Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key February 14, 2017
Whether it’s art, trash, or artful trash is debatable — its assemblage of sordidness and sleaze is either a becoming concoction or a thoroughly tawdry one depending on your appetite for chintzy sex and death. But no matter the disposition is Sergio Martino’s overwrought (and titularly spectacular) Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (1972) a masterwork in giallo, the subgenre of stylized stalk-and-slash thrillers made famous in Italy throughout the 1970s and early ‘80s. Perfecting the cinematic category’s indelible mixture of cherry red carnage, eccentric stylistics, and prolific skin flashing, the film is pulpy, deceitful fun. (And, like the best gialli, its clever conclusion successfully pulls the rug out from under us just as we think we know where everything’s headed.)
It stars a menacing Luigi Pistilli as Oliviero, an unsuccessful writer and raging alcoholic who consistently relieves his disappointments in himself by incessantly victimizing his beautiful wife Irene (Anita Strindberg), publicly or otherwise. Living in a decaying mansion that belonged to Oliviero’s late mother, all that fills the estate is a blatantly one-sided sadomasochistic relationship and other terrors led by the latter’s vicious black cat, Satan.
The proliferation of violence and abuse gives the impression that all in front of us is headed for a cathartic tipping point. And that tipping point is reached, horrifically, by the brutal throat slashing of one of Oliviero’s mistresses. Understandably named the prime suspect, Oliviero and his mansion suddenly become a breeding ground for the suspicions of law enforcement agents. One false move on Oliviero’s part and Irene, perhaps, will finally live a life in which she isn’t tyrannized by an immoral scoundrel and his bloodthirsty cat like some piece of meat.
So the situation’s tension rises, then, by the almost immediate offing of the family maid (who, to avoid further police investigation, gets her body stored in the wine cellar by her fearful employers) and by the sudden arrival of Floriana (Edwige Fenech), Oliviero’s lusty niece. Lurking beneath the surface of the abounding intrigue, though, rests an ingenious plot that’ll get at least one of these duplicitous characters ahead in their wretched lives.
And that’s what I like best about Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key — it looks and feels like no-budget bilge but ends up being a competent proponent of the art of the plot twist and a developer of characters we wouldn’t much originally consider being capable of being anyone else besides walking and talking giallo tropes. There’s no mistaking that the movie is no-budget bilge (humorous is the way Irene, at one point, moans to Floriana about how the only financial shrewdness her husband has is his ability to get steep sums of cash for nearly all their furniture). But Martino, making the most of his alluring leading ladies and the palatial setting that holds much of the film’s action, is enough of a calculating storyteller and nifty visual stylist to ensure that we lap up the film’s mischief instead of writing it all off as grindhouse grime.
It’s too inspired for such indifference. And even if I’m not much closer to understanding how a vice can be allegorized into a locked room and how someone can have its key, and even if I’m not much closer to understanding whose vice the title speaks of and who has the key, the movie’s batshit enough to make the lunacy of its name seem proper. That Martino and his band of actors are able to pull that off is a feat in and of itself. B