Puzzle (1974) Blu-ray Review
Blu-ray Release: June 8, 2021
Audio: English Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono
Run Time: 91:43
Director: Duccio Tessari
Stranded in London with no memory and no identity that he can recall, a man who believes his name is Peter (Luc Merenda) struggles with amnesia after a car accident. With little information to help him solve the puzzle of who he is, an attempted murder and a strange series of events lead him to the discovery that his name is in fact Ted and that he has a beautiful wife, Sara (Senta Berger), waiting for him in the world-famous Italian resort town of Portofino. (From VCI’s official synopsis)
Duccio Tessari worked as screenwriter and/or director in almost every one of Italy’s genre fads from the ‘60s through the ‘80s. His most celebrated films tend to be westerns – including uncredited story contributions to Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars (Italian: Per un pugno di dollari, 1964), writing/directing duties on A Pistol for Ringo (Italian: Una pistola per Ringo, 1965) and The Return of Ringo (Italian: Il ritorno di Ringo, 1965), a Zapata western called Long Live Your Death (Italian: Viva la muerte... tua!, 1971), and a popular blaxploitation western called Three Tough Guys (Italian: Uomini duri, 1974) – but he also made a trilogy of eclectic and well-liked gialli consisting of A Death Occurred Last Night (Italian: La morte risale a ieri sera, 1970), The Bloodstained Butterfly (Italian: Una farfalla con le ali insanguinate, 1971), and Puzzle (Italian: L’uomo senza memoria; aka: Man without a Memory, 1974). A Death Occurred Last Night is the most obscure of the three and isn’t as concerned with the new genre customs set by Argento’s Bird with the Crystal Plumage (Italian: L'uccello dalle piume di cristallo, 1970). It tends to be remembered for its downbeat atmosphere. Bloodstained Butterfly might be his best of the three, though it leans towards the police and courtroom procedural part of the genre and might not appeal to cult movie enthusiasts. The last film, Puzzle (not to be confused with Lamberto Bava’s late stage giallo, Body Puzzle ), represents Tessari fully engaging in giallo’s (gialli's?) wild plotting conventions and increasingly violent content, meaning that it is his most entertaining entry in the giallo canon.
After a brisk intro, Puzzle’s settles into an almost excessive slow burn of exposition and twisty melodrama. Tessari and co-writers Ernesto Gastaldi & Bruno Di Geronimo (working from a story by Roberto Infascelli) harken back to giallo’s roots by invoking Hitchcock and including thematic nods to Rear Window (1954) and Spellbound (1945), and the Italian title, Man without a Memory, which is meant to evoke The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934/56). Tessari then applies a liberal helping of Argento-esque visual motifs, most notably during sequences where Peter struggles with flashes of memory, though there are other nods made to Bird with the Crystal Plumage in particular. This story of an amnesiac trying to figure out if he’s a villain of the movie coincides with a sometimes separate story of the amnesiac’s wife dealing with the ramifications of his memory loss. The push and pull between Peter and Sara’s points of view gives Puzzle its unique flavor and, when it works, it keeps the audience on their toes while they try to solve the puzzle (ha!) that is Peter’s back story. Given the sheer weight of exposition during the first act and a half, though, it probably would’ve worked better to designate Sara as the audience surrogate. Senta Berger gives the superior performance (in his defense, the overly-restrained Luc Merenda is miscast), her character is more compelling and better fits the particular neuroses of the era’s Italian-flavored thrillers, and the underlying tension as to if Peter is faking his memory loss or not (as well as the corresponding paranoia) works better when we aren’t aware of his perspective. More than an hour into the movie and the bodycount is one and it's a dog who is killed off-screen. Otherwise, the only graphic violence is a repeated, possibly false memory/dream sequence in which Peter cuts a man’s throat. Fortunately for the bloodthirsty folks in the audience, an early appearance from Chekov’s Chainsaw promises that Puzzle isn’t going to stick with strict character drama for its finale. The third act kicks off with a fatal fist fight and quickly spirals into a gonzo battle of wits and fists between Sara and the not-so-secret bad guy, as a badly injured Peter rushes home to help. Tessari pushes the chaos of the climax further with escalating violence (don’t forget about that chainsaw!), sticking the camera into increasingly wild positions, and uses an exorbitant amount of super-slow-motion. The cat & mouse battle doesn’t match the tension of similar sequences seen in Bird with the Crystal Plumage or Sergio Martino’s Torso (Italian: I Corpi Pesentano Tracce di Violenza Carnale, 1973), but its wild abandon rewards the audience’s patience in a way that makes it easier to appreciate the earlier narrative build up and turns a good giallo into a borderline great one.
