Lo strano vizio della Signora Wardh
aka Blade of the Ripper
aka Der Killer von Wien
aka Den djævelske kniv
aka Lâmina Assassina
aka La perversa señora Ward
aka Les nuits folles de Mme Wardh
aka Mannen med rakkniven
aka Szerelmi vérszomj
aka The Next Victim!
aka Uma Faca na Escuridão
Director: Sergio Martino
Starring: Edwige Fenech, George Hilton, Ivan Rassimov, Alberto de Mendoza, Conchita Airoldi
Running time: 98 min
Nothing unites people like a vice in common. Poor little nympho Julie Wardh arrives in back in Vienna, a city replete with memories for her. Okay, she’s not a nympho–but it scans well that way!–she enjoys the sexing in a (mostly) healthy fashion, but her amours are central to the storyline. No slut shaming allowed! Moving on, Julie’s husband Neil is a big shot, a very Busy & Important International Power Broker Dude, as demonstrated by the fact that upon their arrival, he immediately takes off to go … do some business. Julie seems to be used to this by now, so she gets a taxi and makes her way to their apartment. Along the way, the taxi is stopped at a roadblock; you see, there’s a crazed killer on the loose in the city. You don’t say…. Immediately following the roadblock, the sound of the wiper blades lulls Julie into a fond remembrance of the last time she was in Vienna … and argued with her lover, who slapped her across the face till her head spun, which was followed by a roadside jolly rogering in the rain. And we’re only four minutes in! Uh-maze-ing.
At her building, Julie makes her way up to their deliriously appointed pied-à-terre, where she promptly doffs her kit and wanders around nude, reflecting on life. Or perhaps she’s thinking about ordering groceries, but I don’t give a rat’s ass because she’s Edwige Fenech and she so fine. Either way, there’s a knock at the door. Donning a robe, she peeps through the peephole and sees a bouquet of long-stemmed red roses standing there. Stunned, she opens the door to discovered the fisheye effect has once more tricked her, and it’s really just a bellboy delivering the flowers. As she closes the door, locking herself back in her the apartment in which she is a stunning jewel, housed in a fabulous reliquary, Julie reads the note enclosed: The worst part of you is the best thing you have and will always be mine–Jean. This is singularly unnerving, for what reason WE DO NOT KNOW! However, we suspect.
Cut to a fabulous party, where Julie exposits on the phone to Neil about how he’s so Busy & Important that he’s only been home one of the three nights since they’ve been in Vienna. (This is important, so pay attention. Not to me, stupid, to the scene, when you watch the movie!) Though Julie’s bummin,’ her old pal Caroll is there to offer distractions and catty bon mots. Of the former is a particularly delectable item: One Cousin George, fresh in town from Australia, and ripe for the picking. And boy, is he ever. We’re almost done here, but first we must pause a moment for the paper dress catfight.
Giggling at the titties, Julie glances up to see the frighteningly handsome man of her flashback/dream across the crowded room. At his salute, she breaks for the exit, pausing only to chastise careless Caroll. His party pooped, George ponders the pile of panty-pulling coquettes. In the dark street, Julie is confronted by the man she’d fled to avoid: Jean, her former lover whom she wed Neil to escape. His pull is irresistible to Julie; his vice is hers, she feels his jive, she is in his groove, she smells what Jean is cookin,’ she cannot help but orbit his dark star. But NO! This will not happen! Neil pulls up, slaps Jean, and the Wardhs are Audi 5000.
That’s the set-up in a nutshell: There’s a crazed murder stalking the women of Wien, and then there’s Julie Wardh and her men: Neil, her husband to whom she tries to be faithful; George, the hot young stud who can hardly take ‘no’ for an answer; and Jean, malevolently alluring as he stalks her like a stalky-thing. Torn between the three, Julie finds herself at the mercy of a blackmailer–and possibly a murderer. The only certainty in The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh is that the getting there will be good.
Only a diplomat’s wife knows how expendable a diplomat really is. The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh was not only the first onscreen pairing of giallo’s Golden Couple Edwige Fenech, but also the debut of the triumphant triumvirate of the Golden Couple working on a giallo under the auspices of director Sergio Martino. (And ably supported by regulars Ivan Rassimov and Albert de Mendoza.) The actors were old hands compared to Martino, for whom this was only the second feature. And what a feature! Filled to the brim with hysteria, paranoia, alluring sensuality, suspenseful architecture, elegant and stunning photography, girdled by a thrilling score, this starter giallo is indeed a perfect starter to the genre.
Bill: Holy crap! Did you see that champagne sex scene? I think it was champagne. It was sparkly. It could’ve been wine, but that seems kind of gross. I’m going with champagne. Crazy, pervy Jean (Ivan Rassimov with a bleach job) pours the bottle out over a supine Julie (Edwige in her now alcohol-soaked clingy dress), then shatters the bottle, throwing sparkly shards of glass all over her. Then he uses the jagged neck of the broken bottle to cut her dress off before climbing atop her and bumping and grinding all over those glass shards, bleeding all over each other. That is so totally a pre-AIDS crisis sex scene. But bloody and wince inducing or not, hott scene was hott. I didn’t know if I wanted to run for Band-aids and Neosporin or hand lotion and tissues. Does that mean I’m like pretty Mrs. Wardh, whose “strange vice” seems to be hematolagnia. That means she has a blood fetish, in case you didn’t know. I looked it up.
