Starring Edwige Fenech, George Hilton, Ivan Rassimov, Alberto de Mendoza
Directed by Sergio Martino
Distributed by Severin Films
There is an amusing anecdote regarding Sergio Martino’s first giallo film, The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh (1971), which reports that an “h” had to be added to the title character’s last name because a woman named “Mrs. Ward” was concerned the film might damage her reputation. Did they share a first name, too? Who knows? But given the proclivities of Mrs. Wardh and her eponymous vice I can almost understand that woman’s concern. Martino waded into the pulpy yellow waters of giallo just a year after Dario Argento burst onto the scene with The Bird with Crystal Plumage (1970) and Strange Vice is practically every bit as twisty and thrilling as Argento’s celebrated classic – the chief difference being where Argento punches up the style Martino does so with his story.
The “Mrs. Wardh” of the title refers to Julie Wardh (Edwige Fenech), a socialite and heiress to a considerable family fortune, who is in Vienna with her cuck husband, Neil (Alberto de Mendoza), a diplomat. Yes, cuck, because Neil is all-too-aware of his wife’s “strange” vice: sex. The lovely Mrs. Wardh brings considerable baggage to her marriage in the form of lovers – past, current, soon-to-be – and Neil just kinda sheepishly accepts his wife’s dalliances while acting all White Knight if the moment presents itself. One of her ex-lovers is Jean (Ivan Rassimov), a striking tall blonde guy who acts jilted when Julie isn’t up for another good time. One of her future lovers is George (George Hilton), yet another dashing specimen. And one of these men is (likely) a killer because someone with a fetish for razor blades is targeting attractive women all over town and Julie is looking like the next victim, with the clues making it clear the person is someone close enough to know what skeletons she keeps in the closet.
Martino weaves together tangential plotlines, cinching the threads at a precise moment and delivering what is easily one of my favorite reveals in giallo history. Usually these things have some convoluted business about childhood traumas/mommy issues/rejection/etc and it’s mainly a game of whack-a-red-herring as viewers try to solve the killer’s unlikely identity. This one plays that a bit differently and my singular complaint about the ending is I wish it had stuck with what transpires minus the final denouement. Don’t get me wrong, it still works and I can’t fault the story one bit but without it the ending feels cold as ice and I kinda love it.
Edwige Fenech is fantastic and gorgeous as always. In fact, just about everyone is attractive in a striking ‘70s Euro sort of way. Martino imbues his film with constant sexuality – it IS her vice, after all – and so much of it is shot tastefully without getting gratuitous. One group romp in particular is photographed stylishly, with some fairly thoughtful blocking. When I said Martino favored story over style in the opening paragraph that was not to suggest this film is devoid of it, just that it feels less important to the director than telling a cohesive and coherent tale.
Severin Films touts this release as coming from a “4K scan of the inter-negative” but I gotta be honest the 2.35:1 1080p image isn’t as beautiful as I’d hoped. The picture never quite feels “HD crisp” with average definition throughout and poor contrast leaving nighttime black levels looking anemic and gray. The left and right sides of the image during every night scene show signs of fading, like it’s all washed out. Colors look accurate enough despite having no real “pop” which is a shame because the film sports some lovely production design. Julie’s hotel room is so ornate and colorfully painted but it struggles to shine under such variable conditions. I can’t speak to how this release stacks up against any other HD releases, but it does trump the DVD (duh).
Audio is available in English or Italian, both with a DTS-HD MA 2.0 mono track. My feelings on sound in old Italian horror films has yet to change – it’s universally awful. The dub here is extremely punctual to the point voices sound a bit too loud, but there isn’t any bad clipping or hissing so that’s a minor complaint. Composer Nora Orlandi’s score is the audible highlight, delivering warm, lush, jazzy songs that both fit the film but could also work as a standalone album unrelated to giallo. Hell, that’s true of most Italian horror from this era; the soundtracks are always an embarrassment of riches. Subtitles are available in English.
- NEW 4K RESTORATION OF THE FILM
- Of Vice and Virtue: Interview with Director Sergio Martino
- Cold As Ice: Interview with Screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi
- Vienna Vice: Interview with Actor George Hilton and Italian Genre Historian Antonio Bruschini
- Archive Interview with Actress Edwige Fenech
- Introduction by Actor George Hilton
- Audio Commentary with Kat Ellinger, Author of ‘All The Colors Of Sergio Martino’
- ORIGINAL MOTION PICTURE SOUNDTRACK ON A SEPARATE CD [Limited to 3000 Units]
Smart, sleek, sultry, and shrewd in its final moments Sergio Martino’s film is one of the best entries in giallo filmmaking and despite the lack of stunning A/V quality Severin Film’s release is an attractive package made all the more enticing by the inclusion of that wonderful soundtrack.