‘Puzzle’: cult film turns up on YouTube

Jerry Schatzberg’s 1970 fashion world drama “Puzzle of a Downfall Child” is a cult film largely because it has been so hard to find.

The only video version available is a French DVD that won’t play here unless you have an expensive international converting device (and who would buy one of those when the DVD format is on its way out?).

The photographer-turned-director Schatzberg has hosted a few 35mm screenings in New York City in recent years – at Film Forum and Metrograph – but otherwise “Puzzle” has fallen into “lost film” limbo. This is all very strange considering the movie was a major studio release (Universal), produced by Paul Newman’s company, and starring Faye Dunaway during her peak movie star decade. If that isn’t enough to entice you, the screenplay is by Carole Eastman, the reclusive legend who scored a huge hit that same year with “Five Easy Pieces.”

Schatzberg suffered a bruising flop when “Puzzle of a Downfall Child” quickly opened and closed, but he bounced back the following year with “Panic in Needle Park” and delivered another key 1970s drama, “Scarecrow,” in 1973.

The good news is that a very high quality video version of “Puzzle of a Downfall Child” has turned up on YouTube – for free – and it is better than I remembered. Dunaway is excellent as a model recovering from a nervous breakdown who hides out in a Long Island beach house, dictating her memoirs to an old friend (Barry Primus, who enlivened every 1970s era film he appeared in).

Schatzberg drew on his own background as a fashion photographer, and both screenwriter Eastman and star Dunaway had done time as models.

The picture’s arty pretensions drove some viewers crazy back in 1970 – it serves up the same stylish ennui that Michelangelo Antonioni delivered in his audience-dividing Italian imports – but it is quite bracing now to watch a major studio film dare to be so unapologetically grim in its presentation of a neurotic protagonist. (It’s no wonder that Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne wanted Schatzberg to direct their screenwriting debut “Panic in Needle Park”).

Dunaway is in every scene and clearly relished the opportunity to tackle a meaty female star vehicle in a period when male actors were dominating studio productions (with the exception of Barbra Streisand and Jane Fonda). In addition to Primus, the supporting cast features that always fascinating ham, Viveca Lindfors, as a very eccentric photographer, and Roy Scheider as one of the model’s rich beaus.

Who knows how or why “Puzzle of a Downfall Child” is available on YouTube, but if you’re interested in the movie, I would check it out right away because rare, unlicensed films have a way of disappearing quickly from the site.