Also, I’m really wondering if George had an Australian accent. I don’t know what an Aussie accent would sound like in Italian. Would I even recognize it? I’m not sure. Fisty?
Fisty: Dude, I have no idea. When I try to imagine it, it just comes out sounding like the Fonz going “Ehhhhhhhhhh!” Which kind of detracts from George Hilton’s usual suavity. (The Fonz wasn’t actually a sex symbol, was he?) But let’s face it: George’s de-boner self is no match for the flaming hot raw sex in peroxide and shoe leather that is Ivan Rassimov’s Jean. Making Julie’s quandary rather reasonable. After all, while her strange vice is LITERALLY the weird arousal/fainting at blood/violence thing she has going on, FIGURATIVELY it’s another story. The strange vice really comes across as being Julie’s incredible submissiveness toward men, her inability to definitely say no, her predilection for controlling (crazy?men.
But what about Neil? Exactly. She married Neil to get away from Jean; he is the anti-Jean. Except not, as she herself will go on to tell Caroll (and us): “I believed that Neil was quiet, and like a rock. But he’s not.” Lack of resemblance to a Chevy truck notwithstanding, Neil too, is a neurotic, just as Jean is a “pervert,” just lacking the attraction/repulsion that Jean possesses. He dominates Julie, too, albeit in a different manner than that of Jean, instead going where he likes for as long as he likes, while she waits prettily for him (see the first party scene). George, too, is an alpha male, coming on strong to Julie from the start, and not really taking no for an answer. Though Julie does initially blow him off, notice how in order to do so she basically must flee each time. The scene in which she does finally succumb is a very telling one. George has show her his flat, and she’s turned him down, so they leave. But outside in the street a car drives past–Jean’s car. Already afraid from his pursuit, and anxious over the murders, Julie’s terror mounts to a fever pitch. And thus her dilemma: Maintain her fidelity to Neil and risk death–or worse–at Jean’s hands, or escape Jean in George’s arms. Because there is no way she and George are going back into his flat and not fucking. That will not happen; Julie knows herself and her suitor too well.
In this, Martino’s first (and to my mind best) giallo, he is at his most adroit; sensitive to to the needs of the film, he knows exactly when to let the actors act and writers write, and when to use crazysexycool photography or bizarro visions for emphasis. And this scene, in which Edwige balances it all on a razor’s blade without histrionics, that shows how assured Martino was right out of the gate.
Bill: That scene is so good, too! Edwige is more than just a pretty face (have you seen her body?!) and she shows her ability in that scene. She’s standing there, George waiting by his door, Jean possibly just around the corner, Neil on her mind, and you can see the gears turning in her head. She’s weighing her fidelity against her fear and the mental teetering is so clear on her face it might as well have been projected on there with one of those neat overhead projectors I made shadow puppets with in school. When we talk about her three men, it makes her sound like she’s more free with the sexings than she is. She really does respect her vows. Even if George is just right, not all fiery, dangerous passion like Jean or cold and boring like Neil, she wants to stay faithful. I really felt bad for her and I felt bad that she was being forced to choose between loyalty and safety. I totally would’ve let her in my house without trying to take advantage of her situation.
If I’d met Jean, I might not have let her in at all, because he is kind of scary. Rassimov doesn’t need his creepy AtCotD contact lenses to be menacing. He does fine here with just a crazy stare and some bleached hair. Even when Neil confronts him and strikes him, I still felt like Jean was the shark that Neil’s boat was not big enough to handle. During this scene, between Neil, Jean, and Julie, just before Neil shows up to confront Jean there’s a nice blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment that, like the scene mentioned above, shows how good Edwige is. Jean has Julie by her wrist in the street. She’s struggling with him. and in the second before Neil shows up to rescue her, there’s one tiny fraction of a moment where her struggle changes to submission, she’s giving in, then Neil arrives and it goes away. For that split second, she was again Jean’s. It really drives home Julie’s “incredible submissiveness toward men, her inability to definitely say no, her predilection for controlling (crazy) men.” Jean sure is crazy, too. He laughs in Neil’s face after getting hit and like to poke bats with a stick. He actually owns bats that he pokes with sticks. His house is full of animals to poke. This is a cat who seemingly keeps other giallo titles as pets, probably for poking. When the cops try to question Jean, his pad is filled with iguanas (probably with tongues of fire), lizards (no doubt looking for a woman about a size 14) birds (that didn’t seem to have crystal plumage, but might’ve), and though I didn’t see any black-bellied tarantulas or a cat with a bunch of tails, I’m willing to bet they were there.
Fisty: Maybe. Though, those weren’t out yet. Or is that like, a metaphor? As Bill point out, Strange Vice debuted about a year after Dario Argento’s (game-changing?) The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. There were a number of gialli produced in the period between Mario Bava’s 1963 The Girl Who Knew Too Much and the start of production on Mrs Wardh, and though most aren’t name-checked with the vigor of Blood and Black Lace or Bird, there were several of importance … and we’ll get to those. First, our checklist.
