all kinds of Italian film genres – Spaghetti Westerns, poliziotteschi, sci-fi, and the cannibal film – but he is best known for his giallo films of the early 1970s.  The gialli are, of course, those luridly stylish murder mysteries that rose to prominence in the 1960s and 1970s and featured black-gloved killers slicing and stabbing beautiful young women; the genre taking its name from the yellow covers of the cheap paperbacks that inspired the films.  Martino first arrived at the giallo film during its peak with The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh (1971), a mad tale of lust, death, and paranoia that is best remembered for its now all-star cast and its intricate plot that both relies on and does away with the giallo’s central component – the mystery killer.  Titled domestically as Lo strano vizio della Signora Wardh and also known as Blade of the RipperNext!, and The Next Victim, The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh is a sordid masterwork of violence, infidelity, and greed that instantly established Sergio Martino as a maestro of the genre.

The gorgeous Edwige Fenech stars as the titular Julie Wardh (attribute the odd spelling to a threatened legal action by an Italian woman named “Ward” who feared the film would damage her good name).  She is recently married to Neil Wardh (Alberto de Mendoza), an American diplomat to Austria, and the pair arrive in Vienna where Neil quickly turns his attention to his job, leaving Julie alone with her oversexed friend, Carol Brandt (Conchita Airoldi), and the mysterious, black-gloved sex-killer who terrorizes the city’s young, beautiful women with his straight razor.  Julie is more specifically threatened by her ex-lover Jean (Ivan Rassimov), with whom she shared a masochistic affair alluded to in the title, one founded on Julie being both terrified and aroused by the sight of blood.  The toll of Jean’s sexual violence proved so taxing that Julie married Neil to escape her former lover, but Jean is in Vienna waiting for Julie and is persistent in his aims to take back up his passionate face-slapping, bottle-smashing, and clothes-tearing.  Julie begins a new affair with Carol’s newly discovered cousin George (George Hilton) who has arrived from Australia to claim an inheritance with Carol.  The affair with George seems equally motivated by Julie’s compulsive attraction to the illicit, a genuine attraction to George, and a need for some protection against both Jean, who stalks Julie around Vienna’s dark streets, and the sex-killer, whose attacks have some connection to Julie and eventually target Julie herself.

Lo Strano PosterThe Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh is noteworthy, in part, for resolving the sex-killer mystery approximately two-thirds of the way through the film, yet still manages to terrorize Julie for the remainder with an unseen tormentor.  While sometimes written off as a red herring, the film’s serial murderer is more than a mere backdrop.  It is the first example of many blind alleys that Martino’s film later reveals to not be as dead of an end as initially suspected.  As the movie propels towards its culminating confrontation and its final resolution of questionable plausibility (a hallmark of the giallo genre), The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh reveals conspiracies within conspiracies, opening up its plot like Russian nesting dolls with each act of brutality and each betrayal disclosing a further, more sinister machination.  At times overtly Hitchcockian in its premises, Martino’s film exhibits a style and a degree of panache surprising for an initial effort in the genre.  The impressive aesthetics of The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh is strongly supported by Nora Orlandi’s lushly vivid score, built out of a melodic piano piece that the composer then manipulates with differing arrangements and instrumentation to become melancholy, hedonistic, atmospheric, cheerful, or sultry, however required.  Fans of Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill will recognize a portion of Orlandi’s score in Vol. 2.

In many ways, Martino sets the table for his following giallo films here, as he later employed the same actors, in various combinations, in The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail (1971), All the Colors of the Dark (1972), Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (1972), and Torso (1973).  The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh is a film populated almost entirely with selfishly unpleasant, morally depraved individuals.  Despite being the film’s victim/protagonist, Fenech’s Julie at first seems little better than the rest of the film’s characters, being initially presented as a uppity society woman too easily urged on by Carol to indulge in wanton sexual encounters.  Still, Fenech’s beauty, her palpable fear, and her frequent victimization (established early on in flashbacks of her violent love-making with Jean) draw out our sympathies and come to characterize her infidelity with George as one of (partial) necessity.  Ivan Rassimov is thoroughly sinister as Jean, a cold-blooded snake under (what should be) a bad blonde hairpiece. Conchita Airoldi’s Carol is glib, indulgent, and beautiful, precisely the type of best friend that leads Julie to ruin with the kind of “you only live once” advice that ensures that life is cut short prematurely.  George is an absurd lothario whose sleazy aims at Julie are only too transparent, but George Hilton slowly transforms him into a compassionate figure set upon protecting Julie once she accepts his propositions.  While commencing with a collection of generally repellent characters, The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh gradually seduces us with Julie’s endangerment (and periodic nudity) and the varying responses of protection and exploitation they inspire in those around her, and then murderously pulls the rug out from beneath us.

We’re always suckers for dream sequences and The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh is full of darkly fantastic and surreal sequences of Julie’s impassioned and imperiled psyche, whether it be in flashback or a full-on nightmare.  We also love the Wardhs’ strangely decorated apartment, with its blue and green-striped walls and the strange concentric pillars serving as an architectural feature on the flat’s ceiling.  Yet, the moment we watch for above all others, the single most thrilling moment of Martino’s film, involves George and Julie very nearly driving their motorcycle head-on into an oncoming car (25:54 in the above embed).  It is a moment of real danger that is all the more shocking for how unexpected it is and how cavalierly it is offered, and it is a moment that hints at the abrupt and unpredictable possibilities within The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh.

Strange Vice PosterWe hope that Arrow Video’s release of Martino’s Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key is a sign of more Sergio Martino gialli to come.  Many of Martino’s films are now out of print in North America with the demise of the NoShame label, leaving those excellent DVDs to now command high prices on the secondary market.  The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh is a natural next move in Martino’s filmography, turning back to his admired genre debut that features a stellar cast of slasher mystery stars and an attractive look that demands a high-definition transfer.  Cult film fans will never turn down more Edwige Fenech, something we’re sure Arrow Video already knows.

Credits:  The Venice Film Festival footage, the posters and stills gallery, and the Dark Fears Behind the Door feature are all holdovers from the NoShame edition of The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh.  The Martino interview is inspired by the interview included on the UK DVD of The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh released by Shameless Films.  (Given that there is already overlap between the Shameless Films and Arrow Videos libraries, we are unconcerned about proposing a high-definition release by Arrow.)  The feature on Nora Orlandi is imagined for this post and is inspired by James Gracey’s article at Paracinema.net.  Michael Mckenzie is a frequent contributor to Arrow Video’s giallo releases and so was chosen to contribute a booklet essay.

Let’s end this post with Filmbar70’s tribute to Edwige Fenech and consider some potential future “MMA!” posts featuring the “giallo queen.”

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