The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh (1971)

Sergio Martino’s directorial efforts have run the gamut — from straight exploitation (Mondo Sex and Mountain of the Cannibal God, which features Stacy Keach and Ursula Andress, as well as real animal mutilation which we’d never endorse) to horror (Island of the Fishmen, which in addition to starring Barbara Bach and Joseph Cotten, was re-edited by Jim Wynorski and re-entitled Screamers), post-apocalyptic action (2019 After the Fall of New York and Hands of Steel, which more Terminator rip off than Road Warrior), spaghetti westerns, crime dramas, war films, comedies and even Italian TV, where he’s worked for the last several decades. But this week we’re here to discuss his contributions to the world of giallo.

This is his first effort and the start of the ensemble case in which he’d use in his films. George Hilton would appear in four of his films, Ivan Rassimov in three and one of the queens of the giallo, Edwige Fenech, would star in three (in fact, she was married to Sergio’s brother, the late producer Luciano Martino, at one time).

Wondering why this film isn’t just titled The Strange Vice of Mrs. Ward? Turns out a woman named Mrs. Ward sued before the release, claiming that the film would ruin her good reputation, so they changed the title. Yes, Italy, the country where you can make a movie called Zombi 2 and have nothing to do with the original film still has legal settlements such as this. You can also find this movie under the titles Blade of the RipperNext! and The Next Victim.

Julie Wardh (Fenech) is the wealthy heir to a retailing company. But she’s also a fragile flower, back in Vienna, a city packed with memories and former lovers. She’s married to Neil (Alberto de Mendoza from Horror Express and Lizard in a Woman’s Skin), a man so wealthy and powerful that he leaves for business the moment they land.

As Julie rides alone in the rain, her car is stopped by the police who are on the hunt for a killer. The sound of the wiper blades reminds her of the last time she was here, as a vicious fight between her and a lover who repeatedly slapped her around before they made love in the rain. There’s a gorgeous shot here at the end, where the lovers are to left of camera while rain descends on them, almost illuminating them and a sports card pushes into the right foreground. Compared to other giallo which seem content to merely ape Argento or seem like boring police procedurals, Martino aspires to art within his direction (which honestly is why this site is planning on a week of his films).

A green light and honking horns snap Julie from her reverie and she returns to her apartment, where she takes strange notice of a car. Her apartment has been left exactly as it was the last time she was here — it’s a white pop art explosion of metallic, green and blue lines contrasted with oval windows — and just as she’s getting ready to take a bath, the buzzer rings. A dozen roses with a note attached: The worst part of you is the best thing you have and will always be mine – Jean.

We cut to a party, where Caroll (Conchita Airoldi, who would go on to produce Cemetary Man) is trying to hook Julie up with her cousin George (George Hilton, All the Colors of the Dark, The Case of the Bloody Iris) as a catfight between two girls in paper dresses goes down. Tell you what — if I am to learn anything from giallo, it’s that every party in 1970’s Italy was packed with drugs, crazy music and the chance that anything from a fist fight to an orgy could happen at any minute. People had to be exhausted all the time. Jean (Ivan Rassimov from Planet of the Vampires, Your Vice is a Locked Door and Only I Have the Key, Eaten Alive!), the guy who sent the roses, is there, extending a salute. This enrages Julie, who leaves the party, but he follows her into the street. He reminds her that she belongs to him, but she counters that she married Neil to escape him, which is cemented when Neil shows up and punches the dude. Jean just laughs, looking at both of them, knowing that he owns Julie body and soul.

This leads to a flashback where Jean pours champagne all over her, soaking her dress, then smashes the bottle of champagne, showering her in glass shards. He uses what’s left of the bottle to slice up her dress and skin before he takes her. Their coupling is a mix of pleasure and pain, covered in blood, that she had to escape. But did she want to?