Martino puts Strange Vice through its paces beautifully, like a Lipizzaner performing classical dressage, dexterously touching on the tropes with which we’ve become acquainted: airplanes/ports, exotic locales, suspenseful architecture up to and including stairwells and elevators of doom, the urban apartment building setting, foreigners, fashion, hallucinations/visions, and so on. But he also plays with the un- or less expected ideas–at least for post-Argento viewers at our end of the giallo trajectory–such as an unusual converse to the claustrophobic urban murder setting in a beautifully manicured open park. He also focuses less on the cherished murder setpieces; they’re largely unmemorable, another trademark that would be revisited in Martino’s later gialli. For Martino, the murders are secondary to the importance of the relationships between the characters, those relationships that create the reason for the crimes.
And in Strange Vice, the crimes are again against the grain of the “stereotypical” giallo (although, if one has learned anything from these reviews, it’s likely that there are more things in gialli and filone, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy), as they are not motivated in the same psychosexual trauma or psychopathological manner as many of the post-Argento gialli. Instead, Martino continues the course of Bava’s gialli, using the same motive as would rear its ugly head in other preceding seminal, Hitchockian sexy thriller-type gialli such as Ercoli’s Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion, Lenzi’s Sixties gialli (the two Paranoias–and to a lesser extent So Sweet… So Perverse), and Fulci’s One On Top of the Other.
The motive for the principle crime in Strange Vice (that being the most significant to us as the audience and to Julie Wardh as the protagonist, rather than the most signifi–am I saying too much? I’ll shut up now). Martino would again revisit this emphasis this motive in later works such as All the Colors of the Dark (another giallo with Edwige Fenech in fine form as a histrionic hysteric menaced by Ivan Rassimov and romanced by George Hilton). But! Strange Vice is our concern today, and with Strange Vice, Martino straddles the line of demarcation between the early gialli and the cycle’s peak (not that said line was anything but nebulous).
Bill: Dude, careful! Don’t spoil it. You almost said too much.
We’re getting a little long in here, so I want to just run through a few things about Strange Vice as quick as I can. Nudity. There’s a ton. I couldn’t go without praising the film for that. The paper dress wrestling scene is awesome and I love the way the Psycho shower murder scene is done. Well, really just the shower, with shower curtains hanging everywhere like sheets on a laundry line. You know I appreciate a good shower scene, even if the murder wasn’t too spectacular. Martino knows suspense and the chases and stalks in Strange Vice are nail biters. I enjoyed the score by Nora Orlandi, especially a Morricone-like take on the movies theme which played over Julie’s rainy slap-and-tickle remembrance. The park where one character is stalked by the slasher is amazing. I could’ve seriously just watched a thirty minute pleasant stroll through the place without ever getting bored of it. In fact, nothing in this movie could be boring. Everything is so visually interesting. Practically every shot is multi-layered and remarkable in depth. If I was ever going to nominate a giallo for a 3-D conversion, it would probably be Strip Nude for Your Killer, because of wiggle-wiggle Femi, but Strange Vice would be my second choice. And, finally, even in a movie where everything is looking fab, the Wardh’s Vienna home still stands out. That place is FAB-FUCKING-TABULOUS! Yes, fabtabulous is the only way to possibly describe that place. I loved it.
Fisty: OH MY GOD, YES. Their apartment! When I showed it to my husband and asked whether we could paint our living room like that, he said, “Oh, HELL yes!” Soooooo pretty, and I love how its modernity stands out from the rather baroque interiors and exteriors elsewhere in Wien. (Like Jean’s amazing “I am totally not a sex maniac” flat full of naked women and animals.)
Wardrobe was actually pretty subdued–other than the metallic paper minidresses–but still tastefully swinging. Which is pretty much how I’d describe the movie’s general appearance; while Martino directs stylishly, it’s never so over the top as to be jarring. (I particularly love the ebb and flow in party scenes–also the lovemaking scenes–and how there’s all kinds of distraction around and even in front of the central action, creating this wonderful chaotic feel.) Everything is seamlessly gorgeous and moves naturally along through the story–even the sordid sex scenes work beautifully, whether they were added to up the sleaze factor or not. They’re some of my favorites, really. Because this whole movie is RAD.
Ja, the sex perverts would really get what they deserve! In Strange Vice Martino perfectly balances his technical skill and flair as director with Ernesto Gastaldi’s storyline, as well as with the necessary humanity the actors bring to the table. His imaginative direction is never overly showy or simply for form’s sake, but enhances the story and performances. The lurid, exploitational qualities of the film are the icing on the cake of a neat and highly suspenseful whodunit (or rather, who’sgonnadoit). And not to be missed is Nora Orlandi’s excellent score, plus all the naked time one could want. With its abundant use of giallo motifs, gorgeous looks, and not too convoluted plot (though it teeters on the edge, Gastaldi just manages to get away with it), Strange Vice is one of the very best gialli, and a wonderful introduction to the form.