Puzzle was never officially released on VHS or DVD here in North America, but there were PAL anamorphic discs released by Neo Publishing in France and Another World Entertainment in Denmark. VCI Entertainment’s combo-pack collection represents the film’s first Blu-ray and DVD release stateside. VCI doesn’t have the same name recognition as other boutique labels, but they’ve been in the home video game for decades. Over that time, the quality of their HD discs has improved, but, unfortunately, two of their highest profile BDs, Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace (Italian: Sei donne per l'assassino, 1964), had the misfortune of being outdone by Arrow Video, who has deeper pockets and a bigger market share. So VCI enters the situation as the underdog and, as a fan of the film, I’m rooting for them. First things first, this 2.20:1 (slightly misframed from the 1.85:1 OAR), 1080p transfer is an improvement over the Danish DVD in terms of clarity and lack of digital compression issues.
Now, for a cautious caveat: the 4K restoration was taken from a print source and I don’t think VCI had the resources to give the scan the thorough regrading it needs. The minor scratch & dent artifacts and the pulpy grain is typical for a print source, but VCI’s print exhibits considerable color deterioration. The effect is, from my understanding, a textbook dye fading situation, leading to oversaturated reds (ideal for certain elements, but not for skin tones), a pinkish or bluish overcast (seems to depend on the reel?), green-tinged blues and browns (some night sequences have flat-out green skin tones), and over-amped white levels. Black levels fare well, in spite of everything (another advantage over the DVD), but the harsh, overexposed whites do overwhelm some details and swallow up delicate edges. The final effect is similar to watching an older 35mm projection and still preferable to a compressed or heavily DNR’d transfer. (If you’d like to try before you buy, so to speak, as of this writing, VCI’s exact transfer is streaming on Amazon Prime)
While I’m sure some fans will be disappointed by the lack of an Italian dub, I would like to remind everyone, as I always do, that these movies were shot without sound with international casts speaking different languages on-set sound and that all tracks are dubbed. In this case, the English dub is arguably the preferred way for an English-speaking audience, because the dub performers use broad accents to signify each character’s country of origin (Peter is British, Sara is American, they’re surrounded by Italians…). The real problem is that this mostly well-maintained English track is presented in lossy Dolby Digital. The compression doesn’t make a huge difference, given the single channel treatment and I am genuinely impressed with the consistency of volume and clarity, but it’s still disappointing.
Commentary by Kat Ellinger – The author, critic, and cohost (with Samm Deighan) of the Daughters of Darkness podcast brings her best to the disc’s one substantial special feature. She comes to the film as a fan who is hoping to improve upon its reputation as one of the “forgotten” giallo, comparing/contrasting it against the era’s most popular entries and appreciating Tessari’s direction and cinematographer Giulio Albonico’s photography. Ellinger also discusses the film’s connections to Hitchcock and the Gothic tradition, defines the terms M-giallo (m for male) and F-giallo (f for female) and how they collide in this movie, and then recalls the careers of the cast & crew. Given the lack of information about Puzzle in print or on the internet, this commentary track might be enough to make the disc a must-buy for giallo collectors, despite the A/V issues (that, and I don’t foresee another company announcing their own version of Puzzle anytime soon, if ever).
Giallo poster gallery
Liner Notes by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, author of The Giallo Canvas: Art, Excess and Horror Cinema (McFarland, 2021)
Italian and English trailers for Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace and The Bird With the Crystal Plumage.
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.