Saturday, 14 January 2012

The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh (1971)

Country: ITALY

Lo strano vizio della Signora Wardh
Blade of the Ripper
The Next Victim!

Like his contemporaries Umberto Lenzi, Enzo G. Castellari, and Lucio Fulci, Sergio Martino was a director who possessed a highly developed degree of generic utility. This ensured that Martino and the others were constantly in demand in the 1970’s and 1980’s, but the price they all had to pay for this was critical marginalisation. However were it not for the commercial success of popular cycles such as the giallo, the spaghetti western, and the poliziotesschi films, the preening ‘art’ cinema of dullards such as Fellini, Antonioni, and Bertolucci, would undoubtedly have struggled to gain the domestic support they required. Sergio Martino’s renaissance has taken a little longer to come about, but like many of his ilk, the era of DVD has been critical in constructing an appreciation of a diverse and intriguing filmography. No longer do scribes have the excuse of films being unavailable. Whilst it is remiss not to place Dario Argento’s early films within the expectations of the cycle they operated within (a major weakness of Maitland McDonagh’s Broken Mirrors/Broken Mind’s was a failure to do this), it would also be equally remiss not to assess the important contribution to the cycle made by Martino and his producer brother Luciano. Although Martino was inspired by the success (and the style) of Argento’s debut picture The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), his own gialli offerings have a peculiarity and an attitude which help them to stand apart in a very overcrowded generic landscape.

Martino’s other gialli include The Case of the Scorpion’s Tale (1971), All the Colours of the Dark (1972), Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (1972), and Torso (1973). The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh was Martino’s first attempt, and although it displays a certain naivety, and wears its influences a little to clearly on its sleeve, it is still a major contribution to the cycle. It is also historically significant for introducing the statuesque charms of Edwige Fenech to the exaggerated and stylised environment of the giallo. Whilst Fenech is always good to look at, her performances often leave a lot to be desired. Unfortunately she seems totally incapable of carrying a film. On this occasion her inflexibility and rigidity is tempered somewhat by the prescence of George Hilton, but most notably by the excellent Ivan Rassimov. Fenech has fascinating material to work with though courtesy of a kinky and convoluted screenplay by Vittorio Caronia, Ernesto Gastaldi, and Eduardo Manzanos Brochero. Julie Wardh finds herself in a loveless marriage of convenience to bland investment broker Neil Wardh (Alberto De Mendoza), the marriage is a sham, but it does enable Julie to pursue a lavish jet setting lifestyle around the capital cities of Europe. A backdrop of diplomats and ambassadors lends the film a certain panache which is enhanced tremendously by the Viennese setting, and this in turn helps to create a striking counterpoint between the murderous intentions of a razor wielding maniac, the decadence of Vienna, and the iniquitous sexual fantasies of Mrs. Wardh.

Unusually the murder sequences represent some of the least imaginative filmmaking by the director, with the notable exception of a thrilling murder in a beautifully lit and beautifully maintained Viennese park. Martino instead saves all of his tricks for the sequences depicting Julie’s past encounters with the sadistic bad boy Jean (Ivan Rassimov). The first is shot in slow motion, in an eerie rain sodden woodland, and illustrates the centrality of violence to their relationship. The second employs a similar strategy but makes striking use of broken glass and illustrates Julie’s attraction too, and repulsion of, blood. These sequences exist outside the main body of the movie and as a result we are never sure if they are events the protagonist is remembering or imagining. The dream like quality only confuses matters further, and adds to the potency of the implied rape and sexual violence we see. The relationship between Jean and Julie is one of submission and dominance, but oddly Julie exhibits none of these characteristics or interests with the other men in her life. The strange vices of Mrs. Wardh are oddly inconsistent. Nevertheless it’s clear that Julie has the freedom of sexual expression, has several men on the go at once, and is in ultimate control of all the men in her life.

In these aspects of the plot the screenplay succeeds, but all too soon the film takes some unexpected turns; some succeed and some fail miserably. The razor wielding killer is a reasonably sophisticated red herring, but this revelation lacks power due to the almost throwaway nature of the reveal. However it does at least provide the film with a moment of genuine suspense in an underground car park. The clumsy plotting begins to take a heavier toll on the movie when the action shifts to the Spanish coast. I felt the film really began to lose its way at this point, and with the serial killer out of the way, I was mentally preparing myself for an obvious twist in the tale. But all due credit to the writers, they still manage to pull off a bizarre conclusion to the festivities. The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh is a seductive, exotic, and decadent treat. An elegant and haunting score by Nora Orlandi gives the film a real touch of class which is sometimes undermined by Martino’s own filmmaking vice; the overuse of the zoom lens.

