The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh Review
Julie Wardh (Edwige Fenech) arrives in her home town of Vienna with her diplomat husband Neil (Alberto de Mendoza) to find the city being terrorized by an unknown assassin. Young women are dropping like flies, and Julie immediately suspects her sadistic ex-boyfriend Jean (Ivan Rassimov), a particularly nasty brute who used to enjoy slashing her with broken bottles and beating her up. Jean conveniently arrived back in town at around the time the killings began, and seems intent on rekindling his "romance" with Julie. Also entering the fray is the enigmatic and handsome George (George Hilton), who also sets his sights on Julie. As the maniac movies in for the kill, Julie must use her wits to work out just which of the many men in her life has intentions more sinister than merely getting her into bed.
Sergio Martino's career as a director began in 1969 with Mondo Sex (known in its native Italy as Mille Peccati... Nessuna Virtù), a pseudo-scientific documentary revelling in human sexuality but at the same time condemning it. In many ways, this is a trait that all his films share, and although he has spent the last three and a half decades (he continues to work in the industry to this day, albeit mostly in the realm of television) dipping into virtually every genre under the sun, it is in his capacity as a director of gialli that he is most often remembered nowadays, albeit a rather underrated one. Make no mistake, Martino's films do not have the complexity or substance, or indeed the production values (whether real or perceived), of the work of his more celebrated peers Dario Argento and Mario Bava (or indeed lesser-known heavyweights like Aldo Lado), but the five gialli he helmed during the first half of the 1970s are all very entertaining and stand as engaging, if somewhat formulaic, thrillers. His first effort in the genre, 1971's The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh (Lo Strano vizio della Signora Wardh), set the tone for his subsequent offerings, and although it is largely derivative of the model perfected by Argento in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, in many ways it is his strongest film.
In many respects this is very much a prototypical giallo, demonstrating most, if not all, of genre's usual quirks and subjects - black-gloved killers, reference to past ordeals, sexually motivated murders and the like - and at the same time, it deviates slightly from the usual formula in the same way that most of Martino's films seem to do. The vast majority of gialli focus on a single protagonist or at a push a team of two (usually lovers or a young stalwart and an older mentor), but Martino's films tend to be ensemble pieces, with the secondary characters getting almost as much screen time as the headlined stars. In this respect, Mrs. Wardh shares a similar technique to that of three of Martino's other gialli, The Case of the Scorpion's Tail, All the Colors of the Dark and Your Vice is a Closed Room and Only I Have the Key: a constantly shifting viewpoint. It is not uncommon for Martino's films to start off focusing on one protagonist only to later switch to another. Here, Edwige Fenech is in the limelight for the first two-thirds of the film, but the focus moves to George Hilton in later scenes. This adds an air of unpredictability to these films, but at the same time means that we never really get particularly attached to any one character.
As is the case with many gialli, the individuals in the film are broad archetypes rather than fully-fledged characters, with plenty of genre regulars portraying the same personalities that they would go on to embody in so many other films. It must be pointed out, though, that this was very much the first time for a number of the key players, so although many of the actors and their characters would later become little more than clichés, it can perhaps be argued that they had at least some originality at this point. As would so often be the case, Edwige Fenech, here in her first thriller role, embodies the innocent but seductive beauty who has an unfortunate habit of attracting all the wrong types of men. In an interview regarding The Case of the Scorpion's Tail, Ernesto Gastaldi (who wrote or co-wrote all of Martino's gialli) claimed that Fenech didn't really have the right kind of screen presence for a victim - it is ironic, therefore, that she was typecast as such an individual. The portrayal of women as weak and passive is a trait common in most gialli and indeed many films of this vintage, but Martino's offerings and, I suspect, most films written by Gastaldi, take this attitude to new heights. These films have an incredibly old-fashioned outlook on life, and although it is certainly part and parcel of the genre, one cannot help but look on incredulously as Fenech flutters her eyelashes at the nearest handsome stranger (usually George Hilton, embodying the same macho persona that he portrayed in his numerous Spaghetti Western outings) and screams while waiting for an able-bodied member of the opposite sex to come and rescue her.