So what then is Mrs. Wardh’s strange vice? Is it for men that are bad for her? Is it for pain and dominance? Or some combination of both? As we learn, she’s caught between three men — her husband, whose cool indifference and emotionally (and physical) unavailability is just as cruel as her former lover Jean, who owns her to the point that she is nearly his again before Neil showed up to hit him. And the third sides of this love rectangle (is there such a thing?) is George, who is the porridge to her Goldilocks — the just right combination of both. Yet there is a fifth side to this — making it a love pentagon (!?!) — with Julie wanting to be a good woman, true to her vows and not to her need to be beaten, bloodied and forced. She is torn between her desire and her need to fit into the moral code of the world. So much of giallo is based on this — created in a country where the Holy Seat of a religious empire sits smack dab in the middle of Rome. Religion and morality nearly shaking hands with the sexual revolution and excesses of the pre-AIDS 1970’s.

Ah, but let’s not forget that a proper giallo needs a murder, which this film delivers with a quick slash in the shower. That said — what strikes me about Martino is that unlike Argento, he cares more about the story and the characters than creating murder art set pieces. The conversation between Carol and Julie isn’t just words on a page, they’re vital clues into her mental state. Where as Carol’s casual amorality is revealed, saying that the killer — who we just saw attack the showering girl — is taking out her competition, Julie worries about her values. She married Neil for security and protection, but not the monetary or physical kind. She wanted protection from herself, as she feels that her loss of control and willingness to submit to the violent impulses of men makes her a sinner.

 

George shows up to meet Julie and get to know her better. He even tells her that he loves to court women when their husbands are around, cuckolding them. Julie claims that that leaves her cold, while Carol claims that she’d bed him, family or not. They decide to go to lunch together, which seems to be more about George staring at Julie than sustenance. Julie demands that George take her to the bus station, but instead he takes her all over the countryside on his motorcycle (What is it with Fenech’s character and dudes that ride bikes? Is it the freedom that it represents?) while he wears white leather fringe, a look that is very 1971. He calls her the moment that she enters the house and she tells him that she likes him way too much, so she can never see him again. Of course, he’s already there and enters the front door before kissing her. She tries to get away, but he keeps telling her that he is in love with her. She begs him to not complicate her life, that she is not the girl he thinks she is. Their kiss is artfully compressed into a second kiss that occurs much later that same day — an intrguing way to show the passage of time and the growth of their relationship.

As they kiss in the dark, a car nearly hits them, which Julie is sure is Jean. She tells him to take her anywhere, which ends up being his apartment. The car returns and its driver watches from the window as Julie and George make love (or, more to the point, she knees him in the crotch while laying upon him, but whatever works for them, I guess).

Later, Julie gets more flowers from an anonymous admirer. Her husband asks who they are from and she wishes aloud that they came from him. There’s another note attached — “Your vice is a locked door and only I have the key.” She tells him that she realizes that diplomats only love other diplomats. He replies that she feels that he has always failed and wronged her. “Is she content,” he asks. “I’m more than content,” comes her reply.

The black gloved killer is watching her and calls her to blackmail her, saying that he will tell her husband. She goes to talk to Carol and claims that it’s Jean. Carol responds that the killer’s last victim was “that whore at the party” and Jean couldn’t be the killer, as he doesn’t go after women like that. Carol embraces free love and says that if Julie is into George, then why should she have to hide it? Also: Carol just walks around her apartment naked (and also has a crazy cover up that is all black with red feathers) and Julie is just fine with it. Carol offers to go to where the blackmailer/killer wants her to drop off the money.

Julie nervously chainsmokes while watching a motorcycle race, a scene intercut with Carol going to meet the killer. To show the escalation of worry, Martino piles on the jump cuts and quick switches between the two women. Whereas Julie is trapped within her worry and the walls of her apartment, the carefree Carol is all alone within a huge park. Alone until the killer reveals himself, slashing her with a straight razor. Again — the killings are rather matter of fact in contrast to the set-ups in this film.

The police get involved, finally investigating Jean. They go to his apartment, which is covered with photos of naked women and exotic animals. Then, they interrogate him with her in attendance. It’s just an excuse for him to keep trying to seduce her and informs the police that Julie has a blood fetish, so she could be the killer, too. George has also been brought in for questioning, to which Jean says, “Now I know why my flowers have no effect on you.”

