The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh
aka A Blade of the Ripper
aka Next! Italy/Spain 1971
Directed by Sergio Martino
Shameless Screen Entertainment
Before I get into this review proper, I’d just like to give a huge shout out of thanks to Shameless Screen Entertainment for sending me a review copy of their new release of one of my all-time favourite gialli. Since this is the first UK release of this on DVD, I’ll try to refrain from peppering this review with the usual spoilers.
Whenever you see two or more of the names Edwige Fenech, Ivan Rassimov and George Hilton sharing the same billing on a movie directed by the great Sergio Martino, you know you’re in for a treat... and Martino’s second proper feature, The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh, sets the trend for these remarkable movies as a) it was his first giallo and b) it stars all three of these understandably famous genre actors.
In fact, I would go as far as to say that this movie, apart from being one of my personal favourites, is one of the truly great non-Argento gialli ever made. It’s definitely a standout movie (as anyone who’s seen it and knows the genre well will probably confirm) but I think it also, in many ways, helped set the style that the generic giallo-thriller would aspire to over the years. Made only two years after Argento’s breakthrough movie, The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, this movie definitely sets a high benchmark when it comes to a lot of the visual and audio props which the Italian giallo has come to be known for over the decades and, although it does play with the elements initially explored and then popularised by Mario Bava and Dario Argento... it penetrates past the surface of standard homage (which is what a lot of the early gialli tended to be in some ways) and really pushes the limits as to what can be done with all those little stylistic devices which still makes the genre so beloved by its fans (myself included).
It’s a film that uses those devices but does so to further explore the boundaries of what can be done in the format... or at least throw out the gauntlet to other directors as to what directions the genre could be taken in. If Dario Argento is the D.W. Griffith of the giallo movie, then Sergio Martino is this genres Orson Welles and The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh is definitely the Citizen Kane of giallo. A Citizen Kane in the sense that it utilises a whole host of camera techniques and ways of telling the story which in itself becomes almost a summary of where that particular strand of Italian cinema is at that point... all encapsulated in one, vastly entertaining movie.
The film starts out with one of the first of many little sequences which you’ll recognise as turning up in other, later gialli which were obviously “inspired” by this movie... a man kerb crawling, on the look out for a “lady of the night” to keep him company. He picks a young lady up who undresses in the car (this movie definitely doesn’t shy away on it’s nudity quotient) and then promptly finds herself gorily slashed by the driver/murderer. Immediately following this, the movie does a seventies freeze-frame and a quote from Sigmund Freud appears on the screen. I’d like to think this was a really pertinent quote which gives the audience an insight into the mind of the killer but, in all honesty, I suspect this was just studio/directorial flim-flam to attempt to justify to the audience the large quantities of nudity, death and sexual fetish they are about to see up on the screen for the rest of the movie. This movie must have been a bit of an eye-opener for the majority of audiences back in Italy in 1971 I suspect.
I mention sexual fetish because that is what the “strange vice” referred to in the title is referencing in association with the titular character Julie Wardh... played by giallo legend Edwige Fenech.
Now then, I have to pause a moment here to say a quick word about my favourite giallo actress, the wonderful Edwige. There are many great and beautiful women in the history of the Italian giallo... I might mention the likes of Nieves Navarro (aka Susan Scott), Anita Strindberg or Florinda Bolkan, but Edwige Fenech has got so much going for her that she really stands out in these kinds of movies. A brilliant personality she can play smart, strong (as she does in the excellent Strip Nude For Your Killer), slightly evil or intensely vulnerable (as she does in this movie) and she also sports another standout pre-requisite for appearing in the Italian Giallo genre... she looks gorgeous naked. As you’ll see when you watch this movie (and yes, as I write this review I am, indeed, drinking a cup of tea from my Edwige Fenech in The Case of the Bloody Iris Mug... yeah, I’m sad).
So anyway, after that digression, where was I... oh yeah, we meet Mrs. Wardh and when someone uses the words “sexual pervert”, we are treated to a flashback of Mrs. Wardh and another main player in this movie (and the genre in general) Ivan Rassimov... playing a character called Jean. He and Edwige are in a forest and getting into some extremely rough sex in the rain... it’s all so beautifully shot and features a haunting flashback leitmotif on the soundtrack, courtesy of score composer Nora Orlandi.
We pop out of the flashback soon enough and we join Mrs. Wardh, the wife of a successful political secretary, as she wanders around her apartment. And it’s here that the voyeuristic style of the camerawork which paces the film really begins to come into it’s own as it wanders around the apartment, following our main protagonist only very languidly, allowing her to wander off of screen without being in a hurry to catch her. The shot compositions in this film mainly seems to be built around angles and movements that highlight upright sections in the frame and this is particularly enhanced and played against in this particular apartment set where the wallpaper is all based on horizontal stripes... which are then blatantly truncated and split into vertical sections... which I’m sure I’ve seen Martino favour as a stylistic choice on more than one occasion in his movies.