Beneath all these discussions of gender politics and stereotyping, however, lies a genuinely compelling thriller that is well-executed and engaging. There are a lot of first-timers on board for this film, both behind and in front of the camera, but they all acquit themselves with a level of expertise that one would normally only expect from years of experience. Fenech and Hilton make an engaging couple, and while it would be unfair to claim that they have chemistry (the post-dubbing puts paid to that notion), they are at least believable and fulfil their expected functions. Ivan Rassimov, who featured in many of Martino's gialli and always seemed to be landed with sinister, thuggish roles, is positively menacing as Fenech's deranged former lover. He was an actor with a great deal of screen presence and with a talent for projecting menace from his cold eyes. This isn't quite on par with his performance in All the Colors of the Dark, but it ranks a close second. As with so many of these films, the visuals take precedence over the performances of the cast, and while Martino remains a rather workmanlike director in comparison to some of his more esteemed colleagues, he certainly knows how to frame interesting compositions. He is also extremely adept when it comes to the various stalk sequences, building tension via clever editing and some nice point of view shots. A special mention must also be given to Nora Orlandi's haunting score, in particular the theme that plays during the various flashbacks to Julie's past with Jean - a theme that should be familiar to anyone who has seen Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill Volume 2.
As is the case with Sergio Martino's other films, this is very much an example of "what you see is what you get", meaning that, unlike the gialli of Argento or Lado, or even Fulci, there is essentially nothing subtextual going on, so if the film fails to be entertaining in the most straightforward sense of the word, it is essentially dead in the water. Luckily, The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh is very entertaining, and is arguably Martino's best film. There's nothing her that Argento didn't do better in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, but to be even comparing it to that particular film is significant indeed. While it may be all style and no substance, it is one of the best examples of this particular brand of style, and as a result gets a solid recommendation from me.
The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh arrives on DVD courtesy of NoShame Films, an Italian company run by former Anchor Bay and Blue Underground employees Joyce Shen and Michele de Angelis, that has recently opened a US wing. The film was recently released on DVD in Italy, but alas devoid of English audio or subtitles, and thus the news of an American release was cause for great celebration. Unfortunately, despite frequent promises of outstanding image quality, the end result is disappointing. The film is presented anamorphically in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, but it seems to have been sourced from the Italian DVD rather than from an original film source. As a result, the transfer is a PAL to NTSC standards conversion, and suffers from a considerable amount of ghosting and "line-jumping", as well as an overall lack of definition. Considering that the packaging describes the film as having been "digitally remastered and restored from the vault original 2P negative", this is a real disappointment. The transfer also seems overly dark at times, especially during the night scenes, meaning that it is often difficult to see what is happening.
Luckily, NoShame have come up trumps with the audio, providing both English and Italian audio options, and English subtitles for the Italian dialogue. This is a very nice inclusion and I seriously wish more distributors would do this with gialli (are you hearing this, Anchor Bay and Blue Underground?). It's a shame, therefore, that the subtitles are of a rather amateur standard, suffering from numerous typographical errors and generally coming across as quite stilted, in addition to the odd line here and there being missing entirely.
The DVD offers a number of interesting special features, starting with "Dark Fears Behind the Door", a 31-minute documentary featuring interviews with director Sergio Martino, producer Luciano Martino, writer Ernesto Gastaldi, and actors George Hilton and Edwige Fenech. This is the first time Fenech has ever been interviewed about her giallo days (she is now a major producer in the Italian film industry) and it is a pleasure to hear what she has to say about the experience. All five speakers are enthusiastic, discussing a range of topics including the censorship of the day and the fact that, for many of them, this was their first experience making a giallo. The documentary is presented in Italian with English subtitles. On my DVD player, I found that they did not appear automatically and had to be toggled with the remote.
Around five minutes' worth of footage from the film's Venice Film Festival Screening follows, with Martino talking about how unbelievable it is for one of his films to be screened at such a prestigious gathering. Like the documentary, it is presented in Italian with English subtitles.
Also included are the original Theatrical Trailer (in Italian, without subtitles) and a reasonably extensive Gallery, featuring poster artwork and publicity photos.
NoShame's release of The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh is not all that it is cracked up to be, but as the only current way of seeing this engaging giallo with English language options, fans of the genre should probably pick it up regardless. It's just a shame that such a great opportunity was squandered here, as the source materials seem to have been in great shape but have been needlessly mangled by the standards conversion process. If NoShame are to compete with the likes of Blue Underground and Anchor Bay, both of whom release similar titles to a much higher standard, they will have to make changes to their production process.