The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh/Lo strano vizio della signora Wardh (1971)

‘And I was afraid I’d have to do without any bratwurst.’

A neglected diplomat’s wife returns to Vienna with her husband during a series of unsolved murders of young women. She takes a lover but gets a phone call threatening to expose the affair. She suspects the culprit maybe her old boyfriend with who she had a violent sexual relationship…

High-quality Italian-Spanish Giallo thriller that launched the career of director Sergio Martino and took leading lady Edwige Fenech to the next level. Previously Martino had delivered a little regarded Spaghetti Western and a trio of documentaries, and Fenech was best known for her beauty rather than her acting chops. She had primarily appeared in sexy comedies, although she’d made an undeniable impression in supporting roles in Giallo pictures ‘Top Sensation’ (1969) and Mario Bava’s ‘Five Dolls For An August Moon’ (1970).

Returning to Vienna, diplomat Neil Wardh (Alberto de Mendoza) is immediately rushed from the airport into a top-level meeting, leaving bored young wife Julie (Fenech) to go home in a taxi. On the way, she has a vivid flashback to her affair with the handsome but sadistic Jean (Ivan Rassimov). It’s a striking scene and the first sign that the audience is in for something special. It’s almost operatic in the way it combines slow motion, dissonant music and sexual violence as the two wrestle on the ground during a rainstorm.

‘Go away, my flashbacks are far more interesting than you…’

With hubby almost permanently absent at work, there’s little for Fenech to do now she’s back home but hang out with cynical, liberated BFF Carol (Conchita Airoldi). Apart from the usual round of shopping and afternoon tea, this involves attending a vaguely naughty party with the smart set where girls wear paper dresses and tear them off during a catfight. Here, she meets Airoldi’s cousin, the ruggedly handsome George Corro (George Hilton) who’s in town to claim an unexpected inheritance that he’s sharing with Airoldi. Fenech attempts to resist his charms, but Hilton is persistent, and self-restraint is not her forte. Unfortunately, Rassimov is still in town and sending her flowers, although his intentions could hardly be described as romantic. Meanwhile, young women are being brutally murdered with a razor by an unknown killer.

After her first night with Hilton, Fenech gets an anonymous phone call demanding money in exchange for silence about the affair. She suspects Rassimov is behind it and confesses all to her best friend. Airoldi goes in her place to deliver the blackmail payoff in a public park at sunset, but she is attacked with a razor and murdered. Fenech suspects Rassimov is the serial killer, of course, but the police find he has an unshakeable alibi. As events twist and turn, Fenech starts to believe she is marked for death.

‘A blackmail payoff? No problem, afterwards we can talk about men some more.’

An excellent mystery coupled with some beautiful visuals, an unflagging pace and good performances make for one of the finest examples of the Giallo sub-genre. Director Martino handles the material with flair and style, and the screenplay by old hand Ernesto Gastaldi is tight and well-disciplined. In terms of credibility, the complex plot takes one twist too many at the end, but it makes for a satisfying resolution. It’s also been such a highly enjoyable journey to get there that it hardly matters. The dubbing in the English language version is not great, and the viewing experience improved significantly by watching the subtitled original.

The film was a watershed moment for Fenech as an actress and a tricky assignment. After all, our weak-willed heroine takes almost no positive action throughout, even on her own behalf; perfectly happy to abdicate responsibility for her actions and let Airoldi deliver the blackmail payoff, even though it’s likely to be a dangerous task with a mad killer on the loose. She also needs constant validation from her relationships with men, and usually in a physical sense. There’s little attempt to address her character’s psychology or analyse her sexual needs, particularly concerning her violent relationship with Rassimov. This is showcased in another memorable flashback where the couple has sex in a blood-soaked bed filled with glass fragments from a broken wine bottle.

‘And they told me there was a wardrobe budget this time…’

It’s a challenging task to keep an audience onside with such a passive, flawed character, and it’s a testament to Fenech’s increasing skill as an actress that she remains sympathetic throughout. The poise and personality she displays is a marked improvement on her showing in previous roles. It proved a stepping stone to a remarkable cult film career that included starring roles in several notable Giallo films. She worked with Martino again on ‘All The Colours of the Dark (1972) and ‘Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key’ (1972). Other examples were ‘The Case of the Bloody Iris’ (1972) and ‘Strip Nude for Your Killer’ (1975). She also continued to appear in many sex comedies throughout the 1970s and early 1980s and eventually began a second career as a highly successful producer for Italian television.

The male members of the cast also deliver strong turns here, with all three principals displaying an economy of performance and quiet charisma that serves their characters and the story. Airoldi also makes something out of the ‘best friend’ who keeps her undies in the fridge; world-weary and carefree on the one hand, but also practical and loyal at heart. The scene where she is stalked at the payoff rendezvous is one of the film’s highlights; a tense and unsettling sequence where Martino’s camera deftly captures the isolation and vulnerability of the victim as she walks through the public grounds of Vienna’s famous Schönbrunn Palace.

‘Just because he forgot our anniversary last week….’

After the Giallo craze subsided, Martino carved out a long career in Italian cinema. He teamed with Fenech again for some of her sexy comedies, as well as delivering such cult titles as the controversial ‘Slave of the Cannibal God’ (1978), Dr Moreau knock-off ‘Island of the Fishmen’ (1979) and that glorious slab of sci-fi cheese ‘2019: After The Fall of New York’ (1983). Like Fenech, Hilton became primarily associated with the Giallo, appearing with her again in ‘All The Colours of the Dark (1972) and ‘The Case of the Bloody Iris’ (1972). He also appeared in Martino’s ‘The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail (1971), Tonino Valerii ‘My Dear Killer’ (1972), and Luigi Cozzi’s ‘The Killer Must Kill Again’ (1975).

As a side-note, if the spelling of the title character’s name seems a little odd, then it was allegedly because a woman approached producer Luciano Martino and asked that it be changed to spare her embarrassment! If this seems a little far-fetched, it isn’t easy to come up with an alternative explanation.

A highly accomplished, entertaining Giallo delivered by a fine cast and a talented director who displays a fine visual sensibility and storytelling prowess. Highly recommended.

7 thoughts on “The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh/Lo strano vizio della signora Wardh (1971)

  1. This was one of the better marketed gialli in the USA. When I caught it in a New York theater in Times Square, there was a big cardboard standee of the killer in the lobby. The arm holding the straight razor was attached to a motor and swung back and forth. The distributors and exhibitors don’t bother with this kind of ballyhoo anymore. The title was changed to Next!, emphasizing the murders.

    • That is so cool. Yes, I think marketing is almost solely digital these days. I guess everyone knows (almost) everything about a new movie before it comes out now (unless you make an effort not to know like me!) so there’s not much of a need to try and catch the eye of the passing customer. I only found out in recent years that back in the day in the UK, once a film had finished its run you could just ask the cinema staff to give you all the promotional materials for it and they probably would – free of charge. Because all they were going to do was bin it! Imagine how much a first run ‘Star Wars’ poster in pristine condition would fetch in the open market now!

  2. The Devil With Seven Faces/Il diavolo a sette facce (1971) – Mark David Welsh

  3. The Case of the Bloody Iris/Perché quelle strane gocce di sangue sul corpo di Jennifer?/What Are Those Strange Drops of Blood Doing on Jennifer’s Body? (1972) – Mark David Welsh

  4. My Dear Killer/Mio caro assassino (1972) – Mark David Welsh

  5. Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key/Il tuo vizio è una stanza chiusa e solo io ne ho la chiave (1972) – Mark David Welsh

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