As David and Eva, an elderly married couple whose estrangement and reconciliation are the subject of "Tell Me a Riddle," Melvyn Douglas and Lila Kedrova make first impressions guaranteed to place the movie in a listless bind. Douglas is introduced slowly trudging up a flight of stairs, and Kedrova, who won an Oscar as the fluttery whore in "Zorba the Greek," huddles in corners like a terrified kitty and strikes picturesque mournful poses behind window panes.
Making her feature directing debut on a frightfully slack adaptation of Tillie Olsen's 1961 novella, actress Lee Grant is unable to escape the premature doldrums or shed sufficient light on the sources of Eva's unhappiness. While it's implied that Eva's memory will disclose crucial secrets of the heart, her past -- in revolutionary Russia -- remains so hazily depicted that one is left with the option of disregarding it as cinematic embroidery.
The estrangement between David and Eva appears a sound, intriguing basis for dramatic development. After nearly 50 years of marriage, they've slipped into a state of suspended hostility and go their own ways around the house, glaring and grumbling but no longer communicating.
David, a retired paperhanger, wants to sell their home and move into a retirement community maintained by his union.Reluctant to leave 40 years of associations and possessions for a residence better suited to her husband and his cronies, Eva stubbornly resists the idea. While this dispute remains deadlocked, David and Eva are persuaded to take a long vacation visiting children and grandchildren around the country. During an extended stay in Sn Francisco with a gauchely modern granddaughter, Jeannie, played by Brooke Adams, Eva gradually emerges from her shell.
Because of a frequently scrambled continuity and a pervasive air of doting uplift, it's difficult to ascribe Eva's recovery to anything more substantial than wishful thinking. For example, it appears that the very idea of San Francisco is assumed to be a progressive tonic. Playing in the surf, Lila Kedrova suggests a flower granny arriving a bit too late to ride the crest of the counterculture.
The flashbacks suggest that the turmoil of the Revolution (or something) cost her a dear friend. Beyond that, the impressions become sheer speculation. There's a recurrent image from early marriage with a young David interrupting Eva while she's reading in order to make love. Should we infer thwarted political and cultural longings? Probably, but the hints demand more clarification if the filmmakers expect them to achieve dramatic significance.
The reconciliation with David is also a puzzler. Since she learns that he sold the house behind her back, the facts of the case support intensified resentment. During a long confrontation on a dark staircase, she hurls an accusation -- "All your life you ran from me!" -- that's evidently meant to be devastating, although it contradicts Kedrova's oppressively sustained impression of a scaredy-cat or shrinking violet.
Many a loose dramatic connection goes unattended. When Jeannie agonizes over an abortion, Eva commisserates in a Voice of Experience intended to cement a touching relationship across the generations. We never learn what Jeannie decides to do, but perhaps it's considered old-fashioned to wonder.
Still, it would be gratifying to have certain matters cleared up. The emotional vagueness of "Tell Me a Riddle" (now playing at the Avalon) seems to derive from filmmakers who take too much for granted.