The strangely-titled Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh (sic) is pretty much universally regarded as a classic of the filone. And it is, if you err on the lighter side of gialli. The plot is both deceptively simple and deliciously twisty, the 70s fashions and décor are present and correct, directorial style and memorable music are effortlessly provided by Sergio Martino and Nora Orlandi respectively, and the King and Queen of gialli, George Hilton and Edwige Fenech, are present and correct. For me, it coasts a little bit, almost too confident in itself, to be ranked at the very top of my list of favourites, but I still consider it a damn fine watch.
The plot, which, as I've stated is both straightforward and complicated, almost demands an immediate second viewing after you've watched it for the first time. I'm a big fan of plots which appear to be about one thing, only for the traditional late revelation to pull the rug out from under not only the characters, but us viewers as well. In other words, we think that a killer is motivated by X, when, in fact, that's what they wanted everyone to think; they're actually motivated by Y. This film has a lot in common with my own giallo, The Three Sisters, in this respect (or, more accurately, is an inversion of it)-sub in 'money' and revenge' for 'X' and 'Y', and you'll have a basic plot outline.
Rewatching this film with a knowledge of what's really going on is a very different experience to a fresh, unprejudiced watch. The first time around you see a jaunty romp which slowly but surely turns into a cat-and-mouse game as Julie moves ever-closer to the killer's orbit. Watching it a second time, you realise that the cat-and-mouse game has in fact begun even before the film begins, and Julie's decisions, apparently made of her own free will, are in fact guided by the evil hand of others.
Edwige Fenech, as Julie, turns in one of her very best performances here. She's never going to produce anything Oscar-worthy, but she is given more to do here than just look nice and get her tits out (don't worry, she does plenty of that too). Julie is an odd character, though, susceptible to a baffling array of whims and mood swings, and is seemingly continually adrift without a man at her side to anchor her. Her titular vice is apparently a simultaneous attraction to, and repulsion from, blood. There's little evidence of this, bar a flashback sex scene between her and Jean which features some broken-bottle slashing, and a climactic scene where she freaks out upon seeing blood seep from beneath a shower curtain in her Spanish villa. The latter scene sees her reacting in much the same way as anyone (at least, any giallo heroine) would upon seeing some strange blood oozing towards them, blood fetish or no blood fetish. The former scene suggests that being physically attacked and (faux-[?])raped appeal to her at least as much as being a bit bloody. After all, if you want to incorporate a bit of blood into your sex life, there are safer ways than having a crazy guy attack you with a broken bottle.
In some ways, Julie's 'vice' is nonsense, and adds nothing to the film other than an oddball title and the excuse for some slo-mo flashback fucking. However, it actually functions as a neat metaphor for Julie herself-conflicted, on the edge and driving the action far less than we're primed to believe.
Martino directs with effortless style, as usual, and incorporates some nice pull-back zooms to emphasise certain characters' loneliness. One of these instances, used when Julie's friend is trying to meet a blackmailer in a deserted city park, leads into the first properly tense moment of the film, which up to then has been jauntily bopping along on a sea of froth and sex. Dario Argento almost certainly had seen this particular scene prior to making Four Flies on Grey Velvet.
Later, Martino gives his take on the classic underground car park chase, which is a qualified success. After a baffling start which sees Julie blinded and confused by flashing car headlights, aided by highly expressionistic editing, we discover that the car in question is actually situated behind her when it suddenly zooms past, nearly knocking her over. Even though it doesn't really hold together on reflection, and probably looked weak on paper, Martino and editor Eugenio Alabiso do a commendable job of creating suspense and confusion out of deceptively little. Then, after an encounter with the killer at the car park lift, Julie retreats to her car for a great sequence which consists of almost total stillness. The finale of the scene, though, does its best to throw away the goodwill the rest of it has accrued; Julie waits for the killer to stalk away from the lift door, then drives her car a few metres towards it. She then parks, hops out and tries to escape to safety via the slow-closing and moving lift. Just stay in the car and drive away for fuck's sake!
There are a couple of other neat visual flourishes. When Mr and Mrs Wardh (sic) break into Jean's house to confront him, only to find him lying in a pool of his own blood in the bath, there's some terrific 'match' lighting. A staple of Italian films of the 70s and 80s was a scene wherein an actor in a dark room holds up a match and tries to sync their movements with an off-screen lighting guy operating a spotlight. This particular scene leads to a jump scare involving one of Jean's pet owls, with the lighting at the moment of the jump being preposterously unnatural, yet striking. A second visual moment to note comes late on, when Julie walks nervously through her Spanish villa, apparently both on-the-look-out-for and hoping-not-to-see-any blood. She walks past a row of portrait paintings, the first of which is particularly spooky-looking, giving the momentary impression of an evil presence gliding into frame. I wouldn't be at all surprised if Argento also channelled this scene, consciously or otherwise, for Deep Red.
This portrait scene comes towards the end of what would become almost a trope within Martino's cinema; a half-hour final sequence which occurs in a single contained location, within which the film's protagonists strap in for an inexorable journey towards the film's climax. The location here, a Spanish village, narrowing in focus to a Spanish villa, foreshadows later sequences such as the boat/diving climax to The Case of the Scorpion's Tail (and we even get a diving sequence in Strange Vice, one of several similarities between the two films) and the mountain villa-set climax of Torso. This latter example really showcases the atmosphere of fear and dread which Martino was capable of cultivating; one in which he dabbled in Strange Vice without ever really committing to it.
There are other examples of ever-so-slight coasting, which could maybe be more accurately be described as script deficiencies. That's not to say that the script is worse than that of the average giallo; as previously stated on this site, Ernesto Gastaldi's work is generally of such quality that it should be held to a higher account than that of other genre writers. One of the most egregious examples of the iffy moments comes in a bizarre interrogation sequence, which begins with Julie identifying Jean to the police as the man who's been harrassing her, and ends with the Detective and Jean joining forces to turn on Julie, taunting her with the fact that Jean has an alibi for a recent attempted attack. In many ways it adds to the generally-delirious atmosphere of the film, but it certainly paints the mechanics of the police investigation in an unusual light (which possibly lays the groundwork for the equally unconventional approach taken by the authorities to entrap the guilty party at the film's climax).
To give one further example of slackness on the part of the writer/director team, the second viewing of the film, when one watches with the knowledge of what's really going on, offers almost as much fun as the virginal viewing. You can watch events unfold as you connect the dots in a mental puzzle, mapping the characters' actual motivations over their apparent ones. There's just one misstep, when someone acts in a manner which is not justified at all by those actual motivations. The film is full of characters selling the apparent motivations both to the viewers and to those characters who are not in on the plot. This one dud moment (involving the scrunching up on a note just after Jean's body in the bath) is performed solely for our benefit, to guide us towards certain assumptions on our first viewing of the film (see my review of The Case of the Scorpion's tale for more on what I [somewhat pompously, in retrospect] termed 'convenient anomalies'). It could have been handled differently, in a manner consistent with the film's internal, overarching logic, with much the same effect.
Once again, I find myself nitpicking a Martino/Gastaldi effort for minor crimes which would pass unremarked-upon in almost any other giallo. It's probably not my favourite of their collaborations, but it's still a damn fine film. So get a copy, get comfortable, and be prepared to want to watch it all over again when you get to the Hitchcock-inspired final moments.