Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key

1972
Dir. Sergio Martino

Alcoholic writer Oliviero (Luigi Pistilli, Bay of Blood) and his timid, long-suffering wife Irina (Anita Strindberg, Lizard in a Woman's Skin) live a self-destructive existence in their isolated and crumbling villa. When Oliviero’s mistress is the first victim in a series of vicious murders, he becomes the prime suspect – and when his sexy niece Floriana (Edwige Fenech, Strip Nude for Your Killer) suddenly arrives for a visit, things become increasingly complicated as a series of double-crossings and shifting character dynamics add to the air of stifling paranoia. Irina finds comfort in Floriana’s arms – and bed – and the two decide to bump off Oliviero, Diabolique-style. Throw in a few scenes of Sapphic love-making, an ominous and seemingly ubiquitous black cat, lush gothic trimmings, several vicious murders, and you have a fantastically vintage, sex-charged and moody giallo that rates right up there with the best of ‘em.

Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key – the absurdly extravagant title of which comes from a note written to the titular protagonist in Sergio Martino’s first foray into the giallo, The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh - is a very loose adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s feverish tale of psychological turmoil and revenge, “The Black Cat.” While the film certainly explores themes from that story, it is really only in the third act that it obviously mines the source material. Elsewhere Martino is content to mount an increasingly suspenseful and character-driven murder mystery which successfully sets itself apart from other gialli by boasting unusual gothic influences and a morbid atmosphere, heavily pregnant with dark connotations of madness, decay, incest and shades of necrophilia.



Your Vice is predominantly character-driven and the various dynamics between the three protagonists are constantly shifting. The opening scene establishes the passive/aggressive relationship between Oliviero and Irina. In the middle of a party Oliviero proceeds to humiliate an already edgy Irina by forcing her to drink a cocktail made up of his guests’ unfinished drinks. When Floriana comes on the scene, the dynamic is shifted once she seduces and ‘comforts’ Irina, trying to convince her to kill Oliviero. Later on we realise that Floriana is bedding him too and is playing the already emotionally estranged couple off against one another, hopping from one bed to the next. Ernesto Gastaldi’s screenplay works to build up suspicion and doubt around everyone. Also typical of Martino’s gialli, there are several murderers with different motives working in tandem which adds to the mystery and arguably convoluted plot – but hey, it keeps things ticking over nicely. One of the killers essentially holds no significance to the overall story aside from helping to up the body count, cast more suspicion on Oliviero and provide several moody and tautly mounted death scenes.

Incest and necrophilia supply the film with an odd subtext, which helps to flesh out the characters and add to their perverted traits. Heavy allusions to the incestuous relationship between Oliviero and his domineering mother pierce proceedings. When the party guests of the opening scene have left, Irina, decked out in Oliviero’s mother’s resplendent gown, quizzes Oliviero about his relationship with his mother and is subsequently raped by him. Floriana also uses the gown to seduce him, and in one of the standout set pieces, the maid Brenda also dons the gown after tip-toeing around the house one night when she hears what sounds like a cat wailing. Momentarily pleasuring herself in front of a mirror while Oliviero spies on her, she is soon terrified by strange noises and the raging storm outside. Panicking, she flees and is killed at the top of the stairs by an unseen assailant. Her mutilated corpse is walled up in the cellar by Oliviero, who believes that the police will suspect him of her murder. The strange mix of typical giallo imagery (black leather gloved hands wielding sharp implements) and gothic trappings (the gown, the thunderstorm) creates an interesting, heady moment.



The film retains a sparse look, with the sprawling feel of the vast and crumbling villa and the manner in which Martino’s camera prowls around it creating a sense of foreboding and unnamed menace. Bruno Nicolai’s haunting score also enhances the strangely gothic ambiance, as do the various scenes of a wide-eyed and nightgown clad Strindberg tiptoeing through the dark hallways – evoking imagery of bygone Italian gothic horrors by the likes of Mario Bava and Riccardo Freda. In typical Poe fashion, the villa in which the story unfolds is a manifestation of the psychological disintegration of its inhabitants. The film also abounds with nods to the likes of Hitchcock’s gothic melodrama Rebecca (1940) and Freda’s dark necrophiliac romance The Horrible Secret of Dr Hichcock, especially in its use of the portrait of Oliviero’s dead mother which serves as a reminder of the past and all the dank secrets forever entombed within it. A creepy moment that would later be echoed in Kubrick’s The Shining, is also a sly throwback to the moment in so many past gothic horrors where a musical instrument (actually a typewriter in this instance) is heard in the night, only for whoever is investigating to discover no one is playing/using it…What she finds is pretty chilling.

The film is bolstered by strong performances. As the submissive and driven-to-the-brink-of-madness Irina, Anita Strindberg is very convincing. She goes from weak and tormented to pushed-over-the-edge madwoman with ease, while Edwige Fenech plays against her usual giallo-type (the doe-eyed victim) as the scheming, manipulative and prone to undressing Floriana. A little sympathy is garnered for Oliviero by Luigi Pistilli, who plays him as an alcoholic and tortured artist, helplessly locked in an abusive relationship with his wife, whom he punishes for his own shortcomings. Sadly, Ivan Rassimov as a mysterious stalker-type is criminally underused, and really only shows up properly towards the end...



Martino’s gialli may lack the rich subtext of, say, those of Argento or Bava, but they are still vastly entertaining, stylish, atmospheric and slickly produced works. All of them were experimental in their own way and featured many memorable, stand out moments – odd that they are so often overlooked when it comes to the genre. Your Vice is one of his most striking and a must for any giallo fan.

5 comments:

Matt-suzaka said...

I absolutely adore short-haired Fenech.

Vice (which is short for, well, you know) is one of my favorite Gialli. I love just how sleazy it is, and none of the characters are really all that likeable, either.

One of the things I love about the film is Martino's great work with shadows. It's been some time since I have seen the film, but there is one scene where Floriana is coming through a door and how her face is revealed from the shadows is quite incredible. To be honest, I haven't seen the film in a few years, so that might not even be the right description, as I only vaguely remember it!

Great write up, James! Happy that you chatted this one up.

James said...

Thanks for stopping by, Matt! Good to hear from you.
To be honest, I've become a little obsessed with Martino's gialli lately... I think this is my favourite one though. I love the strange gothic atmosphere, and like you mentioned, all the use of shadows and spooky lighting. Great stuff! Although I think the scene you're talking about with the lovely Edwige emerging from the shadows is actually from The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh - if its the same scene I think you're talking about, that is! Is this it? http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-v27Nwhf2HbM/Ta3befBDauI/AAAAAAAADKM/kgynk2I1Mow/s1600/Strange+Vice+Edwige+in+darkness.jpg

Hope you're well! :)

Matt-suzaka said...

Oh wow, that is pretty close, James! I ended up scanning through Your Vice and found the moment where it actually happens twice within the same scene. It's about halfway through the film (40 some odd minutes) and occurs just before Floriana finds Irene locked up.

It's not quite as dark as I remember, but the way Martino blacks out her eyes, shadows here face and then reveals it is so simple, yet so stunning. Either way, maybe it stuck with me as that use of shadows on Fenech by Martino has been done more than once as you so nicely captured with Strange Vice!

Hope you are well, James!

Shaun [The Celluloid Highway] said...

This is a film that badly needs to be re-issued.

James said...

Couldn't agree more!