Saturday 16 May 2015

In the grip of giallo… The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh (1971)

Italian cinema is like another country to paraphrase Ian Rush: similar but decidedly different. They may have ruled European art-house from neo-realism through to the titans of total control such as Fellini and Antonioni but the Italians also had their own take on Hammer horror or was it film noir?

Giallo took elements of both to create over-plotted, bloody and erotic horrors taken from an everyday life in which everyone behaves suspiciously and no one is to be trusted. It’s an uncertain world and one that AllMovies described as sometimes “…a head-spinning experience in style over substance." The attempt at this result is deliberate with a generous of naked female flesh, artfully shot violence and sublime, swoonful scores (here from Nora Orlandi).

Edwige Fenech,
It takes your cinematic comfort food and lets it rot in front of your eyes as these elements combine with the warm sunlit locations – Vienna, Catalonia, Italy… to violently subvert your anticipation and response. It’s a cinema of masochism in which the audience must surrender to the brutality and in-humanity gratuitously-displayed on screen. There’s no guarantee of a happy ending and when everyone has secrets – especially the seemingly-sympathetic ones… who can you identify with; who can you trust?

Giallo is Italian for yellow; the colour used to denote thriller books and as these pulp fiction stories were presented on film, blood red and blackness became the main signifiers…

So it is at the start of the film a man in black, who drives a black car strikes out at a woman using a cut throat razor: a violent killer is on the loose and we know it could be anyone of the characters on film – or more than one...

Julie is suffocated by her husband's diplomatic discipline
Cut (sorry) to our heroine Julie Wardh (Edwige Fenech) as she arrives at Vienna airport with her husband the much older Neil (Alberto de Mendoza) a high-flying diplomat who is greeted by some dull-looking men who drag him off to the latest of many meetings.  Julie grabs a cab home only to be informed of the latest murder… oh these things that always happen to other people….

Her mind drifts to a violent confrontation with her former lover Jean, who assaults her in a rain-sodden wood only for the two to make passionate and intense love… back to reality she leaves the cab and as she enters her apartment block spots a black sports car just like Jean’s… Once inside the bell boy brings her a bouquet of red roses with a message from Jean. Will she ever be free of him?

Julie tries to brush the thoughts off as she heads to a party with her best friend Carol (Conchita Airoldi). The party’s a swinging affair as these things could be in 1971 but the girls behave themselves especially as Carol’s dishy cousin George (George Hilton) is there discussing his inheritance with co-benefactor Carol.

Carol and Julie eye the talent
Things are going well until Julie’s ex Jean (the superbly menacing Ivan Rassimov) shows up glass in one hand and their secret love in his mind. He’s nasty what could Julie ever see in him, yes he’s handsome but really what poor manners… ah, I see: the two had a specifically sado-masochistic relationship and he knows how thin her veneer of civilised tastes really is.

Jean raises a glass... not for the first time
Julie leaves only to be pursued by Jean and only the intervention of the late-arriving Neil just about drives Jean away… Neil strikes the sadist who responds with a dismissive laugh that mixes disdain with the knowledge of Julie’s weakness (how many times has he struck her?).

That night Julie has a dream that graphically illustrates the kind of relationship she used to enjoy with Jean: fifty shades of scarlet with smashed glass submissiveness the tip of the iceberg. But Jean wants away and to escape not just Jean but this side of herself…

Julie and Jean enjoy a bottle of wine...
That night one of the girls from the party is killed by the knife man in her shower – a scene you could say is a tribute to Hitchcock from director Sergio Martino but the whole genre has clearly been touched by the nastier aspects of Hitch’s oeuvre…

Julie and Carol see the headlines on a shopping trip brushing off the co-incidence… returning to Julie’s flat they find George, he’s clearly seen something he likes but Julie is trying for the straight and narrow with Neil. But when the girls go to restaurant they find that George has booked a table for them – Carol is playing match-maker for her bored friend.

Julie and George go biking
George takes Julie for a blast on his nifty motorbike and for the first time in a while she feels the thrill of unprotected adventure as they whisk through the Viennese streets and out into the country… it’s only a matter of time before she gives in and the spur is provided when walking late night near George’s as a black car just like Jean’s flies past… cue a romp on George’s couch watched from the window by a mysterious man in black.

Still the flowers keep on coming and Julie receives a phone call threatening to reveal her proclivities… the caller asks to meet her in the park but assuming the blackmailer is Jean Carol offers to go instead and to set him straight… but in one of the film’s most unsettling sequences Carol meets the knife man and is killed.

Carol walks to her doom
What now for Julie as it becomes clear that she is the murderer’s ultimate target… can she find refuge with anyone? 

Dusty verdict: The plot is quick-moving and becomes more detailed as we race towards to conclusion. Julie escapes to Barcelona with George but cannot elude the man in black for too long…

I won’t give away the ending as it would take a many more words to explain how the film gets from A to B… it’s a bare knuckle ride of fantastic twists and turns.

The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh is well directed by Sergio Martino and not as graphically violent as it could well be - a plus in my book - with the suspense created by well-shot atmospherics and fine acting. Edwige Fenech is the stand out as the woman with the strange hobby who needs the chance to escape from an almost ludicrous amount of bad fortune… and whilst Ivan Rassimov excels as the most obvious threat to her life and happiness; he's not the only one!

The film is available at collectable prices from Amazon on DVD but you can also rent it from Love Film.

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