Tell Me a Riddle Review
David (Melvyn Douglas) and Eva (Lila Kedrova) fled the Russian pogroms and arrived in the United States. They have been married forty-seven years, raising their children in a large house that is becoming increasingly hard to manage. Their marriage has turned into mutual recrimination and bitterness. David wants to sell the house and move into a retirement home, but Eva won’t have anything to do with this. She has spent most of her life making this house a home, and because she has little time left, she wants to die there.
There’s an argument that women writers frequently do not find their voice, if they do at all, until later life, the demands of homemaking and childrearing depriving them of the time and energy for any creativeness. Before recent times, the great women writers were either childless or were sufficiently well-off to afford childcare. Tillie Olsen (1912-2007) was a writer who was quite frank about the lack of time she had had. Her fictional output is sparse: there is an unfinished novel, but her reputation hinges on a collection of four pieces of short fiction, Tell Me a Riddle. The title novella, first published in 1961, won the O. Henry Award for the Best Short Fiction of its year, and is the basis of this film, made in 1980.
Lee Grant was, and is at age eighty, a distinguished actress, but this was her directing debut. As with many films directed by actors, there’s nothing to complain about the work of the cast – Douglas and Kedrova (neither of them actually Russian) are both superb, as is Brooke Adams as the granddaughter who tries to reconcile them. Peter Coyote turns up in flashbacks as Douglas’s younger self, and there’s an appearance from Zalman King, a few years before he turned to directing softcore erotica. The script is more even-handed than you might expect: while David is certainly insensitive to his wife’s needs at the start, he does grow to realise this. And if she finds herself stifled by marriage and home, so does he. But ultimately the novella, as the film, is more sympathetic to Eva.
Unfortunately, the film has the frequent drawback of actors-turned-directors: a lack of visual flair and no sense of shaping the material. There’s nothing much wrong with Fred Murphy’s photography either, though flashbacks to Russia do overuse what looks like Vaseline on the camera lens. I’m not going to suggest that domestic-scaled dramas have no place on the big screen – you just have to name Yasujiro Ozu to refute that – but I suspect this one probably looked a little lost. It has had no British release of any kind, and the BFI database, while certainly not complete, records no UK television showing, so this DVD release is very likely many people’s first opportunity to see this film. It is worth seeing for its acting and it is certainly poignant, but anyone wanting “something to happen” should steer clear.
Tell Me a Riddle is one of five films released by Warners in their Director’s Showcase: Take Three collection. (I will be reviewing The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and Payday very soon, and my colleague Mike Sutton will do likewise with The Ritz and Personal Best.) The DVD is single-layered in the NTSC format and is encoded for Regions 1, 2, 3 and 4.
The DVD transfer is anamorphically enhanced at a ratio of 1.78:1, opened up slightly from 1.85:1 as seems to be increasingly usual practice. Murphy’s camerawork is warmer-toned than would be usual today, and that is reflected in the skin tones. There’s a certain softness to the image, especially in the flashbacks, but I suspect that’s a filmmaking choice rather than a DVD fault. Grain is present but isn’t distracting and is pleasantly filmlike.
The soundtrack is the original mono, centre-channel only as is usual for this distributor. Dialogue and music are clear enough, which is all that it needs to be as this is not a film for audio special effects. The track is mixed quite low, however, and I did have to turn the volume up higher than I normally have to for a mono track. Only English subtitles are available, no French or Spanish this time, and just for the feature, not the trailer.
The only extra is the theatrical trailer (1:21), which betrays understandable uncertainty as to how to sell this to an audience. It consists a series of stills, interspersed with short extracts, presented like the feature in 1.78:1 anamorphic.
A determinedly “little”, minor-key story, Tell Me a Riddle is one of those films that has slipped into obscurity since its release. While I’m not going to claim it’s a lost masterpiece – it isn’t – it is worth a look as a showcase for its two elderly lead actors, neither of whom are with us any more.