The only conundrum Judge Bill Gibron can conceive of is why this wonderful film from 1980 has remained forgotten for so long.
A moving tale of family ties across years and generations.
Eva and David (Lila Kedrova and Melvyn Douglas) are an elderly couple living in a rundown house in the Northeast. Their marriage of over 47 years is now fraught with hours of isolation and personal indifference. He feels too old to live an independent life, and wants to move into the Union home he helped found. She's so scared about the end of her life that she's lost in the past, unwilling to deal with people, including her family. When Eva starts feeling overly tired, she is forced to visit the doctor, and the news is devastating. She has inoperable cancer, and less than a year to live. Hoping to reconnect with the rest of the clan (and sell the house out from under his frantic wife), David takes his overly sensitive spouse on a trip across country. After visiting one daughter, they end up at the San Francisco apartment of their granddaughter (Brooke Adams, The Dead Zone). She instantly senses something is wrong. However, it will take more than caring and concern to bring Eva back to reality. She's been trapped in her history for so long, there may be no way of connecting her to contemporary events.
Tell Me a Riddle is an intriguing selection of small moments that have initial impact, but fail to fully add up to a complete motion picture. Under the attention to detail auspices of actress-turned-director Lee Grant, this look at the last year in the life of a Russian immigrant relocated to the United States is not heavy handed or overbearing. Instead, it's inferential and enigmatic—sometimes to a fault. We are intrigued by Eva's growing detachment from the rest of the real world, a mental state made up of complicated memories, a love of literature, and an agoraphobic fear of losing her home. When the mandatory terminal illness comes along (handled in the same, non-sensationalized vignette style), the quiet character study turns into a quasi-road picture, with elderly husband and wife visiting various offspring across the country. We get the moments of passion, or painful past confrontations and unspoken secrets of personal devastation. Yet by the time we arrive in San Francisco to see Brooke Adams and her hipster lifestyle choices, things begin to go flat. It's not for lack of intriguing elements to dive into. Grant gives us forgotten people, marginalized lives, celebrations of the old country, and an attempted five-hankie weeper of an ending.
And still no tears will come. There is something antiseptic about Tell Me a Riddle, a facet too perfunctory and by the book to elevate the material beyond the standard "death be not proud" pronouncements. Some of it stems from Eva herself. Grant never allows us beneath the surface of this survivor, a woman who we clearly see as a rebel jailed and psychologically harmed for her part in some pre- or post-revolution anti-Communist activities. There are snippets of dialogue, hints of history, and specific visual cues (a hanging corpse, a meeting in a field). But there is also more here that's not suggested, statements about a woman's place in the turn-of-the-century pecking order that resonate with a real strength. We see David dissuade Eva from reading, as books and knowledge for women have no place in the marital bed (or, as we learn later, Russian society). There is also a scrapbook where her love of writing legends like Emile Zola is painstakingly protected and preserved. This is a well-rounded Renaissance lady. Sadly, Tell Me a Riddle treats her like a physical and psychological burden most of the time.
It's a good thing that Grant had some major acting talent on hand to keep her audience intrigued. Without them, the movie might have meandered aimlessly. Oscar winner Lila Kedrova (she won for her supporting work in Zorba the Greek) gives an incredibly dense performance as Eva, packing much more into her interpretation than the script gives her to work with. She is frail and fierce, stubborn and yet soft as a deep down comforter. Her moments with Melvyn Douglas (in one of his last big-screen appearances) have a world-weary wisdom to them that belie the lack of chemistry between the pair. Adams, on the other hand, seems slightly more mannered, as if knowledgeable of the company she's keeping and believing she's way out of their league. Her momentary breakdown over a failed relationship feels more like a fit than an emotional mood. Combined with the real lack of artistic flair in Grant's work behind the lens (the film is professionally shot but creatively unexciting), Tell Me a Riddle shuffles when it should soar. This is a very good movie. It could have been a classic.
Presented by Warner Brothers in what is clearly another example of back-catalog cleaning, the 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen image is excellent, if a little soft. The colors are clear and the details are discernible. Again, Grant does very little visually here, so don't expect to be wowed by the picture's transfer to the digital domain. The sound situation is equally uneventful. The Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono is even and uniform, failing to provide much of an immersive experience. At least the dialogue is easy to understand. As for added content, Warners really drops the ball here. All we get is a trailer, and nothing else. Some amount of backstory on the production or actors would have been nice—even respectful—but with an already unknown quantity to sell, the studio obviously believes that a basic bare-bones package is the best way to go.
Considering how overwrought and obvious most current dramas are, Tell Me a Riddle is a welcome statement of subtlety. However, such a restrained approach can be a double-edged sword. We appreciate everything Grant and her cast attempt to do here. But in the end, it never really gels into something meaningful.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Theatrical Trailer
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