The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh – Nora Orlandi
Orlandi’s score with erotic undercurrents enhance the dark sexuality of this classic giallo.
Published on June 3, 2013 | Filed under Audiodrome: Music in Film
The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh

When you think of Italian horror cinema, chances are you envision fedora-wearing killers skulking in the shadows, black leather gloved hands brandishing gleaming switchblades, outrageous set pieces built solely around carefully choreographed murders, and imperilled women screaming for their lives while being slashed to ribbons. The likes of Barbara Steele, Daria Nicolodi and Edwige Fenech are but several distinct female faces invoked when contemplating vividly wrought Italian genre films and the decadent, fiendishly violent delights they offer. Moving behind the camera though, women are much less represented; in fact their presence is downright scant. There are however a few notable individuals who have braved the male-dominated industry, carving out their own distinctive niche and proving they’re just as apt at helping to create cinematic shocks as the boys. One such woman is composer Nora Orlandi.

Born in Voghera in the north of Italy, Orlandi studied music and composition at the local music academy before forming the vocal harmony group 2 + 2. She scored her first film, the nautical adventure romp We Do Not Want to Die, in 1954 at the tender age of 20. From here she went on to score music for various Italian crime dramas and westerns before composing the haunting soundtrack for the proto-giallo, The Sweet Body of Deborah and Riccardo Freda’s psycho-thriller Double Face. A self-confessed fan of thrillers, Orlandi would initially compose her scores without the aid of any instruments, only playing back what she had written when she felt the score was complete, creating, in her own words, “sound photography”, to parallel the onscreen action.

The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh

She is perhaps best known for providing the provocative, jazz-infused score for Sergio Martino’s twisted giallo, The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh. With its dazzling array of style, mystery, violence and suspense, The Strange Vice tells of an ambassador’s wife who suspects that one of the (many) men in her life may be a vicious serial killer. Featuring the irresistible triptych of Edwige Fenech, Ivan Rassimov and George Hilton – names now synonymous with the giallo – Martino’s film has nods aplenty to the likes of Hitchcock, Tourneur, Argento and Bava, and stands as a shining, if often unfairly overlooked example of the film cycle.

Orlandi’s score is constructed around variations of the main theme; a melodic and somewhat melancholy piano piece – The Strange Vice – that perfectly enhances the dark and dangerous sexuality at the heart of the tale. By varying the pace and instrumentation, the composer is able to reflect the jet-set elegance of the exotic locations, indulge in playful kitsch during light-hearted moments and conjure an unnerving atmosphere in the various suspense scenes. Erotically charged flashbacks in which Rassimov showers a reclining Fenech in broken glass (in glorious slow-motion of course) revealing her character’s titular vice – she is equally repelled and aroused by the sight of blood – are underpinned by Orlandi’s sensual and eerie score. The combination of these ravishing, perverse images and Orlandi’s rousing music, fuses the film with an intoxicating malaise. Central to these moments is the track Dies Irae. With its sultry, wordless vocals and delicate woodwind, it’s a tender love theme that is elevated to an almost ecclesiastical, spiritual pitch when a poignant organ dirge comes to climax. This beautiful, all too brief moment is repeated on Descending, where Orlandi demonstrates she’s as capable as Bruno Nicolai and even Ennio Morricone when it comes to creating heart-melting melodies. For Fun Fact Fans, Tarantino used this piece in Kill Bill Volume 2 to stunning, desert-set effect.

Elsewhere the hedonism heats up on impossibly funky, mini-skirted tracks such as Shakin’ With Edwige – vibes, sax, organ and fuzzy electric guitar strut their stuff with prog-tinged abandon – and the laid back Sophisticated Edwige – a playful reworking of the main theme with double bass, piano, organ, trumpet and electric guitar conspiring to sound oh so decadent. Orlandi creeps things up on Obscure Remembering – shrill woodwind flanked by moaning disembodied voices hinting at inevitable shadowy menace – and on Blood Heaven – skulking harpsichord licked by infernal electric guitar snarls. The sparse moodiness and chic shock of The Nights of All the Night with its shuddering Hammond organ and bongos filling in for stalking footsteps, recalls certain moments of Carlo Rustichelli’s score for Blood and Black Lace.

The Strange Vice of Mrs Ward

I’ll leave you with Shakin’ With Edwige. Enjoy.

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James is the author of Dario Argento (Kamera Books) and a monograph on The Company of Wolves (part of Auteur’s Devil’s Advocates series). He currently contributes to Exquisite Terror and Diabolique, and has also written for Film Ireland, Eye for Film, Little White Lies and The Quietus.
James Gracey

  • Aaron D

    I LOVE the score for STRANGE VICE and I feel like it’s kind of an overlooked one when people talk about stand-out giallo music. Glad you took the time to show Nora Orlandi’s music some love, James!

    • James

      This is one of my favourites too, Aaron. Indeed, Mrs Wardh is one of my fave gialli. For me it’s up there with Martino’s best work. Thanks for leaving a comment amigo – I hope you’re keeping well.

  • Malastrana Film Series

    One of my very favorite scores