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I'm on a Sergio Martino kick lately, and since I've recovered from watching Edwige and Rassimov ravage each other senseless in The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh for the 100th time (love that movie!), I decided to revisit another favorite by the director, Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (Il tuo vizio è una stanza chiusa e solo io ne ho la chiave). Martino takes a cue from Edgar Allan's Poe's The Black Cat in this story of decadent deceit that revolves around the lustful and destructive Oliviero and his shrinking violet of a wife, Irina. This was Martino's fifth gialli and the film's pastoral surroundings set it apart from the chaos of city life that is prevalent in many of these titles. The villa setting is a lush backdrop for Martino's characters to play out their seductions and deceptions, while Bruno Nicolai's score lends an almost Victorian air to the dramas contained within.
From the moment we meet our host, we know that he's a genuine brute. His failures as a husband and writer are evident in the way he drowns his sorrows in drugs and drink, but he's cocky enough to continue to play the part of a success by masquerading his disgraces with merriment and vice. Oliviero surrounds himself with the young and beautiful, but spends his time waxing poetic about his deceased actress of a mother who looms over the household now in the form of a giant painting. Her grip on Oliviero is still strong and her spirit very much alive as is suggested by the presence of a black cat (appropriately named Satan), who seems to have the full run of the household and villa grounds.
Oliviero's wife, Irina, wants nothing more than to escape Oliviero and his mother's clutches, but insists that her abusive husband will never let her go -- so she spends her time withstanding Oliviero's violent whims. Her passivity creates a tension that boils to a frenzy before she even realizes it and is eventually bubbles over. Oliviero's "school desk complex" comes to a head when he arranges to meet with a former student for a tryst that leaves her dead and all fingers pointing to the writer. As the bodies start to pile up, Oliviero's free-spirited and attractive niece (Fenech) conveniently shows up for a visit and becomes the final vice that unlocks the secrets in the couple's failing relationship.
Edwige Fenech plays a game of role reversal, taking on the part of manipulative seductress as opposed to a victim – a duty that falls to Anita Strindberg instead. Strindberg's strong physical features provide a striking contrast to the weakness of her character, and she convincingly transitions with her character's motives. Rassimov makes a few brief appearances (god I love that man) and Luigi Pistilli delivers a strong performance as the washed up writer obsessed with his dead mother. Pistilli was best known for taking smaller supporting parts in Italian films, but acquits himself nicely here. His character is sleazy, but Pistilli never crosses the line into caricature.
Martino seems to have drawn inspiration from Clouzet's 1955 film, Les Diabolique in terms of characterization and the perfectly creepy typewriter scene, which also turned up in Stanley Kubrick's The Shining -- made eight years after Your Vice. The film contains a plethora of racially tense moments, the most prominent appearing in the first party scene where Olivero openly talks about his black maid and fondles her like property (he even refers to her as his servant). His diatribe about the "white man's burden" is only interrupted when his hippie guests break out in a strange song and dance segment. This particular sequence highlights one of the other struggles featured in the film -- a sort of cultural war between the young and old. Oliviero hangs out with hippies who camp in the woods and his parties are like bacchanals filled with liquor, song, and sex (or at least nude dancing). In the traditional (and Catholic) Italian countryside, it seems this behavior is frowned upon. We see this firsthand in the next scene, wherein an elderly rag and bone lady refers to the hippies in a derogatory way and ruminates on the good old days.
Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key may not be remembered in the same breath as Deep Red or Blood and Black Lace, but Martino's film is definitely one of the better examples of the form. It's rich with subtext and features an air of loathing running throughout that is genuinely unpleasant, but also compelling. It's a film that subverts our expectations repeatedly -- from casting Fenech against type to making us wonder if Strindberg's Irina is really the innocent victim we think she is (my vote is cast firmly for no ... ). It does all this and still manages to work in a sleazy tale full of sex and nudity that's entertaining and surprisingly well shot. Add in that unforgettable title and it's easy to why giallo maniacs are so fond of this flick.