Blood and Nipples – Sergio Martino’s ‘The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh’

Convoluted, kinky and bloodthirsty, with stylish visuals and a killer score.

The first thing you notice about Shameless’s Blu-ray releases are their bright yellow cases, a neat little nod to the lurid book covers that gave the giallo genre its name (“giallo” being Italian for “yellow”). As such, Shameless are the perfect home for the Blu-ray debut of Sergio Martino’s 1971 film The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh.

All of the giallo staples are here. Beautiful women, overbearing men, black leather gloves and blood that’s a shade of red somewhere between vermillion and cherry. Our protagonist is wealthy heiress Julie Wardh (Edwige Fenech), visiting Vienna with her financier husband, Neil (Alberto de Mendoza).

Their trip coincides with a series of violent murders, and the film opens with a young woman having her throat cut by a gloved assailant in the car park of Vienna’s airport.

News of the latest killing brings back troubling memories for Julie. Lurking in her past – and her dreams – is Jean (Ivan Rassimov), a former lover who is shown, in flashback, beating and raping Julie in a rain-drenched woodland. Later, at a party hosted by friends, Julie spots Jean, and it’s hinted that the violence of their relationship – including bloodplay – was at least partly consensual.

She rejects Jean’s advances and – with her distant husband wrapped up in business – begins an affair with George, a cousin of her friend Carol. When Julie begins receiving sinister anonymous notes, it seems as if there could be a connection between the spate of razor blade murders, her infidelities and her stalker.

But that’s where we’ll leave it, as far as a synopsis goes, for to give away much more plot would spoil the twists and turns that follow. And while sensational revelations are another staple of giallo movies, The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh has more convoluted twists and turns than a jitterbug convention.

Along with the queasy blending of sex and violence (the victims usually women), it’s giallo’s narrative excesses that some modern audiences may find off-putting. It’s difficult – though not impossible – to measure them against recent books and films such as Gone Girl and Before I Go to Sleep. Much like James Bond and musicals, the only fair measure of a giallo movie’s success is against other films from the same genre.

There are occasional stretches of the film that feel “talky” and a little bit plodding, certainly compared with later giallo films, and the gore quota is surprisingly restrained. But while The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh may lack the Grand-Guignol gruesomeness of Bava’s Bay of Blood or Argento’s Deep Red, it outdoes them both in terms of nudity, making it feel as much a part of 1970s sexploitation cinema as giallo. What helps it stand out in a crowded genre is its sound design and music, both of which are at least as important – if not more so – than its typically stylish visuals.

Nora Orlandi’s score, in particular, does much of the psychological heavy lifting, adding an eerie, ethereal quality to Julie Wardh’s disturbing inner life. (Her music was later recycled by Tarantino on the soundtrack for Kill Bill Vol.2.) It’s the perfect accompaniment to a great performance from Fenech in the lead role. By turns mysterious and vulnerable, she makes Julie Wardh the film’s glamorous riddle, wrapped in a kinky mystery, inside a bloodthirsty enigma.

There are multiple homages to Hitchcock, some of them a little forced. A shower scene has the crimson blood and bare nipples missing from Psycho’s original, but lacks the building dread and visual flair. One of the film’s many, many plot twists is a blatant borrow from one particular film – which we won’t name for fear of spoiling it! A chase scene in an underground car park is much more effective, offering genuine menace and suspense worthy of the Master.

Shameless’s Blu-ray features both the English language and Italian versions of the film. Purists and newcomers alike may prefer the latter, not least of all because the English version has some… let’s say “curious”… line reading from its voice actors. This is particularly noticeable in the case of Julie’s lover, George, played by George Hilton but apparently voiced by the cinema advert for a 1970s car showroom.

Fenech and Rassimov would go on to star in Martino’s following film, Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key, its title taken from one of Julie’s anonymous notes in The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh. This movie, very loosely based on Poe’s The Black Cat, is every bit as convoluted as its predecessor, with a great turn from giallo and “Spaghetti Western” star Luigi Pistilli, but The Strange Vice… is the more satisfying film, and this is due in no small part to the talents of Edwige Fenech and Nora Orlandi.

❉ ‘The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh’ (SHAM208) is out now on Blu Ray from Shameless Screen Entertainment. Running time 101 mins, cert. 18.

 David Llewellyn is a novelist (Eleven, Ibrahim & Reeni) and script writer (Dorian Gray, Torchwood, Doctor Who).

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