In this scene this kind of slow lulling, splitting of the shot is brilliantly rewarded as we see Edwige exit right of shot into another room and... while the camera is still, languidly trying to catch up to the intersection where this character split off to the right, she returns entering screen right and going into a room opposite her (screen left) but this time she is naked... since she’s had time to remove her clothing while the camera slowly wends its way to the back of the apartment. This little shock of naked flesh against the horizontal stripes intersected by the upright composition sends a little jolt into the visual cortex of the viewer and it’s clever little tricks of perception like this one which are dotted throughout Martino’s gialli that make his films stand head and shoulders above most of the rest of the pack of the directors working in this genre at the time.
And those beautiful, vertical based compositions really pervade the atmosphere of the film and make this particular giallo an absolute joy to watch. There’s even a Psycho styled shower murder where the naked, young lady in question is seen inside the confines of the shower curtain... but instead of staging this shot in the traditional manner, Martino even here has three plains to the shower curtain so said victim can be beautifully framed in her own upright vertical section.
Another stylistic flourish which becomes very apparent in this particular sequence is the fact that there are three different styles of camera viewpoint going on. Number one being the audience/voyeur/third person narrative way of shooting a shot and the other two being hand held, rapidly moving POV shots which seem to alternate between killer POV and victim POV during the murder sequences... going so far as to turn the camera upside down as the victim in the shower dies from her stab wounds.
And the more this movie plays out... the better it gets. After a bizarre “dress ripping” party scene very early on in the picture... where two naked women end up wrestling... we are treated to another flashback scene between Edwige and Ivan where Mrs. Wardh’s particular brand of BDSM (that’s the modern politically correct terminology for what a lot of us would simply call good old, plain S & M) is made clear when, after Jean has done pouring a bottle of some kind of alcoholic substance over Mrs. Wardh’s naked body, he smashes the bottle over her and the shower of glass on her body is used by Jean to cut her body as he has sex with her, to highlight her blood fetish to the audience in what is actually a really beautifully shot scene (I’d expect nothing less of Martino). It’s all handled in loving slow motion... this in direct contrast to the way in which this character is presented in the present/non-flashback level of the story in the previous party scene, pulled to our attention in a crashing and arresting three quarter to close up shot which is in some ways a little reminiscent of the way Sergei Eisenstein would pull out stray “characters” from a crowd rather than just zoom in on them (which he possibly wouldn’t have been able to do anyway when he was making such famous movies such as Strike and Battleship Potemkin). To be fair, Martino does use a zoom here and in a lot of places in the movie, but the way he uses it is with an intensity and passion that never once makes its use feel overused. This is all good stuff.
Even the more familiar trappings of the giallo format are exquisitely mastered and rendered almost super-real by Martino’s techniques. The shiny, black gloved hands of the killer and the glint of a highly polished razor blade are done so stylishly that one can’t help but wonder if the original US title of this movie, Blade of the Ripper, wasn’t inspired purely by the visual style of the movie.
Now I’ve never really appreciated George Hilton much but my friend really likes him (well he kind of looks like him actually so maybe that explains it) and he certainly seems to appear in some good gialli... and here he’s yet another possible suspect as the killer... along with Ivan Rassimov and... oh, no. I’m not giving away all the suspects because, even though at times this particular giallo looks like it’s given up all it’s secrets... it owes a little more than just a shower scene to Alfred Hitchcock and it has a few little tricks up its sleeve towards the end of the picture which you might not quite see coming... and I don’t want to spoil those for you here. But these are all par for the course for the giallo fan and the solution and reveal of the solution to this movie is bound to make most fans of the genre smile.
Another thing that will make fans of the genre smile is one of a series of threatening notes Mrs. Wardh is sent throughout the course of the movie. It ends with a phrase which was to become the title of another great Sergio Martino directed giallo starring both Fenech and Rassimov... Your Vice Is A Locked Room And Only I Have The Key! Perfect.
And to top it off, naturally, we have Nora Orlandi’s incredible score which ranges from bubbly exuberance to deeply haunting (such as the leitmotif lead melody structure I suggested earlier for the flashback sequences) and this really deserves a more commercial release than the extremely limited (double figures?) release by Hexachord... a release, I heard through the grapevine, that was so limited because it wasn’t known at the time who owned the rights to the music. I have a bootleg of this a record producer gave me once but someone like Digitmovies really needs to do a proper commercial run on it because this score is so brilliant and would sell well... especially after some of it was included in Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol. 2.
The Shameless edition of this movie boasts a beautiful print and an excellent transfer and I have to say, although I’ve seen this movie before, I don’t think I’ve ever seen this movie looking any better than it does here. The preview copy I was sent is one of the “check discs” for the company but... if the final release is anything like the quality on here then fans of this particular giallo are really in for a treat.
There’s also a fistful of great little extras which include pre-menu trailers for some of Shameless up-and-coming releases (which I won’t spoil by revealing here), a new interview with director Sergio Martino, a brief but well put together mini-history on Edwige Fenech and a “trailer park” featuring the promo trailers for the first 30 movies in the Shameless stable.
As usual, Shameless have done a phenomenal job here which I’m sure their loyal fanbase will appreciate.