Sergio Martino, 1971
Starring: George Hilton, Edwige Fenech, Conchita Airoldi, Ivan Rassimov
Julie, the young wife of a diplomat, lives in terror in Vienna thanks to an ex-lover, Jean, who is stalking her, and the presence of a serial killer slashing women across the city. To further complicate things, she meets the handsome George, the cousin of her closest friend, who begins wooing her. They soon begin an affair and someone blackmails Julie, threatening to reveal the relationship with George to her husband. She fears she is losing her mind and begins to suspect that one of the three men in her life may be the vicious killer.
Also known as Blade of the Ripper and Next!, The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh marks the first giallo film from underrated director Sergio Martino. The excellent title is more of a red herring than a true indicator of the proceedings, but this clever blend of murder mystery, romantic intrigue, sexual excess, red herrings, and a series of surprise twists is fittingly seedy and would set the tone for the remainder of Martino’s giallo films. Most of Martino’s films were penned by screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi and many of them — as with this film — focus on a fragile, tormented female protagonist who is being persecuted by a mysterious male figure and who believes she is going insane.
Julie’s titular vice — some mild spoilers here — is that she and Jean were involved in an intense sadomasochistic relationship and she has a particular erotic fixation for blood. I’m not giving much away, as this information is revealed fairly quickly and doesn’t spoil the film’s grand finale, but it is in keeping with Martino’s entwined themes of perversion and paranoia. Julie is already hovering on the verge of a breakdown thanks to Jean stalking her and a series of violent, sexual dreams that she has quite frequently. Combined with a husband who is clearly unfulfilling and a close female friend who is sexually aggressive and is possibly interested in Julie (this type of character is a common theme within Gastaldi’s scripts and is played here by Conchita Airoldi, who would return to work with Martino on Torso), it seems inevitable that she would run straight for the handsome, romantic, and yet unthreatening George.
The threesome of George Hilton, Edwige Fenech, and Ivan Rassimov were united for Martino’s later All the Colors of the Dark and, for my money, they’re the genre’s ideal pairing. The absolutely gorgeous Fenech, a French-Algerian-Italian actress who became known for her work in sex comedies (many of which were directed by Martino), is perfect as Julie Wardh. She appeared often in this type of role, as the anxiety-ridden, sexually tormented damsel-in-distress with a traumatic past and a building sense of doom. This sleazy film posits Julie as the center of violence and perversion and its sexually subversive elements play out like a more extreme version of Hitchcock. Julie is a not too distant relative of the central figure in his Marnie, for example.
The handsome, Uruguayan George Hilton (born Jorge Hill Acosta y Lara) is also perfect in leading male roles that walk a thin line between heroic and dastardly. While he did play a more straightforwardly heroic role in giallo films like My Dear Killer, here he is delightfully ambiguous. His counter, Ivan Rassimov, is one of my favorite giallo/cult actors. Thanks to his exotic, somewhat sinister looks — he’s from the Italian city of Trieste, once a capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire that still includes a mix of Italian, German, Slovakian, and Croatian/Serbian cultures — Rassimov often played villainous characters (I think his only good-guy role is in A White Dress for Marielé). He doesn’t have a lot of screen time here, but every moment is played to the hilt.
Martino includes plenty of giallo standards, such as a black gloved killer believed to be committing sex crimes — and of course, there is one such character, but he is used in an unexpected way. While giallo films often focus on foreigners in Italy, Julie is instead a stranger to Vienna, though The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh’s characters wander around a sunny Europe that looks far too Mediterranean to really be Austria. Cinematographer Emilio Foriscot makes the best of these locations, which may not compare with the works of Dario Argento, but have a wonderful sense of style all their own (including a very ‘70s-looking set shared with exceptionally colorful giallo The Red Queen Kills Seven Times).
The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh comes highly recommended and I think it is one of the finest giallo films made during the early boom. It’s gloomy and nightmarish thanks to plenty of dream sequences and it’s sometimes hard to tell if scenes are really happening or are being imagined by Julie. These are mixed with some more conventional giallo scenes, such as one where Julie’s pushy friend Carol responds to the killer’s summons to meet in a desolate park, which is where she meets a predictable, if effective end. The film really shines during its last act, which will leaving you guessing up to the final moments. Also keep an ear out for the great score from Nora Orlandi, which rivals anything by Ennio Morricone. Pick it up on DVD from NoShame and hopefully a Blu-ray Sergio Martino box set will be out soon.