A lyrical opening wedding scene, like a shot in a family album, flashes forward years in time to a twirling red ambulance light. The wife in the wedding pictures lays battered on her front porch. The husband is arrested for nearly beating her to death.
But nothing is as it initially seems in "Men Don't Tell" (at 9 p.m. Sunday on CBS, Channels 2 and 8). As this riveting story unfolds, we watch a violent, temperamental wife (Judith Light) increasingly use her husband (Peter Strauss) like a punching bag in a TV movie that turns wife abuse inside out.
Husband battering is the focus here, and the title cuts right to the provocative theme: Men who are beaten by their wives are too embarrassed to admit it so they keep their mouths shut.
Light's vicious, insecure wife is a harrowing portrait, although ultimately, to the actress's credit, touched with sympathy. Her bleak image in the movie's last scene is shattering under the fine direction of Harry Viner. And Strauss' pummeled husband--whose wife flails him with sudden, sharp fists that are so realistic they make you flinch--is a study of a warmly masculine man who is no wimp but no wife hitter either.
Instead of a becoming a melodrama, this production is taut, tense and--unlike the theatrical movie "War of the Roses," where both parties attacked one another--breaks comparatively fresh marital ground (from a solid teleplay by Selma Thompson and Jeff Andrus).
The most sobering point about "Men Don't Tell" is that we go into the story conditioned to make jokes about wives hurling rolling pins at their husbands and then starkly witness how unfunny and terrifying it really is.