Awoken one night by an intruder in the house Sara Grimaldi (Senta Berger) has a close call before the culprit flees the scene. Shortly thereafter she receives word that her estranged husband Ted (Luc Merenda) is finally coming home. Which leaves Sara with mixed feelings. Now she has a life here in Portafino, Italy, coaching a children's swim team and exploring a tentative relationship with the affable Daniel (Umberto Orsini). However when Sara greets Ted at the train station he claims to be suffering from amnesia. Having fled London after an assassin out to murder him was shot dead, Ted is haunted and desperate for answers. While he struggles to piece together unnerving fragments of a seemingly sinister past, Sara is menaced by mysterious assailants bent on bloody retribution for reasons she must figure out. If she wants to survive.
Strangely enough the American grindhouse and home video market tried to sell Puzzle a.k.a. L'uomo senza memoria ('The Man with No Memory') as Europe's answer to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1973). Complete with grisly poster and video box art spotlighting the climax featuring a blood-splattered, chainsaw-wielding (yet somehow still alluring) Senta Berger. When in fact the film remains among the more cerebral, character-driven examples of Italian giallo horror-thrillers. Producer Luciano Martino was coming off a run of stylish gialli directed by his brother Sergio Martino. Here he upholds their reoccurring theme of protagonists whose fragmented memories spur them into an obsessive search for truth. Berger's presence is also interesting given she plays the flip side of her role in the French psychological thriller Diabolically Yours (1968), another film in which her screen husband suffers from memory loss.
Co-written by director Duccio Tessari and the inescapable Ernesto Gastaldi, with input from Bruno Di Geronimo and Roberto Infascelli, Puzzle interweaves parallel plots. One centered on Sara's plight trying to evade and deduce why she is the target of two criminals, the other dwelling on Ted's quest to piece together his ambiguous past. Gradually discovering he might not have been such a great guy after all. As such the film does an interesting job contrasting moments that unsettle on both a visceral (the sense of being stalked in your own home by a malevolent stranger) and psychological level (Ted recalls slitting a man's throat and ponders whether he himself is a psychotic killer). Tessari infuses the unfolding mystery with his background in hard-boiled Euro-crime thrillers and spaghetti westerns, playing neat little mind games that compensate for the script's many ludicrous pulp contrivances and melodramatic moments. His direction is stylishly disorientating, making use of extreme close-ups, offbeat angles and towards the grisly finale dreamy slow-motion. As a result Puzzle maintains an ominous, suspenseful atmosphere (further abetted by Gianni Ferrio's eerily beautiful easy listening score, which includes a lovely theme song) even throughout its slower stretches.
The film is especially effective in those moments with Sara alone in a darkened apartment terrorized by an unknown assailant. Using every lady-in-peril trick in the book, Tessari evokes classics like Wait Until Dark (1967) and See No Evil (1971) while the talented Berger makes for a highly compelling heroine. Vulnerable yet, as the climax proves, resourceful in a clinche. Later a plot twist lands Sara with a broken leg leaving her even more vulnerable to the machinations of the increasingly thuggish George (Bruno Corazzari). Meanwhile a Home Alone (1990) style subplot involves Sara's friendship with a bratty boy named Luca (Duilio Cruciani). His would-be cute insights into the romantic foibles of grown-ups prove irritating (as do his constant attempts to hit on Sara - hey, child or not Luca is still an Italian). However Luca's photography hobby proves instrumental in helping Sara eventually unravel the conspiracy. Refreshingly for this genre, hero Ted is not glib about his unsavoury past and proves suitably contrite. It ends with a taut and gruesome climax, nicely handled by Tessari, with of course a saw-wielding Senta. Although you have to wonder why Sara keeps a chainsaw in her apartment in the first place?