- Movie Rating -

Tell Me a Riddle (1981)

| December 15, 1980

I resent the treatment given to the elderly in American films.  So fearful of alienating the youth market that Hollywood runs scared from the process of aging and takes it directions that are often either fountains of wisdom or some tiresome reclaiming of youth that includes skinny dipping, bank robberies, motorcycles and rock and roll.  Old age isn’t about that drivel.  It’s a long, slow and very quiet process and I think the key word is quiet because so many films that try to dignify the aging process do so with slow piano music as the characters pour over scrap books.

Tell Me a Riddle is a movie that contracts that idea of old age as a process in which the participants are still trying to figure themselves out.  They are still trying to come to grips with the decisions that they have made in their lives.  It’s not some glorious process of sunsets and afternoon naps.

The participants are David and Eva, Russian immigrants who are dealing with their age.  Eva (Lila Kedrova) has been diagnosed with cancer but her husband David (Melvyn Douglas) doesn’t tell her about her condition and instead takes her on a cross-country journey to visit the grandchildren who live in San Francisco.  Very soon she gets homesick and he is forced to admit that he has sold their home, forged her name on the documents and didn’t tell her.  Naturally, this creates problems as she nears the terminal phase of her condition.

What is amazing about this story is that it rises to dramatic highs or falls to dramatic lows.  It doesn’t roller-coaster its audience’s expectations.  There is a day-to-day feel to all of this, of the long days moving and out like the tides.  The endless hours that feel short when one considers what takes place between them.

Based on a story by Tillie Olsen and directed by a very sure hand by Lee Grant, Tell Me a Riddle doesn’t have a shy bone in its body.  It’s about the process of the end of life, of the knowing that it will soon be over and that certain things will be left unattended.  Douglas and Kedrova give us the feeling of two people who have spent a lifetime not saying what needed to be really said, and alternately not feeling the need to over-sentimentalize the obvious.  They’re good together, they’re sweet together but never in the manner of a Ben Gay ad.  We see the process of life taking place between them, between what is said and what is not said.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(1981) View IMDB Filed in: Uncategorized