Heart Of Glass… THE STRANGE VICE OF MRS WARDH Reviewed

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DVD. Region Free. Shameless. 18.

Un altro giorno, un altro giallo here at The House Of Freudstein…

In 1970 Dario Argento’s directorial debut The Bird With The Crystal Plumage emerged as an unexpected international crossover hit, single handedly inspiring nothing short of a renaissance for the giallo genre coined by Mario Bava in 1963 with The Girl Who Knew Too Much / The Evil Eye. Luciano Martino was just one of the many film makers looking to cash in the revitalised killing-by-numbers craze. He had already produced Romolo Guerrieri’s The Sweet Body Of Deborah in 1968 and Umberto Lenzi’s So Sweet, So Perverse the following year but liked the idea of bringing in similar films on a lower budget, employing home grown talent.

He didn’t have to look too far, finding exactly the kind of ambitious young director he needed in kid brother Sergio; the choice of an alluring leading lady was a similar no-brainer, i.e. his current squeeze, Edwige Fenech, with whom Sergio had already shot additional footage to fill out Hans Schott-Schöbinger’s The Sins Of Madame Bovary (1969); and scripting duties fell to the prolific Ernesto Gastaldi, who had previously penned the above-mentioned Carroll Baker vehicles for Luciano among giallo credits including Elio Scardamaglia’s The Murder Clinic (1966) and Luciano Ercoli’s Forbidden Photos Of A Lady Above Suspicion (1970). Gastaldi had also directed one of the early gialli, 1965’s Libido, himself. The feature on which Luciano teamed them – The Strange Vice Of Mrs Wardh aka Blade Of The Ripper / The Next Victim / Next! (1971) – pounces enthusiastically on psychosexual hints made in Argento’s smash hit and shows that Sergio wasn’t sleepwalking through his stint as second unit director on Bava’s 1963 epic of sadomasochism beyond the grave, The Whip and the Body (1963).

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The film’s opening intercuts a fatal razor attack on a prostitute with the arrival of the plane that is bringing the Wardhs to Vienna, greeted by a quotation from one of that city’s most famous denizens, Sigmund Freud, concerning the potential killer inside all of us. Fenech plays the eponymous Julie Wardh (the “h” at end of her surname allegedly intended to forestall any libel proceedings from aggrieved Mrs Wards!), the neglected, bored wife of a workaholic diplomat (Alberto De Mendoza.) She is simultaneously stimulated and troubled by salacious memories of her full-on sado-masochistic entanglement with brooding Jean (old Tartar cheek-bones himself, Ivan Rassimov.) Their idea of fun, as revealed in sensuous slow motion flashbacks to the accompaniment of a Nora Orlandi theme that can only be described as sacramental, included him beating her in a muddy field (shades of Bunuel’s Belle De Jour, 1967) and – don’t try this at home, kiddies! – bonking her on a bed of broken glass. Eat yer heart out, 50 Shades Of Grey…

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Nor does the life of a neglected ambassador’s wife seem anything like as dull as we are expected to believe, including as it does wild embassy parties where drunken floozies rip each other’s dresses off, prior to one of them being bloodily dispatched in a Hitchcockesque shower sequence (“Another girl slashed to death?” remarks Julie’s cynical friend Carol: “We should be grateful that he’s eliminating all the competiton!”) Julie is horrified to discover Jean popping up among the ferrero rocher at one such bash but not sufficiently horrified to resist a) succumbing to his erotic menace and b) striking up yet another affair, with smoothie antipodean inheritance chaser George (George Hilton.) When somebody starts blackmailing Mrs W about her various extra-marital liaisons, the worldly Carol (Cristina Airoldi) becomes convinced that Jean is playing his old head games with her, and agrees to meet him in a park on Fenech’s behalf… only to get sliced up a treat (I wonder how grateful she was for that!) In mortal fear that Jean has lost it completely, Julie abandons her hubby and absconds to Spain with George (many of Martino’s gialli feature a lot of jet-setting, reflecting their status as international co-productions aspiring to success in as many territories as possible.) No prizes for guessing that there are several more twists to come…

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Martino confesses readily to the influence that Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques (1955) exerted over TSVOMW (and what about Hitchcock’s Strangers On A Train, 1951?) but has been ambivalent about The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, even seeming to claim half-heartedly at one time that his picture actually preceded the Argento biggie. His characteristic deployment of hand held camera conveys a sense of urgency, plunging the viewer into the thick of the carnage and his restrained use of zoom underscores dramatic moments without descending into Franco-esque overuse, all of this in sharp contrast to Argento’s signature use of steadicam. But there’s no doubt where those “through the keyhole” POV shots, which Martino would repeat through just about all of his subsequent gialli, came from. To be fair, Argento himself seems to have been influenced by the scene of Airoldi’s death, restaging it pretty faithfully for Four Flies On Grey Velvet (1971.) Martino’s diplomatic comment on this is that both scenes owe a lot to Antonioni’s Blow Up (1966.) Argento inarguably pinched one of TSVOMW’s central plot devices, by which a calculating, opportunistic killer takes advantage of a genuinely deranged individual’s murder rampage to deflect suspicion from himself (“I told you, the best time to kill anyone is when a homicidal maniac is on the loose!”) for Tenebrae (1982.) In fact if anything he tones it down because in Martino’s flick, at any one time there are no less than four killers operating with dovetailing motivations, no less than three of whom are out to get Fenech. Yep, there are nearly as many killers as red herrings… Looks like Freud wasn’t just blowing cigar smoke up our asses with that opening quote!

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This handsome “Shameless fan edition” is beautiful remastered in 16:9 anamorphic wide screen and comes with an all-new Sergio Martino interview and Introduction plus fact track and visual essay by Justin Harries, Fenech bio and trailers for other Shameless releases.

Fenech has made the mind-boggling observation that she doesn’t remember TSVOMW having any particularly erotic overtones. Strange, indeed… eroticism is undoubtedly, if not in the jap’s eye of the beholder, a subjective business, but the frequent showers that Edwige takes herein, be they in hot water or crystal cascades of broken glass (while mounting a persuasive portrayal of a woman in the throes of sexual ecstasy) certainly registered with this scribe and commenced the honourable tradition of her endless ablutions (by which Fenech became the most fragrant and freshly scrubbed actress in cinema history.) Martino states in the bonus interview that such scenes were easier to get past the Italian censor than love-making ones and that he often shot the latter specifically to provide the censors with their pound of flesh for extraction, leaving intact the scenes which he considered more important. He even declares himself disappointed that Fenech’s bonking scenes have been restored to DVD editions of his films. You won’t be.

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