Why I Love… #97: Your Vice Is A Locked Room And Only I Have The Key

Year: 1972

Director: Sergio Martino

Stars: Edwige Fenech, Anita Strindberg, Luigi Pistilli

In spite of the significant shortcomings of their gender politics, I find myself persistently lured back into the world of early 1970’s giallo cinema; that treasure trove of Italian stalk-and-slash movies identified by their black gloved killers, despicable socialites and breathtakingly cinematic original music scores.

When people talk of the surface highlights of the genre, the first names to drop are ordinarily Dario Argento, Mario Bava and Lucio Fulci, whose films are celebrated for their excesses and overt auteurism. While each contributed great entries, my preference is for the less showy though equally experimental films that lie beneath the surface, and many of the best of these belong to Sergio Martino.

Martino was a voracious director for hire who crossed genre boundaries at will. Where the other directors named rarely strayed too far from horror, Martino plied his trade all over the cinematic gamut. Perhaps this is why his giallo films rarely adhered strictly to template. All The Colours Of The Dark (also 1972) is as much an homage to Rosemary’s Baby. His grizzly and extremely suspenseful 1975 hit Torso prefigured the American slasher boom. And the wonderfully titled Your Vice Is A Locked Room And Only I Have The Key moves from traditional giallo tropes into a far more deliciously unusual family melodrama.

Luigi Pistilli plays a loathsome rich alcoholic writer Oliviero, living in a beautiful country home with his embittered wife Irina (Anita Strindberg). Their marriage is already strained when we meet them, throwing joyless sex parties that feel like a hangover from the swinging sixties. This sequence, incidentally, includes a wonderfully era-specific hippie-esque scene of communal singing and nude dancing that suggests the community folk horror of The Wicker Man which would arrive the next year from Britain. Oliviero chides his young and frivolous guests; he is a man of the past.

In typical giallo form, a mysterious killer starts offing members of the cast. Black gloved, knife wielding. No surprises so far. Oliviero becomes prime suspect, but as a borish detective points out, anyone could be the killer. Naturally, bottles of J&B whisky are dotted everywhere (a persistent piece of product placement in gialli). Your Vice uses these well established tropes of the genre to lure the viewer into a false sense of security… before pulling the rug from under them.

The killer is apprehended about 50 minutes into the picture, stalling the viewer. Clock the running time and you’ll realise you’re only half way. What on earth will Your Vice be about now?

By this time a third significant player has entered the house; Oliviero’s unwelcome relative Floriana played by the queen of Italian gialli and sex comedies Edwige Fenech (pictured above). Your Vice marked the first time I laid eyes on Fenech, who quickly became one of my great and enduring film crushes. To this day I seek out her eclectic and obscure screen credits. A beauty queen and model before she started working in the movies, Fenech became a huge star in Italy and a frequent collaborator with Martino. Prior to Your Vice she played the title role in his celebrated giallo The Strange Vice Of Mrs Wardh, took the lead in All The Colours Of The Dark, while Mario Bava’s Five Dolls For An August Moon from 1970 helped make her an icon with her heavy mascara, giant hair and audience-pleasing habit of undressing for camera.

For Your Vice, Fenech sports an uncharacteristically short haircut; a visual clue that this is a departure from her previous roles. The roles for women in giallo films usually involve a lot of lovemaking, screaming, running around and dying horribly. A misogynistic mix of sex and death. Fenech had proven adept across the board, but she also brought more presence than most to her films, memorable for more than just her looks.

Your Vice, however, allowed her the opportunity to play a far more interesting character. Instead of mere prey, her Floriana is a seductive and calculating presence, exploiting the wedge between Oliviero and Irina for her own gain. It’s one of her best screen appearances. While much of the production design leans on the archaic and historic (it’s a wonderful, rustic old house), Fenech’s Floriana looks entirely modern; a ‘new’ presence. If Oliviero and Irina’s marriage is caught in a perpetual time loop of resentment and cruelty, weary from repetition, Floriana is an immediate catalyst for change.

Your Vice is billed as being loosely based on Edgar Allen Poe’s classic tale ‘The Black Cat’. It bares scant resemblance until its finale (though Poe’s tale would prove a durable influence on Italian genre cinema, particularly for Fulci). The cat here, cheerily named Satan, is inserted into one of the film’s early stalking scenes to suggest a sense of omnipresent clairvoyance, but it feels like a conspicuously empty gesture.

Bruno Nicolai provides an elegant score. He’s one of the genre’s most enduring players, second only to the great Ennio Morricone. Personally speaking, I prefer these lush arrangements to the bludgeoning prog rock pomp of Argento’s work with Goblin; Nicolai and Morricone compliment their films rather than smother them. Your Vice looks gorgeous, too; photographed by Martino’s frequent collaborator Giancarlo Ferrando.

The film is steeped in warped eroticism, from the out-of-focus canoodling that makes up the (misleading) opening credits sequence to the scene of Oliviero spying on his maid Brenda (Angela La Vorgna; a rare black presence in a giallo) as she imagines herself as a woman of means. When Floriana enters the equation, a pronounced theme of incest presents itself.

Floriana accuses Oliviero of having slept with his own mother, while he openly lusts after her. Floriana then seduces Irina. Later, having played voyeur to her tryst with a local motorsports champion, Oliviero gets his chance, too. Such things aren’t a-typical for a giallo, but they’re more commonly flavour rather than food. Your Vice prioritises the dynamics between its characters over their often tragic fates. It isn’t memorable for its murders, but for its people. It becomes a twisted, playfully ludicrous melodrama. Martino plays all of this with staunch sincerity. Your Vice is crafted as a serious tragedy and this arch pomposity proves richly entertaining.

The incident of thankfully-unconvincing feline cruelty notwithstanding, this is one of my very favourites of the genre (up there with the controversial What Have You Done To Solange?). Many may prefer the campier excursions more prone to exploitation (Strip Nude For Your Killer etc), or the famous theatricality of Argento et al… and that’s fine. For me, there’s something exquisite in more rural entries such as this, that find baroque depravity in old houses and sleepy villages. Maybe its because I live in the country myself?

Maybe its just Edwige Fenech.

 

 

 

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