Neil arrives to take Julie home, but later George says that he wants to speak to her husband and take her away from the city. She says that she has to see this out, she has to discover who killed her best friend when it should have been her.

As Julie returns home, she finds herself in a dark parking garage. The headlines of a car cut into the inky blackness before she is nearly run over. She runs for the elevator, watching for the killer and the numbers of her floor to get closer. Yet the doors open to reveal the killer! Julie runs from him, even attempting to hit him with her car. She barely makes it inside the apartment, screaming at the door. Her husband lets her in but she’s in hysterics. There’s a lot of this scene that feels like it influenced Halloween 2‘s elevator scene. I’m not alone in feeling like that sequel is a giallo. Check out this awesome article from Bill at Groovy Doom to see what I mean.

Neil has had enough and decides to go to Jean’s house and confront him. He tells Julie that he will go alone, but she is afraid and rushes to be with him. They explore his dark house, finally finding Jean’s body in the tub. Julie is overcome and passes out in her husband’s arms. When they get outside, Jean’s car is gone and flowers have been left in the backseat with another poem. Neil throws the flowers down in disgust.

We cut to a dream sequence of George, a laughing Carol and Jean covered in blood, slapping her around. Her husband wakes her up and shows her the photo of the killer. She asks her husband to protect her, but he leaves. She calls and begs George to come get her. He promises to take her to Spain, a place that will make her forget the rest of the world (people continually promise this to Julie, such as Carol’s offer that a place will make her forget she’s on a diet or that an affair will make her forget her sadness).

Neil comes back home to learn that Julie has left. Meanwhile, the killer tries to attack another woman, who unmasks, disarms and stabs him. He makes one last attempt to kill her, but passes out from blood loss.

Meanwhile (!), George and Julie are spearfishing. The camera work here slows down, turning around our lovers (You can’t tell me that DePalma didn’t watch at least a few giallo, even though he claims to have only seen Bird with the Crystal Plumage and has been dismissive of Argento’s work. Sure, all of his films and giallo betray the and of Hitchcock, but some of these films seem way too close). They discover that the killer has died, but George disappears and someone starts following Julie. She arrives back at their apartment to hear the sound of dripping water. We follow the sound to the bloody curtains of the tub as water and blood spill out. The camera begins to spin back and forth before she sees Jean’s dead body, screams and passes out. George arrives and tries to wake her up, but she’s catatonic. George finds the cause of Julie’s worry — rust had been dripping onto the floor, looking like blood.

Julie awakens and her mood gives way to madness. She’s sure someone is there and yet there is no one. As she realizes this, she attacks a wall and is chloroformed from behind by…Jean! George is rushing a doctor to see her, explaining her vice for blood that excites and repels her at the same time. But Jean is too busy dragging her to the kitchen, where he duct tapes the window shut. He opens a gas line and locks the door (using an ice cube?), leaving her to die. We hear her heart beating out as it’s cut with shots of the doctor and George rushing to her. She makes an attempt to stand but cannot. And it’s too late — Julie is dead.

Neil comes to see the police and blame George for what the police are classifying as a suicide. Jean waits in a secluded area for George, who greets him with a smile. He asks him for the money — turns out that they were in this together. Even after explaining that they both have an alibi, Jean asks again for the money. George shoots him and leaves a gun in his hand, making it look like a suicide.

Turns out that Neil and George were in on this too — Neil has paid off his debts and with Carol gone, George is the only heir to a fortune — much like Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train. As they drive away laughing, Neil sees Julie on the side of the road and demands that Neil turn around. To their surprise, it is her — followed by the police. A chase leads them off the side of the road to their death. The doctor has saved her life and it seems like he’s fallen for her.

Wow. The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh was but the first of Martino’s giallo films, but it’s great. It kept me guessing until the end with none of the b roll travelogue footage and red herrings that plague so many other films in the genre. What a movie to spend the middle of the night into the morning with!

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