With a new DVD now available, Cinefantastique asks Giallo Fever’s Keith Brown to give us the low-down on Sergio Martino’s 1971 giallo thriller – “a well made suspense film that moves along briskly.”
As a maniac picks up and murders a prostitute in the vicinity of Vienna airport, a jet plane carrying, amongst others, businessman Neil Wardh (Alberto De Mendoza) and his wife Julie (Edwige Fenech) descends. For Julie the return to the city brings back memories of her former lover Jean (Ivan Rassimov), with whom she had an intense sado-masochistic relationship.
A couple of nights later Julie attends a party along with her friend Carol; Neil is occupied with business, as usual. Carol introduces Julie to her cousin George (George Hilton) who has recently arrived from Australia to claim his part of an inheritance left them by a recently deceased uncle. The charming George, who admits he enjoys seducing wives away from their husbands, makes an immediately favourable impression on Julie. He’s younger and more exciting than Neil yet not as dangerous as Jean – who also turns up at the party and announces his own intentions to reclaim Julie. Later the same night, the maniac strikes again, killing another of the party guests. La dolce vita becoming la dolce morte, again.
With Neil continuing to be absent more than he is present, Julie is soon drawn – not altogether unwillingly, it has to be said – into an affair with George. Unfortunately, someone else knows their secret, photographs them making love, and telephones to demand 20,000 Schillings from her. Carol agrees to pay off the blackmailer in a city park, only to be murdered there by an unidentified, razor-wielding attacker. Later the maniac makes an attempt on Julie’s life in a basement car park…
The Italian popular cinema from the mid-1950s to mid-1980s was dominated by the filone principle, by which a successful film would lead to a flood of imitators from producers keen to cash in before public tastes changed again. In the case of the western it was Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars (1964) that (first) did this. In the case of the giallo or Italian style thriller – the kind of film we are talking about here – it was Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970).
Independently of one another, Italian screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi (who co-scripted this film) and British academic critic Christopher Wagstaff have discussed filone films with reference to hats. They suggest that the real difference between many filone films comes down to little more than their paradigmatic choices of headgear. Giallo killers were fedoras, their western counterparts cowboy hats, for instance.
That this theory does not apply too well to BLADE OF THE RIPPER (1971, known in its native Italy as Lo Strano Vizio della Signora Wardh [“The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh”]) helps affirm its status as one of the more genuine gialli; though Hilton had appeared in numerous westerns in the years immediately preceding the film, and director Sergio Martino had made the western Arizona Colt Returns the previous year, westernisms do not show through in their performance and direction, except by design. In particular, it is worth noting that Hilton’s outfit includes cowboy boots and a light-coloured tassled jacket that would not have looked too out of place on Charles Bronson’s Harmonica in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968).
This leads to a perhaps surprising point of comparison as, like Claudia Cardinale’s Jill McBain, Fenech’s Julie Wardh (the ‘h’ added to ensure that no real-life reference was made) likewise has three men in her life, each of whom also appears one to have been assigned a particular role: One to love her (Neil), one to take her (George), and one to kill her (Jean).
If it goes without saying that The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh is not at the level of Once Upon a Time in the West, it is nevertheless a well made suspense film that moves along briskly and sure-footedly. Indeed, it is probably my favourite of the five gialli Martino made between 1971 and 1973, at which point his attentions turned towards the cop film and comedy.
His other Fenech-Hilton-Rassimov entry, All the Colours of the Dark (1972) suffers by comparison for not quite playing it as fair, as a vital visual detail to which one of the characters is party is withheld from us. Though there are certainly some sleights of hand and strategic withholdings of information here, particularly in the final third of the story, when the action shifts from Vienna to Spain, The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh holds up better on repeat viewings. There is even the odd little detail that might not be picked up on the first time round, like the seemingly casual checking of a watch.
Fenech and Rassimov also appear in the Martino-directed, Gastaldi-scripted Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (1972, again), which takes its lengthy title from one of the messages sent by Jean to Julie. While worth a look, Your Vice is a bit too convolved for its own good, lacks a sympathetic center, and at one point sees the narrative grind to a halt for an over-extended motorbike race sequence. (That some motorbike racing is shown on TV here perhaps suggests someone involved in the productions had a thing for it; fortunately, the TV is soon switched off.)
Fenech and Hilton’s third giallo appearance together was in another Gastaldi-scripted entry, The Case of the Bloody Iris (1972, yet again). In the film, also produced by Luciano Martino, Sergio’s brother and Fenech’s then-partner, the actress’s character again suffers from the unwanted attentions of a possessive former lover. While again a useful compendium of giallo motifs, it is decidedly trashier, with director Giuliano Carnimeo trying that bit too hard for his and the film’s own good. Here, by contrast Martino knows when to go for it – the suspense and murder set pieces, the dream and nightmare sequences, many imaginatively framed shots – and when to hold back, take a more functional approach, and let his actors or the writers take the lead.
Fortunately both performances and dialogue are better than might be expected, particularly in the Italian version. Fenech again shows her talents extended beyond taking her clothes off at the least provocation, while Hilton, De Mendoza and Rassimov each play their roles beautifully. The script, meanwhile, has nice threads running through it, based around such themes as Adam and Eve or original sin and the fall of man, beginning with a quotation attributed to Sigmund Freud.
One of the film’s set pieces, the build-up to and murder of Carol, eerily prefigures and compares admirably to a similar sequence in Argento’s Four Flies on Grey Velvet (released in December 1971, 11 months after The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh); if Martino generally preferred to emphasise quantity of productions, sometimes this was not to the detriment of quality.
Another area where The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh impresses is its use of sound design and music. Two examples of this are the subjective shift that takes place in the Nora Orlandi ‘party music’ cue as Julie spots Jean across the room, and the use of a heartbeat effect during a tense life-or-death scene late on.
Noshame’s Region 1 DVD of The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh has been out of print for some time and accordingly commands a price premium. The new DVD from Mya – released on February 9, under the alternate American title Blade of the Ripper – is thus welcome for those unable to find or afford the Noshame edition. Those who have it will have no reason to double-dip, however. For Mya’s anamorphic widescreen transfer appears to come from exactly the same source but lacks the interviews with Fenech, Hilton, Sergio Martino and Gastaldi.
- Running time: 96 minutes
- Single layer, interlaced
- Dolby Digital mono in English and Italian
- English subtitles
- Italian Theatrical trailer (without subtitles)
- Stills & poster gallery
THE STRANGE VICE OF MRS. WARD (Lo Strano Vizio della Signora Wardh, a.k.a. BLADE OF THE RIPPER, 1971). Directed by Sergio martino, Screenplay by Vittorio Caronia, Ernesto Gastaldi, Eduardo Manzanos Brochero; story by Borchero. Cast: George Hilton, Edwige Fenech, Conchita Airoldi, Manuel Gil, Carlo Alighiero, Ivan Rassimov, Alberto De Mendoza, Bruno Corazzari.