Grindhouse Giallo With Senta Berger
One of the early fathers of Spaghetti Westerns, filmmaker Duccio Tessari went on to make a number of well-crafted gialli in the 1970s such as his masterful The Bloodstained Butterfly. Puzzle (L’Uomo senza memoria) is an eclectic but often engaging giallo from the director filled with suspenseful twists. The taut thriller sees a man with amnesia unraveling the mystery of his own identity and criminal past, while former associates track him down for missing money. Owing a fair debt to Hitchcock, Puzzle’s intriguing mysteries and escalating violence are told with stylish flair.
Eight months ago, a car accident leaves a man with no memories of his past, including a wife he doesn’t remember and shady criminal associates lurking everywhere. Luc Merenda plays Ted, an amnesiac lured to Italy in the hopes of discovering his real identity. There Ted meets the alluring Sara (Senta Berger), his forgotten wife. Unaware of her missing husband’s condition the past year, Sara had begun moving on from her marriage by dating a local doctor. Sara’s companions include a friendly dog and Luca, a ten-year-old boy from next door who has an adorable crush on the woman.
…Puzzle is an eclectic but often engaging giallo
…Puzzle is an eclectic but often engaging giallo
The “new” Ted reconciles with his wife Sara as dangerous men from his past start sniffing around the seemingly reformed man. They believe Ted is faking his amnesia. The danger only grows as the couple begins unearthing Ted’s missing memories. A web of intrigue, violence, and murder tightens around Ted as he learns what his former associates desperately want. Ted’s forgotten past is catching up with him and no one is safe.
Puzzle is interesting by giallo standards because Duccio Tessari isn’t always obsessed employing lurid sex and graphic violence as he unwinds the disorienting mystery. Released in 1974, the storytelling practically reverts back to an earlier era with a character-driven focus on the mystery that keeps audiences guessing. That’s not saying Puzzle is a completely toothless shocker with no bite.
A couple scenes clearly stand out in the R-rated giallo for their graphic content but otherwise this is a fairly restrained thriller by the standards of Argento and Bava. Possibly borrowing from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre which came out the same year, a chainsaw plays a role in Puzzle’s gonzo ending without the same palpable effect achieved by the slasher. Tessari’s direction works far better when he’s approaching the characters with more realistic drama.
Austrian actress Senta Berger and Luc Merenda share an easy chemistry together which carries Puzzle when the story inevitably drags. It’s two excellent leading performances, playing off far more off-kilter supporting performances. Puzzle is populated by a bevy of suspicious characters, especially a mysterious man played by Bruno Corazzari who constantly harasses Ted. That keeps the mystery fresh as Ted inevitably recovers his memories. Well-acted with lively twists and turns, the memorable giallo engages audiences up through its crazy finale.
More interesting than the disc’s video attributes is the backstory on how VCI found a long-lost print struck for English-speaking markets decades ago. Released in Italy in 1974, a 35mm film print with the English dub was accidentally discovered in a mislabeled film canister in a large warehouse find.
VCI decided the unrestored but serviceable print was good enough for release, employing a 4K transfer of those secondary elements with no apparent photochemical restoration work. Don’t get overly excited as the picture quality is fair but highly uneven. Puzzle on Blu-ray brings a suitable grindhouse cinematic experience at best with the dilapidated surviving print. There’s decent enough clarity and definition for 1080P video, though colors lack full saturation and softness is often pervasive.
The print has varying dirt specks, telecine wobble, splices, unstable color saturation, light leaks, and even damaged frames. The cigarette burn marks, indicating reel changes, are easily spotted. These issues are most obvious for reel one and largely improve as the movie proceeds. Eastmancolor films like Puzzle are unstable and prone to fading, producing skewed flesh-tones and diminished color fidelity.
The good news is VCI hasn’t filtered out the remaining grain and detail, leaving the gritty and occasionally messy cinematic grain structure intact. A touch of crushing and minor sharpening aren’t big problems.
A bigger issue is the curious choice to frame the movie at 2.00:1, an unlikely aspect ratio for a European giallo, which probably isn’t correct. The European DVDs have 1.85:1 video. The resulting 2.00:1 composition is mildly compromised with questionable framing.
VCI rarely breaks the budget with world-class film restorations. The 4K transfer is nice enough but the secondary elements themselves show major age and wear. Puzzle gets a bump in resolution on Blu-ray with this serviceable but limited effort.
One of the big disappointments with this release is the lack of original Italian audio, which was released before on DVD in Europe. VCI provides the adequate English dub soundtrack in 2.0 dual-channel mono Dolby Digital. The lossy audio at 320 kbps does a serviceable job with the largely unrestored sound. Fidelity is fine with only a few scratchy snippets making their presence heard.
There are no major issues beyond the limited mono soundstage and the idiosyncrasies of an Italian production getting dubbed in English after filming has been completed. The English dub isn’t perfect but primary characters receive fine treatment. A few crackles and light background noise remind viewers of the semi-grindhouse nature of the surviving film print.
Optional English SDH subtitles play in a yellow font. These subs are for the English audio, they are not a translation of the original Italian audio absent from this disc.
VCI Entertainment’s Puzzle comes as a Blu-ray and DVD combo set. A six-page color booklet with pictures and liner notes from Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, an author with extensive writing on gialli. The Blu-ray is region-free. This is the first time anyone has released Puzzle on Blu-ray anywhere in the world. It should be mentioned the movie hit DVD in a few European countries years ago, including a couple featurettes and interviews on a French DVD missing here in action.
Audio Commentary By Kat Ellinger – The editor-in-chief of Diabolique Magazine is no stranger giving erudite commentaries on horror and cult films, a regular go-to for labels like Arrow Video. This isn’t my favorite commentary, the overbearing critique strips out some of the fun from what is a cult giallo.
Giallo Poster Gallery (04:14 in HD)
Blood And Black Lace Italian Trailer (03:21 in HD)
Blood And Black Lace English Trailer (01:00 in HD)
The Bird With the Crystal Plumage Italian Trailer (03:10 in HD)
The Bird With the Crystal Plumage English Trailer (02:44 in HD)
Full disclosure: This Blu-ray was provided to us for review. This has not affected the editorial process. For information on how we handle review material, please visit our about us page to learn more.
Duccio Tessari’s engaging and well-acted giallo is told with Hitchcockian flair as actors Luc Merenda and Senta Berger light up the screen with worthy lead performances.
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The following six screen shots serve as samples for our subscription-exclusive set of 42 full resolution, uncompressed HD screen shots grabbed directly from the Blu-ray: