The Strange Movie of Mr Martino

by Arthur B

Sergio Martino gets into a real weird area when he introduces us to Mrs Wardh's "strange vice".
Mrs. Wardh (Edwige Fenech) - Julie to her friends - doesn’t really have that strange a vice by modern standards - just a bit of a submissive and masochistic streak. But it’s the 1970s, and people are less clued-in about such things - and standards of consent and ethics in the community of the sexually adventurous are much less developed than they are today. Take, for instance, Jean (Ivan Rassimov) - her former lover whose sadistic streak ultimately went too far for her comfort. To get away from him, she married Neil Wardh (Alberto de Mendoza), the US ambassador to Austria.

When Julie and Neil return after an extended recall to the States, they find Vienna in the grip of terror - for a serial killer has been preying on local sex workers, using a straight razor to slash them terribly. Julie finds herself bored, and takes to attending wild parties thrown by her sexually liberated friend Carol (Cristina Airoldi). It’s at one of those parties that she meets George Corro (George Hilton), a hitherto-unknown cousin of Carol from Australia who recently discovered the family connection thanks to an inheritance - but she’s also spotted again by Jean. As Julie enters into an extramarital affair with George, she finds herself stalked by Jean, who like a classical abuser tries to persuade her that nobody but him can truly please her. (As one of his notes dramatically states, “your vice is a locked room and only I have the key” - a phrase so dramatic that our director, Sergio Martino, would later re-use it as the title of one of his later collaborations with Fenech.)

Finding herself in a vortex of sex, stalking, and blackmail, with the dangers of murder, scandal, and abuse all waiting in the wings, Julie has plenty on her plate - particular the question of whether the prostitute-slashing serial killer terrorising the town has anything to do with her troubles. On top of that, her “strange” vice won’t entirely leave her alone - as she reminisces and dreams about her interactions with Jean, it’s apparent that whilst it’s not clear just how consensual all these activities was, it’s very clear that Julie did in fact find a certain pleasure in them…

So, we’re in classic giallo territory here - the killer even has the standard giallo killer’s uniform, as established by Mario Bava and Dario Argento, of dark coat, leather gloves, dark glasses, hat and straight razor. As is also traditional for the better sort of giallo, excellent use is made of the setting; if nothing else, the movie is a masterpiece of the location scout’s art. You get the impression that Martino fell in love with Vienna, before or during the filming of this, and does his best to help the viewer do the same. (The same is true of Julie’s holiday destination when she’s persuaded to get away from it all by the sea.)

Another classic giallo motif here is the uncomfortable juxtaposition of sex and violence. Titillation is very much on the cards, and often in an annoyingly male gaze-y sort of way; we see numerous womens’ butts and breasts, but very little male nudity. However, whereas the sleazier giallos mostly concerned themselves with injecting sexual titillation into death sequences, The Strange Vice also does the opposite by adding an undercurrent of violent menace to many of its sex scenes.

The sequences between Julie and Jean are the most obvious examples of this, taking sequences which in other hands would have been exercises in mere prurience and making them genuinely horrific and disturbing. In one case this is accomplished easily enough - Julie fleeing from a car in the rain whilst Jean catches her, rips her clothes off, and maybe-rapes maybe-has-sex-just-as-planned with her on the forest earth. Stranger yet is the second sequence, in which, after emptying a bottle of wine on Julie’s reclining form, Jean smashes the bottle, spraying her with broken glass, before using the bottle step to hack open her nightgown (inflicting a light cut on her torso in the first place) and then having sex with her, the two of them cutting each other open as they grind the broken glass against each other. It is very clear here that Julie is absolutely into this, and then when she wakes up - revealing it to be a dream sequence - her unconvincing declaration that it’s a “nightmare” underlines the point.

It’s notable that none of these cases find Martino exploiting the generally-recognisable paraphenalia of BDSM - there’s no collars, no gags, no blindfolds, no restraints, no rope, no fetishwear, nothing like that. I would argue that this actually helps keep the movie fresh. Generic kink as an indicator of moral depravity has appeared in an obnoxious number of movies, and generally doesn’t shock any more. However, rape fantasies remain an intensely controversial subject, and that broken glass thing is well outside of what you could think of as “mainstream kink”. What Julie and Jean had going on, then is very much depicted as being supremely personal to them, reflecting not on some wider community but on them as people - at the same time, the activities in question are grounded and realistic enough to have a sense of verisimilitude to them. (Indeed, the extra “h” was added to Wardh’s name due to a court case brought by a Mrs. Ward, who thought the conjunction the film and her name would blemish her reputation - yet, surely there would be no scope for confusion or potential libel unless the similarities went beyond the name?)

Other sex scenes retain a note of dread to them. The first scene between Julie and George, for instance, takes place as an unknown figure watches them, so even the purest scene of intimacy depicted in the movie is tainted by an air of danger. The second is preceded by a scene in which the man attacking the sex workers is fatally stabbed by one of the women he attacks, and then followed by a scene in which it becomes apparent that the nightmare for Julie is not over - a moment of apparent safety ruined by the greater peril that follows on from it.

Martino’s aesthetically compelling visuals are enhanced by the soundtrack by Nora Orlandi, mostly organ-driven atmospheric stuff setting a precedent for Dario Argento’s later use of progressive rock outfit Goblin for his soundtrack needs. (It’s so good that Quentin Tarantino later recycled some of it for Kill Bill.) There’s a particular sequence towards the end where all diegetic sound disappears to be replaced by Orlandi’s purring synthesiser score which is extremely effective.

The ending, in which all the nested plots are laid out, is a little overlong - a flaw that Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key shares - though it does at least set up one final twist, and a delightfully scenic conclusion in winding Alpine roads.

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