Saturday, 18 November 2006

Puzzle / L'uomo senza memoria

The puzzle of the English title begins in London as Peter Smith (Luc Merenda), l'uomo senza memoria of the Italian, goes to see his doctor (Tom Felleghy, in yet another character role) to see if there isn't any way he can speed up the process of remembering the past he lost in a car accident some nine months ago.

The doctor tells him that there isn't and it's all a matter of time, but evidently had not considered the way in which a death sentence might speed the process up.

For when Peter returns home he finds an old acquaintance – alas he cannot remember who – waiting for him. Thing is this man knows him as Ted Walden, 30 years old, married and living in Portofino, Italy. Worse, he's now going to shoot Peter/Ted in revenge for some past deed.

A gunman's bullet from the window opposite puts paid to the man's plan, but also prevents him explaining further “at the point of dying” and leaves Peter/Ted with a body – which tellingly he seems rather too adept at dealing with, potentially offering a foretaste of things to come – and a slew of new questions.

Who is he really?

Why did this man want to kill him?

Who saved him?


Unsure of what to do next, the timely arrival of a telegram from Sara (Senta Berger) in Portofino seems to offer some answers. On arrival, however, the questions only multiply. Ted does not recognise his wife, instead requiring her to be pointed out by a third party – who of course has his own agenda, soon to be revealed – before learning that she didn't send for him, doesn't trust him and can't really help him ...

Though there's one of those unconvincing falling dummy moments late on, where its head comes off as it lands in the sea, this is otherwise a well made, tightly scripted and effective thriller that keeps you engaged and guessing right up to the end.

While perhaps a little slow for some tastes, taking time to establish character and situation, there really isn't any waste to speak of. Everything that's there – a kid's photography hobby; the chainsaw that Sara puts back in the kitchen cupboard; a prominently displayed clock; a burglary where nothing seems to have been taken; the cross-cutting between Sara and Ted as they separately prepare for bed etc. – has a reason for being.

Similarly, if stalk-and-slash suspense dynamics and set pieces are downplayed, this only serves to strengthen the slow-burn menace of some of the encounters – most notably when a immobile Sara is terrorised by one of the bad guys flicking matches on her decidedly flammable nightdress – and the impact of the climactic settling of accounts when the straight razor comes out in apparent concession to genre requirements...

And if the amnesia McGuffin is clearly lifted from Hitchcock's Spellbound, the filmmakers have also put sufficient spin on it to make it their own. Whereas that film's protagonist was set free by the uncovering of his true past, here is serves instead to only make things worse for Ted.

Okay, there is undoubtedly a classical model for this in Oedipus, if we want to go back that far, but again the psychoanalytic/Freudian focus of the conventional giallo is conspicuous in its absence, in favour of a more existential reading that (as with Hal Hartley's Amateur some twenty years later) asks whether a man can still be held accountable for the actions of a past self that no longer represents his present and future – if, that is, he still has one...

As far as the casting goes, the only potentially weak link would seem to be Luc Merenda. Yet even here his characteristic inexpressiveness and reliance upon good looks paradoxically work in the film's favour, better conveying the sense of a man whose life is pretty much a tabula rasa, as does his facility with action, implying a kind of muscle memory from his past.

All told, if Puzzle suggests that Dario Argento was right to say that Duccio Tessari was not the man to direct his The Bird with the Crystal Plumage to best effect, it also indicates that this was less down to any lack of facility with the thriller form – The Bloodstained Butterfly is similarly impressive, even in the compromised pan and scan version I saw – than a different accent and set of dynamics.

Put another way, if Argento is the master of the modern giallo thriller, Tessari must be ranked as a master of its classical counterpart.

This Region 2 coded PAL format disc from new Danish outfit Another World Entertainment, billed as the first in their giallo series, presents Puzzle in an ultrabit anamorphic transfer in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The transfer is clean and vibrant, perhaps a little soft but undoubtedly far superior to the kind of bootleg sources some might have encountered the film on previously.

While the sound suffers from a bit of snap, crackle and pop, it's never too distracting nor sufficient to detract from overall enjoyment of the film. While both Italian and English tracks are provided, there isn't the option of listening to the former subtitled in the latter, with the choices here – Danish, Swedish, Norwegian and Finnish – apparently reflecting the main target market for the disc, while also providing hope that someone elsewhere might yet license the film and provide this.

The extras are a bit thin on the ground, being confined to the film's trailer; a straight off the IMDB style filmography for Tessari, and a small slideshow gallery.

Okay, there's also a trailer gallery of future releases from the company, but these are for films – Cannibal Ferox, Mountain of the Cannibal God, City of the Living Dead, Cannibal Holocaust, Eaten Alive and The Beyond – that are all already well represented on DVD – except perhaps for with Finnish subtitles...

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