Thursday, March 4, 2010

Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (1972): or, I Really Have Nothing to Add to That Title

Despite taking its title from a memorable, menacing note delivered to Edwige Fenech in director Sergio Martino's 1971 giallo classic The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh, as well as calling back two of that movie's stars (Fenech and uber-Eurobaddie Ivan Rassimov), Martino's 1972 effort Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key is not a sequel. In fact, a viewer might well struggle to see how that admittedly awesome title applies to this flick at all. There's plenty of vice going on, to be sure, but I can't remember a single locked room, even when it would have made sense to throw the bolts to keep nosy police inspectors and ex- or current lovers in the dark.

But looking for representational logic in gialli titles is surely a pathway to madness, and moreover, it doesn't really matter. What matters is that on the other side of that title card (which is superimposed over a soft-focused couple making hot Italian love in white satin sheets--zang), Martino delivers a wild, thrilling, and entertainingly perverse mystery/slasher that has as its touchstones both the macabre sensibility of Edgar Allan Poe and the high-octane excitement of muddy motocross. Add heaping helpings of Naked Edwige and enough J&B to pickle a pachyderm, and you've got a winner by any standard of measure.

J&B: You Know What Kind of Party It Is

We open at the palatial country estate of Oliviero Rouvigny (Luigi Pistilli), a decadent writer-type who achieved a great deal of fame in his early career but has since gone completely to seed. He shares the house with his gorgeous but obviously disturbed young wife Irina (Anita Strindberg), his beloved black cat Satan, and just about every acid-trippin', folk-singin', bra-slingin' hippie within spitting distance of the villa. While the flower children sing horrible folk songs and dance naked on his twelve-seater dining room table, Oliviero entertains himself by getting sweaty-drunk, groping his Afro-Italian maid , and subjecting Irina to varying levels of social and sexual humiliation. (During the opening free-love party, he collects all his guest's unfinished drinks in a large silver bowl and forces Irina to gulp it down, eventually soaking her with the backwash-laden vintage.)

As luck would have it, the Awful Author also has a not-quite-innocent Oedipal fixation. The Lady of the Manor, deceased only two or three years now, was apparently famous for being an actress and infamous for her sexual conquests, a subject her devoted son can't seem to talk about enough. Mommy is a constant presence in his life, thanks not only to Satan (who was her kitty) and the life-sized portrait of her in the main hall, but also the fabulous costume gown she wore in said portrait, which Oliviero still has and forces his lovers to wear while he engages them in rough sex! Is it any wonder Irina's mascara never seems to be on straight?

Strindberg gets her Crazyface On

Things start to seem even more dangerous for Irina when a bookstore clerk with whom Oliviero was having one of his many affairs turns up dead at a rock quarry, her throat spilling copious amounts of red tempra paint. (Of course we the audience get to see her stalked through the darkened terrain by the requisite black-gloved, fedora-wearing shadow, allowing Martino to show off some of the super-stylish camera work that is a constant joy in this film.) The police visit the next morning, merely as a formality, though the Inspector drops some not-too-subtle hints about Oliviero's suspect status. (His memorable aside, "Murder has a habit of involving all sorts of people, for no reason whatever!" could be a genre definition for gialli films in general!) When the maid tries on Mom's Sexy Dress and ends up similarly gutted in the Rouvigny Estate itself, one can't help thinking perhaps the fat cop is onto something.

In one of leaps that can really only happen in Italian sex-thrillers of the 70s, Oliviero offhandedly proclaims his innocence but refuses to call the police; rather, he decides they should immediately hide the maid's body by bricking her up behind a damaged wall in the wine cellar and never speaking of it again. Never mind the fact that a woman was murdered in his own home, and if he didn't do it, someone else did. Irina protests, but soon Oliviero browbeats her into helping him with his home- and alibi-improvement project.

"Leave me alone! I'm bein' a metaphor over here!"

Having established what day-to-day life is like for the Rouvignys, it's now time to throw a monkey wrench into the well-oiled machinery of their marital bliss. That wrench arrives in the form of Oliviero's niece Floriana, played of course by Vicar pantsthrob Edwige Fenech, who has decided for who knows what reason to come stay with her dear old unk for a few weeks. Floriana has grown up quite a bit since the last time her uncle bounced her on his knee, and his icky way of leering at her leaves no doubt he'd like to re-enact that memory, only further up the lap.

Floriana is a no-nonsense, self-assured free spirit, a strong woman who knows what she wants and isn't afraid to go after it. She's also not shy about playing to her uncle's obvious incestuous lust, as they engage in sexy banter within moments of her arrival. "Sex is a very demanding occupation," Oliviero opines, "the basic requirement is imagination." To which Floriana replies, "All the imagination in the world woudn't do you any good--if you couldn't get a hard-on!" Irina stands by silently, looking uncomfortable--though the longing looks she also casts Floriana's way hint at something mysterious and sexy a-brewin'.

Made of Hotness

It's not long before Martino brings that mixture to a full rolling boil: noticing the palpable tension between husband and wife, Floriana quickly becomes Irina's confidant, hinting that perhaps the best way out of her bad marriage would be the removal of the offending party via tossing-off-a-cliff. Irina is too timid to enact that plan, but not too timid to succumb to Floriana's lesbonic advances later that evening in an incredibly sensuous love scene. Making the most of her country vacation, the naughty niece also seduces a local delivery boy, attending his weekend motocross race before taking him up to the Rouvigny barn loft to clean the grime off his sparkplugs, IYKWIMAITYD. Floriana then completes the hat-trick of hawtness by inviting her drunken uncle into her bedroom and popping out of bed in Dear Dead Mom's ornate gown before having her way with him as well. As a result, Irina and Oliviero grow increasingly jealous of each other, and both start thinking about filing for a Sicilian divorce.

The movie is absolutely bursting with atmosphere and visual richness. Martino gets in some hugely stylish and satisfying shots throughout, and his use of bright primary colors against gloomy shadowed backgrounds is often breathtaking. The story also pegs the perverso-meter again and again, with sexual humiliation, adultery, and strong implications of incest being just a few of the items on the menu. (In a particularly entertaining exchange, Floriana spars with Oliviero on this subject, asking flatly, "Is it true you slept with your mother?" Her uncle retorts, "Is it true you're a two-bit WHORE?" Touchy touchy!) The director is also helped by the jaw-dropping gorgeousness of both his female leads--Strindberg has a unique, striking beauty, with near-superhuman cheekbones and piercing blue eyes that convey vulnerability on the brink of madness most effectively, and of course Edwige is Edwige, which is to say, ZANG.

You guys go on ahead. I'm never leaving this place.

The black cat Satan is also a major player in the movie, popping up interstitially to stalk Irina's caged doves or wade through pools of blood like a dark furry metaphor. The cat also significantly hates Irina, who almost seems to believe the beast contains the jealous soul of Oliviero's mother, taking revenge via hissing and scratching for her having stolen Mommy's little boy away. The mutual loathing between Irina and Satan comes to a head in a scene that will surprise no one who's ever read Edgar Allan Poe seriously, but still manages to be shocking and more than a little creepy.

Of course since this is a giallo, things need to get all twisty-wisty in the third act, as the Black-Gloved killer strikes again and is proven to be someone you couldn't have reasonably suspected, other masks fall away as the motivations of the principals are revealed, main characters die, and it all wraps up in an homage to Poe that again is not unexpected, but because of that has something of the poetically inescapable in it, the gears of Fate clicking home and turning in the only way they ever could. (Also: look for a scene that prefigures an iconic scene in The Shining by about eight years; was Kubrick a fan?)

Rassimov the Ice King

I've stated previously that All the Colors of the Dark was my favorite Martino giallo, but now I think Your Vice is a Locked Room... has wrested that title from its claws. The movie looks gorgeous, Martino's camera work and color schemes are divine, and the story is as perverse and exciting as you could ask for. The acting is great across the board--Pistilli is perfectly cast as the run-dry decadent author surviving on booze and psychosexual issues, and Strindberg is great as the frightened, slowly going-mad wife. Fenech is gorgeous as always, here rockin' the bob-haircut and go-go boots like no other; she also gets to work her acting muscles a bit by playing a sexy, confident schemer instead of the sexy damsel in distress, and she pulls it off beautifully. (Also beautifully pulled off by Edwige: her clothes.) Ivan Rassimov appears in a surprisingly small role, but makes the most of his limited screen time.

The only thing that works against the film for my money is some fairly ugly racism directed at the Rogivny's black maid by just about everyone in the flick--although it could be argued that this is meant to be indicitive of the moral wasteland in which even the "good" characters live and operate. Still, Your Vice is a Locked Room... hit on all other cylinders for me, and hit them so hard and fast that I am pleased to give it the 3+ Thumb rating. Even if you don't think you like gialli, check this one out.

Some more great images from Your Vice is a Locked Room...(1972)

You bet they buy it by the case

Edwige has the same effect on me

Free Dummy!

Oliviero's editor was displeased with the latest draft

This shot just isn't fair.

Sweet Jesus...

This one's for me, not you



The Duke of DVD said...

Damn, Vicar! Of course, you had me at "naked Edwige", for she casts a spell upon me too, as you well know. However, the movie itself sounds fantastic. I must snag this one for my media library, post haste.

Bravo on such a fantastic review, and by the by, that shot of Rassimov rules.

Jay Clarke said...

Vice is one of my favourites too and is actually the movie that introduced me to Edwige. ZANG indeed! :D

Great review!

Samuel Wilson said...

Titles like this one make me wonder whether Italian movie theaters had marquees and if someone was getting paid by the letter. But can you imagine the creative abbreviation that might be practiced? Still, Italian title loquacity is part of the giallo genre's charms, along with La Fenech and her cohorts. I definitely need to see more of these movies.

dfordoom said...

Vicar, "Naked Edwige" is definitely not easy to resist! I've just ordered a copy of The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh. I may have to get this one as well.

The Vicar of VHS said...

Glad to see I'm not alone in my worship of The Goddess Fenech. :)

@The Duke--Rassimov is one steel-eyed sonuvagun. In that shot he kind of reminds me of the Goblin King in Labyrinth. Of course had he played that part instead of David Bowie, young Jennifer Connelly would have ended up with her throat slit, endlessly tumbling down the stairs of an M.C. Escher nightmare!

@Jay Clarke--Thanks! ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK was my intro to Edwige, and it's been sweaty-sappy love ever since!

@Samuel--I don't know from abbreviations (you can tell by the length of my posts that I seldom abbreviate ANYTHING), but I acronymized the title to YVIALRAOIHTK, which means nothing in Englis or Italian. Also, the only anagram I could come up with from it was HOARY VIAL KIT. My Dan Brown-like search for meaning continues...

@dfordoom--Not easy to resist? Try UNPOSSIBLE. I think even my great aunt Hilda would hit that. ;) I think you'll enjoy TSVOMW, but definitely check this one out as well. And ATCOTD while you're at it. It's good stuff. ;)

dfordoom said...

Vicar, I've seen All the Colors of the Dark and loved it. In fact it was my first Edwige Fenech movie!

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