© Shaun Anderson 2011


  1. "...the preening ‘art’ cinema of dullards such as Fellini, Antonioni, and Bertolucci".


    Me personally, I'd happily argue that 'I Vitelloni', 'Blow Up' and 'La commare secca' aren't at all dull! And, in the case of the latter two, there's a giallo-esque quality to them that (as least in the Antonioni film) isn't at all diminished by the 'arty' elements. But anyway... :)

    "The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh was Martino’s first attempt, and although it displays a certain naivety..."

    That's an interesting remark, because Martino was a regular in the Italian cinema industry before 'Mrs. Wardh'. Interestingly, as regards giallo, he's credited as 'General/Production Manager' on 'The Sweet Body of Deborah' (1968) - which boasts a story by Luciano Martino and Ernesto Gastaldi (Gastaldi also wrote the screenplay), a producer credit for Luciano Martino, performances by Carroll Baker, Jean Sorel, Ida Galli, Luigi Pistilli and George Hilton, and a score by Nora Orlandi. I only mention this because the film itself is undoubtedly a prototype model designed to test the formula (both in narrative and production terms) that Sergio Martino would later employ in the giallo titles he directed. (Indeed, I wonder which really came first: 'The Sweet Body of Deborah' or Lenzi's 'Orgasmo'? The latter is often dated as 1969, but one really has to wonder when viewing both films, as they're so similar.)

    Anyway, identifying directorial naivety in 'Mrs. Wardh' is therefore certainly interesting, Shaun. I feel it's very slick and knowing myself, but perhaps you could elaborate?

    And, yeah, Edwige Fenech is rather flat here (her dubbing doesn't help). She's MUCH better playing the evil temptress in, say, 'Your Vice is a locked room...' than the terrified maiden constantly requiring male rescuing (as in most of her gialli).

    Hopefully we'll see your take on 'The Case of the Scorpion's Tail', Shaun, which is Martino's best giallo in my opinion (his 'Suspected Death of A Minor' from 1975 is also a kind of hybrid cop/giallo, too).

  2. I don't really think they are dullards Jonny, I was just seeing if someone would react :-) BLOW UP is a great film.

    I don't think that because Martino was a regular in the Italian cinema industry it makes him any less open to a certain naivety. He had only directed one fictional feature film prior to MRS. WARDH, the rather forgettable western ARIZONA CULT RETURNS. The filmmaking imperatives of the three Mondo documentaries he opened his directing career with are quite different to the strategies employed in a giallo. Martino himself raises the issue of naivety in an interview contained on the Shameless DVD release of the film, citing the extent to which he tried to emulate Argento, and his admission that he singularly failed to do this. I think his naivety lies in thinking that a few clever visual flourishes and tricks were enough to compensate for an over convoluted and confusing plot. This is where the film fails in comparison to THE BIRD WITH CRYSTAL has the visual trickery AND it has a satisfying well structured narrative.

  3. Well, I'm the happy fish to your proverbial barrel - I'll always react. :)

    That's interesting info, indeed. But even if Martino failed in emulating Argento, he certainly succeeded in emulating Lenzi!

  4. I really must review more art cinema...especially the New German stuff of the 1970's, problem is I'm piegon holed as a horror blog. I'm not even a horror fan, I just find it effortless to write about that particular genre. I remember reviewing a couple of 'classic era' westerns last year - that went down like a lead balloon.

    I don't know about you Johnny, but I much prefer Martino's gialli to Lenzi's.

  5. That's a shame if those reviews weren't as popular as some of the horror/Eurocult material.

    I'd love to read some reviews of Truffaut's films, particularly the Doinel series. :)

  6. I love Martino's gialli; I think they stand as some of the finest examples of the genre. Each one has its own unique little twist (like, for example, the gothic trimmings of Your Vice, and the proto-slasher narrative of Torso).
    I enjoyed the re-teaming of Fenech, Hilton and Rassimov (who was always criminally underused by Martino) in All the Colours of the Dark.
    And I agree re. the commercial success of popular cycles such as the giallo enabling the likes of Fellini, Antonioni, Bertolucci et al to gain domestic funding.
    The state of Italian cinema today, or lack thereof, is really something to lament.

  7. @ Johnny - They went down about as well as a corpse at a wedding Johnny. That won't deter me from exploring different avenues though. Yes, I've yet to review a Truffaut film here, the closest I've got was a review of Maurice Piliat's L'ENFANCE NUE, which has more than one or two similarities with Truffaut's THE 400 BLOWS. I'll certainly give some serious thought to reviewing a more diverse range of films this year. If you have any requests, I'd be more than happy to take a look at them.

