Dario Argento’s film “The Bird With the Crystal Plumage” (1969) is often credited as a pivotal contribution to the giallo genre. It was instrumental in structuring the conventions of Italian suspense-thrillers: black gloves, specific weapon of choice, stylized violence, voyeuristic camera, and a psychological component to the killer’s motive. A popular and critical success, it may have eclipsed the longevity of another giallo film, “The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh” (Sergio Martino, 1970). Thanks to Noshame Films, though, giallo fans may now enjoy—in uncut DVD format—an Italian murder-mystery of equal if not greater quality than those titles commonly associated with the genre.
“The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh” is set in Vienna and Spain, and centers on a woman named Julie Wardh (Edwige Fenech), her sadomasochistic interests, and a serial killer that may have his eyes on her as his next victim. Heightening the suspense is the possibility that one of the males in her life, Jean (Ivan Rassimov) the former lover and George (George Hilton) the new flame, is responsible for the murders. What is particularly intriguing about the plot development is that the focus, the trajectory of tension shifts from “who is killing the women” to “could Jean or George be the killer.” Much time is spent on creating a case on whether you believe either of them has the motive and opportunity. Like any good suspense-thriller, one of them is an “obvious” candidate. Julie’s husband Neil (Alberto de Mendoza) is another male presence, but the majority of his activities in the film do not put him on the suspect list. As the film progresses, the assuredness of the killer’s identity wavers and culminates in an ending that just might elude your viewer’s detective work.
The plot twists and the fact that Julie is not a weak character make Martino’s film unique in terms of the giallo narrative norm. The violence expresses anxieties and fears relating to female vulnerability and avoids the outlandishly stylized, near orgasmic killings depicted in Argento’s films. Taking into account the murderer’s motive, it becomes clear and appropriate why the assaults are not over the top with gore. Furthermore, even after Julie realizes that the Vienna Killer may be after her, her priority is to escape from her old boyfriend. She consciously tries to elude him, and when the killer attacks, her behavior is indicative of a woman who is running away from a threat period—not necessarily because this unwanted stimulus happens to want to end her life. Aside from these story differences, the psychological explanation for why the killer kills does not appear at the film’s end in the form of a psychiatrist talking to the authorities. Martino’s film places a Freudian quote before the film proper: “The very fact that the commandment says ‘do not kill’ makes us aware and convinced that we are descended from an unbroken chain of generations of assassins for whom the love of murder was in their blood, as it is perhaps in ours too.” Martino may have hoped that we would incorporate or at least remember this title card when we watch the film, but it doesn’t make a substantial (and conscious) impact on our perceptions.
Nevertheless, this small weakness does not detract from the experience of watching an overlooked piece of the giallo genre. With special features containing cast interviews and clips from film festivals, “The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh” DVD would be an excellent new edition to any murder-mystery lover’s collection.