As gialli go, Puzzle is lies off the beaten track, in more ways than one. Not only is it one of the most obscure films of its type, rarely seen after its 1974 theatrical release, it also challenges the very definition of the genre, having little in common with its stylish cousins from Argento, Fulci and Bava, with their high body counts and psychotropic musical scores. Yet giallo it is, despite the Anglicisation of the term often leading viewers to think that a film can only be considered a giallo if it features a black-gloved killer and strong psychosexual undertones.
Peter Smith (Luc Merenda) is a well-to-do sort of chap. The only problem is that, for the past nine months, he has suffered from amnesia and has no idea who he is. He is not particularly amused, therefore, when a stranger accosts him in his London residence, tells him his real name is Ted Walden, and attempts to kill him. A well-placed bullet from an unseen sniper quickly puts paid to this, and, fearing for his own life, Ted elopes to Italy, where, it transpires, he has a wife, Sara (Senta Berger). Trying to put the strange events of London behind him, Ted makes tentative steps towards rekindling his relationship with Sara, who accepts him back despite his having no memory of her at all. However, as he slowly pieces together the fragmented shards of his mind, he quickly begins to realise that some memories are better off remaining buried...
The theme of this film should be clear from its original Italian title, L'Uomo Senza Memoria - "the man without a memory" - and this slow, understated giallo has a lot in common with Alfred Hitchcock's own study of amnesia, Spellbound. True, there are no Salvador Dali-designed hallucinatory dream sequences - director/co-writer Duccio Tessari is more interested in plot mechanics than in exploring such abstract renderings of memory loss - but Ted's confused state of mind is actually conveyed quite well, and right up until the last moment we're never completely clear on how much he really knows. So many of the characters he runs into, both savoury and unsavoury, are so convinced he's faking his memory loss that we, the audience, very quickly start to suspect foulplay too. Tessari allows the mystery to unravel in a conventional but effective way: Ted encounters various images that serve to unlock fragments of his memory, and, much in the manner of Dario Argento's classic giallo mysteries, the answer lies in a clue that he thinks he understands but in fact has misinterpreted.
As with his previous giallo, The Bloodstained Butterfly, Tessari keeps his style subdued, eschewing the brash colours and convoluted camera setups for which the genre has become known in favour of a more down to earth realism. This is no bad thing, because the script, uncharacteristically for a film of its type, is focused on the characters far more than the set-pieces. That's not to say that the entire film is talking heads - indeed, there are a handful of highly effective scenes of tension - but Tessari's aims are more restrained, and, perhaps surprisingly, the film is more successful as a result of this than I suspect it would have been had the director gone for an Argento-style assault on the senses. The score, meanwhile, like The Bloodstained Butterfly provided by Gianni Ferrio, manages to be effective without being overbearing, and once again features snatches of classical music.
As an actor, Luc Merenda is fairly bland, but to be honest that's sort of the point. Ted is such a blank slate that a more expressive actor might actually have harmed the film. It's lucky, then, that Senta Berger is allowed to take centre stage, as she proves to more than make up for her co-star's shortcomings. It's also quite refreshing to see such a resourceful, determined female protagonist in a genre not exactly famous for strong women (the obvious exception being Argento, who, with the likes of Profondo Rosso, provides enough girl power for a dozen films), and it all pays off during the climax, where she gets the opportunity to wield a chainsaw as the killer closes in. The rest of the cast are fairly undistinguished, although giallo regulars Anita Strindberg and Tom Felleghy do put in token appearances. Unfortunately, those who don't enjoy watching children in movies should prepare themselves for a lot of teeth-grinding, as the character of Luca (Duilio Cruciani), a young boy infatuated with Sara, occupies far more screen time than necessary, and most destructively is saddled with a dubbed voice that is an affront to the senses.
If you approach Puzzle expecting a giallo in the classical sense of the term, then you will be sorely disappointed. It lacks the body count, gore and nudity that many have come to demand, and its camerawork is functional rather than the star of the show. It is, however, a potent and involving thriller that keeps the audience guessing and boasts far stronger characterisation than most examples of the genre. There's nothing revolutionary on offer here, but this modest giallo ultimately succeeds, ironically, thanks to its less than grandiose aims. Simply put, it achieves what it sets out to do.
Puzzle is the first giallo title to be released by Another World Entertainment, a Danish company specialising in Italian cult cinema. Presented anamorphically in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, the source used is clearly in good condition, but the image has a very processed look to it, with a continual softness and lack of fine grain. Worse still, the stair-stepping effect that I noticed in a number of NoShame Films' US releases is present here, especially evident on sharp diagonal lines and resulting in an image that looks to have been poorly scaled. The packaging claims that this is a "high-resolution Ultrabit transfer", but in reality this is a marketing gimmick that means little or nothing. Indeed, the average bit rate is a fairly unremarkable 7.61 Mbps, and only slightly over 6 of the dual-layer disc's 9 GB of space are used. Compression artefacts, admittedly, are limited, but they are there.
Two audio mixes are presented - English and Italian, both mono, and neither sound particularly great. There are a lot of distortion to the English track, the source of which sounds like a heavily used theatrical print, while the Italian variant has an unnaturally boomy quality to it. In any event, the provided subtitles are in Danish, Norwegian, Swedish and Finnish, which pretty much precludes the Italian track as a viable option for English speakers. It should also be pointed out that, at one point, a letter Ted receives, presented on-screen in Italian, has no voice-over to accompany it and thus goes untranslated.
Extras are limited to the film's theatrical trailer, a filmography for Duccio Tessari, a slideshow photo gallery, and some poor quality trailers for other Another World Entertainment releases. Considering that the recent French release of the film, by Neo Publishing, featured interviews with Luc Merenda and co-writer Ernesto Gastaldi, the lack of meaningful bonus materials is disappointing to say the least.
Puzzle is probably not best suited for those who are new to the world of the giallo; nor is Another World Entertainment's DVD particularly impressive. Veteran fans of the genre, will be well pleased that this hard-to-come-by title has finally been released on DVD. Those who speak Italian or French, though, would probably be better off going for Neo Publishing's R2 French release, due to its wider array of bonus materials.