    @ James - I do like the psychedelic and fragmented style of ALL THE COLOURS OF THE DARK - that's probably my favourite Martino gialli. But TORSO contains his greatest single filmmaking moment in my view...when the girl is being stalked in the misty woodlands/swamp. I agree about modern Italian cinema - a thriving popular cinema of several generic cycles in 60's, 70's and 80's...and now, virtually no genre filmmaking at all.

  8. Hi, Shaun. Great stuff as always. I really do need to see more giallos. I have about 30 of them and haven't seen the bulk of them yet. The comment about the artistic filmmakers endeavors being kept afloat by more commercial, escapist entertainment is spot on. I recall Mimmo Palmara saying this very same thing on an Italian documentary about the sword and sandal movies. Martino's TORSO is really good, though.

  9. Cheers Brian - Yes, it would be interesting to read your thoughts on certain gialli. I think the film industries of most nations (aside from the US and India) function or functioned along those lines. The giallo is particularly interesting because it was the only popular Italian film cycle that sought to implement some of the narrative and formal strategies of the far loftier art films.

  10. "... the preening ‘art’ cinema of dullards such as Fellini, Antonioni, and Bertolucci, would undoubtedly have struggled to gain the domestic support they required." Ha!

    Me, I'm no giallo connoisseur, and my interest in the cycle is more in passing, so it should come as no surprise, when I admit: I haven't seen this, nor I have I seen any other of Martino's films (at least that I know of offhand). As always though, buddy, nice write up. Sounds like it'd be worth seeing for the score and all the shots of 70's Europe! You know me, I'm always game to hop on that Celluloid Time Machine! Um, no, wait... or was that my time travailing PHONE BOOTH I'm always game to hop IN!!! Vacuum the shag, baby, and stock the wet-bar! Because watch out 1970's Europe, here we come!!!

    And I read most of your western reviews (and will re-visit them soon), at least most of them anyway, and loved your write-up on SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON. And did you do THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERT VALANCE, too? I can't remember. There were several others as well. I wasn't following your blog at the time, or you would have heard from me on the matter... or don't you believe it, punk?!

  11. Oops. Sometimes I get my Ford mixed up: I loved your write up of MY DARLING CLEMENTIN, not SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON. Not that I wouldn't have loved the latter had you endeavored to do a review of that classic as well.

    As far as westerns go, I think it's safe to say that horror fans take the cake regarding internet literacy.

  12. Yes the score by Nora Orlandi is very distintive and works extremely well. I was fortunate enough to download it a few months back. I think you'd enjoy this Greg just for Ivan Rassimov's sadistic but super cool performance.

    Traditional westerns reviewed - RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY, THE MAN FROM LARAMIE and MY DARLING a handful of Spaghetti Westerns including DAY OF ANGER with our legendary bearded bounty hunter. I would like to do some more Westerns and will undoubtedly get around to them. I realised, much to my dismay, the shocking abscence of Clint Eastwood on these pages. I've only reviewed GRAN TORINO, so I'm think of maybe doing a month long Clint retrospective. What do you think? Also what would you like to see?

  13. Aw, that legendary bearded assassin, he that haunts my dreams! At the end of the path, I fear he'll be the one waiting for me, as I enter some dusty saloon off of Route-66, my car just having broken down - and there he will be, one booted leg kicked up on a table, an empty bottle to Tennessee rye before him. He'll squint, smirk slightly, then kick out the extra chair at his table to block my path to the bar. I'll turn, open my mouth to utter some protest, and that'll be all she route, as he blazes me six ways from Sunday, splintering the table top he shot me through, and there I'll drop (at last), just like a sack of lifeless potatoes.

    Maybe it'll be that way... maybe it won't... maybe I'll smoke his ass instead, then saddle up to the bar, order a cold cold-one, light a "see-gar" then take Miss Millie upstairs for a good old fashioned humping she'll never forget... one that boarders on rape, that being the custom at the time - a version of neanderthal copulation...

    I digress...

    Eastwood films for the Highway, hmm. Off the top of my head: COOGAN'S BLUFF, maybe; I do love THE ROOKIE (one he made "for them," he said); just bought THUNDER BOLT AND LIGHT FOOT - that is one you gotta do! Of course, THE EIGER SANCTION; oh, and HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER! And how 'bout maybe my favorite Western: FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE - I'm sure this has been done, but not like you'd do it, amigo. Ahh, and maybe FIREFOX, as well. Just a few to get you started... more later...

    ... for now the Sand Man is afoot, gotta run and hide... he is coming... i hear his laughter... goodbye...


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