Tag Archives: Melvyn Douglas

Tell Me a Riddle (1980)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: Adjusting to old age.

Eva (Lila Kedrova) is an elderly woman who has been diagnosed with cancer, but her husband David (Melvyn Douglas) does not tell her of the terminal disease and instead takes her on a cross country journey to visit their grandchildren in San Francisco. Eva though begins to feel homesick and wants to return to the place that she is used to only to learn that David sold the home without her knowledge and forged her signature on the papers, which creates a rift between the two just as she enters her final days of life.

This modest low budget film was notable as the first feature film in America to be written, directed, and produced by women. It is based on the 1961 short story by Tillie Olsen and the first feature directed by actress Lee Grant, who felt that after she won the Academy Award for best supporting actress in 1975 that her days on the screen were numbered due to her age and the only way to stay busy in the business was to go behind the camera. She choose this script because it tackled two topics most important to her: feminism and her fear of aging.

For the most part, at least at the beginning, the slow pace works as it helps replicate the elderly lifestyle. The flashbacks showing the couple when they were young, which features a then unknown Peter Coyote as the younger David, help to make the two main characters more multi-dimensional. The different locations that they go to and live-in on their trip, which includes sleeping in their daughter Jeannie’s (Brooke Adams) cramped apartment while she sleeps with her boyfriend across the hall as well as visiting an elderly friend, Mrs. Mays (Lili Valenty), who lives in a place no bigger than a small bedroom and forced to walk-up several flights of stairs just to get to it, helps to give the film an indie vibe.

Unfortunately the second half stagnates as the couple’s journey ends at Jennie’s apartment, which cuts off the visual variety that gave the movie energy during its slow spots. The cross country journey should’ve been played-up much more, like with Harry and Tonto, where the trip becomes the main focus by having the couple travel by car instead of by plane while still keeping the main crux of the story intact.

Douglas gives an impeccable performance and speaks in an authentic Eastern European accent and Adams does quite well in support. However, Kedrova barely says much of anything making her character seem like she’s suffering from a personality disorder and having Douglas do the majority of the talking comes off too much like he’s the ‘narrator’ and it doesn’t help. I also didn’t like the hearing aid cord dangling out of her ear either, which seemed overdone. My grandmother, who lived at the same time this movie was made, wore a hearing aid too, but it was much more inconspicuous and didn’t require any cords.

The film also suffers from an unrelentingly downbeat perspective making old age seem like it’s just one depressing thing after another. I liked the way this same subject matter was approached in Harry and Tonto  where it examined the elderly years from different angles showing how there could be some downsides to it (like with any age), but also some positive ones too. Instead of approaching it as an end-of-life scenario it presented it as a transition that was still full of possibilities and new adventures, which is what I wished this film had been better able to convey.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: December 15, 1980

Runtime: 1 Hour 33 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Lee Grant

Studio: Filmways Productions

Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube

The Changeling (1980)

the changeling

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: Dead child haunts house.

Still grieving from the sudden loss of his family in a freak accident composer John Russell (George C. Scott) decides to move to the Pacific Northwest where he finds a large stately mansion to move into. He feels it would be the perfect place to reflect and continue with his work, but instead realizes that it is haunted by a child who was murdered there years earlier. With the help of Claire (Trish Van Devere) who had procured the property for him they investigate its history and find that there is a connection between the killing and an influential senator (Melvyn Douglas).

One of the aspects about this film that I did like was that it was given a big budget and the on-location shooting that was done from New York, Seattle and even Toronto gives it a strong visual backdrop and makes it light years ahead of the average horror film that is usually crippled from the start by its meager funding. The mansion is impressive at least the outside of it, which was actually only a façade that was constructed when they couldn’t find a real one to fit their needs. However, the idea that a single man would move into such a large place seems ridiculous and there’s nothing that says ghosts can’t haunt small homes that would be more practical place for one person to live in.

Scott gives an unusual performance in that he shows little of a frightened reaction when the scares occur. To some extent I liked this as the screams and shocked expressions in most horror movies become overdone, but when a vision of a ghostly boy appears in a bathtub and all Scott does is calmly back away it seems to be underplaying it a bit too much.

I also felt that Van Devere’s character was unnecessary and was put in only because she was Scott’s real-life wife at the time, but it seemed unrealistic that a real estate agent who was merely an acquaintance to John would get so wrapped up in his quandary or even believe him to begin with. No relationship is ever implied, but it would have made more sense had the character been written in as a girlfriend.

I realize there are those that consider this to be a ‘really scary’ movie, but I found it to be pretty flat. The ‘scares’ as it where consist of nothing more than a child’s ball rolling down a staircase twice, whispery voices, a runaway wheelchair and a few doors slamming. There is also a fiery finale that borders on the hooky and a tacky séance and if that is enough to keep you up all night then have at it.

Spoiler Alert!

The idea that this child, who was sickly and if he died before his 21st birthday the family fortune would go to charity, so the father kills him and has him replaced with another child who later grows into being this powerful aging senator, didn’t make sense in that I didn’t see where the ‘justice’ was in getting back at the senator who had nothing to do with the killing or even knew about it. He was simply an innocent child taken from an orphanage and the product of a nefarious scheme by the father, so why not go after the dead soul of the murdering father and leave the senator alone? The senator dies from a heart attack that we are lead to believe was caused by the ghostly presence of the angry child, which to some extent makes the protagonists look like the bad guys since they were the ones that precipitated the meeting that lead to the death and instead should’ve tried to prevent it.

I was also confused by the whole backstory about John’s family being killed in a roadside accident that begins the movie since it really didn’t have much to do with the main plot and could’ve easily been left out completely.

End of Spoiler Alert!

I first saw this film over 20 years ago and wasn’t all that impressed with it then and I’m still not. I realize it has its legion of fans, but to me it’s just an average ghost story and far from being a classic.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: March 28, 1980

Runtime: 1Hour 46Minutes

Rated R

Director: Peter Medak

Studio: Associated Film Distribution (AFD)

Available: VHS, DVD