The Giallo Project #10: The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh
Alternative titles: Lo Strano vizio della Signora Wardh; Next!; Blade of the Ripper; Director: Sergio Martino; Starring: George Hilton, Edwige Fenech, Conchita Airoldi, Ivan Rassimov, Alberto de Mendoza; Music: Nora Orlandi; Italian theatrical release date: January 15th, 1971
Note: this review contains a number of major spoilers.
No, you haven’t gone crazy. I have indeed just skipped over several films, leaping from 1969’s The Frightened Woman all the way to 1971’s The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh, leaving out a whole lot of interesting title along the way (not least The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, arguably the single most crucial film in the giallo movement after Blood and Black Lace). I fully intend to go back and cover these films at a later date, but since, at the moment, I’m writing (or trying to write) a piece comparing the portrayal and treatment of the heroines in The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh and Luciano Ercoli’s Death Walks at Midnight, I thought it made sense to treat you to my thought process as I went through these two films. (Ergo, the next Giallo Project will cover Death Walks at Midnight.)
Mrs. Wardh is a film that I think people tend to overrate… although, of course, that’s just my opinion, and I suspect many people will feel that I underrate it. In historical terms, it’s noteworthy for being the first giallo to be directed by the prolific Sergio Martino (although he only actually directed four further gialli) and to star Edwige Fenech, considered by many to be to the giallo what Jamie Lee Curtis is to the American slasher. It’s very much a giallo in the “harangued woman” format that we might say got its kick-start with The Sweet Body of Deborah (covered here), on which many of Mrs. Wardh’s key players on both sides of the camera worked. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your taste in gialli), this means that the voluptuous Ms. Fenech spends the duration of the film running from one man to another, often fainting into their arms or begging them to protect her. For some viewers, this is part and parcel of what makes gialli so enjoyable; personally, I prefer my heroines to have a bit more pluck - think Nora in The Girl Who Knew Too Much or Valentina in Death Walks at Midnight. Barring the pansexual seductress she played in Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key, Fenech’s giallo roles tend to be comprised exclusively of complete drips who wouldn’t seem entirely out of place in a Victorian romance novel.
The amusing part is that this appears at least partly to be intentional. The rest of the women in the film are considerably less highly strung, and, while most of them meet a bloody end screaming their lungs out, they seem to have noticed that the year is 1971, not 1871, and that women are no longer the property of men. While Julie Wardh (Fenech) is married to her dry-faced dolt of a husband, Neil (Alberto de Mendoza), her best friend Carol (Conchita Airoldi) enjoys living it up, espousing a motto of “When it’s good, I enjoy it. When it’s bad, I don’t think about it.” A bit of an airhead, yes, but she’s considerably better company than the humourless Julie, even if her notion of being liberated doesn’t extend much beyond having lots of sex with lots of men, and seems to be in the fortunate position of having ample money at her disposal despite not appearing to have a job or anyone else to provide for her. La dolce vita indeed!
Julie, too, has far too much free time on her hands, but she spends it fretting and running into the arms of one man after another, hoping they’ll protect her. I said before that there’s a common theme in the “harangued woman” gialli, of the heroine (a term I’m using very loosely here) hoping the Good Man will protect her from the Bad Men, with the former invariably turning out to be the latter. Here, all three men in Julie’s life - Neil, the thuggish Jean (Ivan Rassimov), the roguish George (George Hilton) - are involved in a plot to do poor Julie in and collect the proceeds of her life insurance, so in a sense you can’t really blame her for running around like a headless chicken practicing her wide-eyed look of horror at every opportunity. The three conspirators’ scheme has to rank as one of the most nonsensical in any giallo (and that’s saying something), but I’ll get on to that later. In the meantime, it’s quite fascinating to see the three archetypes so clearly established: the boring, safe (who is of course anything but) older man who seems to be something of a surrogate father; the dangerous, sinister rascal who enjoys leering at the heroine and subjecting her to various forms of sexualised torture; the rakish playboy whose happy-go-lucky nature really can’t be anything but an act. That all three are planning to do Julie in is further evidence of how misanthropic these films tend to be: Julie may be a complete and utter nervous wreck, but if the entire world appears to be populated by bastards, can you really blame her? Actually, I think you probably can: in Death Walks at Midnight, Valentina’s response to an attempted sex attack is to knee the perpretrator in the balls; Julie tends to to swoon and let them get on with it. Okay, so I’m not expecting every giallo heroine to be a gung-ho action woman, but it’s kind of disheartening to watch one who is such a pushover.
As for the aforementioned plot devised by the three men, it’s one of those traditional giallo schemes that superficially seems to make sense - having three killers, after all, means that you avoid any unfortunate problems of having someone be in two places at once - but, once you start to pick it apart, promptly falls to pieces. Now, you might say, if I’m paying too much attention to the plot, I’m not really getting into the spirit of things, but I like my pizza to have some dough in it rather than just a mountain of toppings, and the same goes for my gialli: the photography, sex and violence is all very well, but if there isn’t a plot holding it together, I find it harder to care. Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, Massimo Dallamano and Aldo Lado (probably my favourite four) all seemed to understand this, and were able to ground their stylistic set-pieces within interesting plots; here, the killers’ motives and their actions seem almost to have been an afterthought.
Essentially, the plan is that, if Julie dies, Neil will inherit a substantial amount of money. Now, he could bump her off himself, but he needs an alibi, so he enlists his associate, George, who would like Neil to do him a favour and do away with his cousin Carol, so he can come into some money of his own. All well and good, and the fact that a maniac is currently terrorising Neil and Julie’s native Vienna, slicing and dicing young women with a razor, gives the pair the perfect opportunity to make it look like the demises of Julie and Carol are the work of this individual. Killing Carol is straightforward enough - they lure her to a deserted park on the pretext of meeting someone who is blackmailing Julie (though how they could be sure Carol would go in Julie’s place is anyone’s guess). With Julie, however, they complicate things by, for seemingly no reason, involving her old flame Jean, and then going on a gratuitous trip to Spain, where they chloroform her, turn on the gas and attempt to pass her death off as suicide. All well and good, but why bother going to Spain to do it? Why not just do this in Vienna, or better let keep things simple and stick a knife in her in a dark alley? The most obvious answer is that this was a Spanish co-production, and the script needed to include an excuse to do some filming in that country. Another theory, of course, is that writer Ernesto Gastaldi was making it up as he went along, which is one of the reasons why I’ve always found his assertion that Dario Argento’s scripts are nonsensical quite bizarre.
Is this enough to make or break the film? Not really, but, for me, it does introduce one distraction too many in a film that was already struggling to hold my attention. While a couple of the set-pieces are quite effective (the best being the death of Carol, which anticipates a similar park murder in Argento’s later Four Flies on Grey Velvet), Emilio Foriscot’s photography is flatly lit and overly contrasty, while, as already mentioned, Julie is a completely insipid protagonist. As far as Martino’s work goes, I find myself drawn more to All the Colours of the Dark, which features nearly all the same flaws but makes up for them by being completely crazy and off the wall. Mrs. Wardh is… well, it’s not a dead loss by any means, and I do quite like the atmosphere of casual decadence that Martino creates, but it’s one of those films that I always have to force myself to go back to, and never enjoy as much as everyone else seems to.
Next time, I’ll be looking at Luciano Ercoli’s Death Walks at Midnight, one of my guilty pleasures.