Release Date(s)1979 (May 19, 2020)
Studio(s)20th Century Fox (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: C
- Video Grade: B
- Audio Grade: B
- Extras Grade: B
When most Americans think of Dick Van Dyke, generally comedy or musicals come to mind. After all, he starred in the films Bye Bye Birdie, Mary Poppins, and two successful TV sitcoms. His timing, rubber face, and agility consistently elicited laughs and provided a lucrative career for him. It’s therefore odd to see him as a humorless priest in the 1979 drama, The Runner Stumbles, which poses questions of faith in God and the meaning of morality.
Both the play and the film are based on the 1907 murder of a Polish-born nun whose bones were exhumed from a shallow grave under a church in Michigan. The former parish priest was rumored to have had an affair with her and fathered her unborn child.
In the film, we first see Father Rivard (Van Dyke) in jail awaiting trial for the murder of a nun. Defense attorney Toby Felker (Beau Bridges) visits him and obtains, through a series of flashbacks, the events that preceded the alleged crime.
The time is 1911. Father Rivard serves the small Catholic population of a rural Michigan mining town. He believes he has been consigned to this remote, poverty-stricken area as punishment for his radical views. The two elderly nuns who run the school have come down with tuberculosis and are confined to their quarters, and a young nun, Sister Rita (Kathleen Quinlan), is sent to fill in. Idealistic and unexpectedly outspoken, Sister Rita views her new teaching post as an opportunity rich with potential. She takes over the school and the children seem happier than they have ever been. In fact, in a scene that seems to have been inspired by The Sound of Music, she leads her smiling students in a distinctly nonreligious song as they all run across a field and into the schoolhouse.
Because the two contagious nuns are quarantined in the convent, Sister Rita will have to be recalled to her order and the school will have to close. Instead, Father Rivard asks permission to move her into the rectory with him and his housemaid, Mrs. Shandig (Maureen Stapleton). The answer from the monsignor (Ray Bolger) is absolutely not. People in a small town will gossip, and a nun and priest living under the same roof would be viewed the wrong way. Father Rivard ignores the order. In addition to keeping the school running, Sister Rita has become a friend with whom he can have forthright conversations. He doesn’t want to lose her.
Van Dyke does a credible job in a very serious role. His stoic portrayal and stiff demeanor are suitable for the character of the repressed priest and his performance is convincing, for the most part. When the film resorts to soap opera melodrama, however, he looks awkward and out of his depth.
Quinlan’s Sister Rita conveys youthful energy and innocence—part Debbie Reynolds fizziness and part Ingrid Bergman spirituality. Yet she makes the role her own as she exchanges ideas of faith and morality with the middle-aged priest. She refuses to consider the perceptions of outsiders, while Rivard is consumed by a tangle of appearances, disobedience, his vows, and duty to God and community.
Though initially taken aback by Sister Rita’s frank manner, Mrs. Shandig comes to like and respect her. She becomes a co-conspirator, in a sense, with Father Rivard, since she is devoted to him and will unequivocally support his decision. Stapleton’s Mrs. Shandig conveys a combination of loyalty, protectiveness, and motherly concern for a troubled soul.
The screenplay by Milan Stitt is talky, reflecting its origin as a play. Long scenes of explanatory dialogue should have been replaced by more cinematic means. Director Stanley Kramer tries to open up the story by staging these dialogues as Father Rivard and Sister Rita share tea at a table outside the church, walk on country roads, or converse in a car, but there are few scenes in which we see, rather than hear, what’s going through their minds.
Kramer, who directed such memorable films as On the Beach, Inherit the Wind, The Defiant Ones, and Judgment at Nuremberg, is heavy-handed in presenting Father Rivard’s moralistic quandary. The humanity of the characters in the first half of the film disappears as they become metaphoric entities of lust, temptation, faith, and doubt. The movie descends into an abyss of overwrought melodrama to hammer home its tragic trajectory. This is one of Stanley Kramer’s weakest films.
The Region A Blu-ray from Kino Lorber Studio Classics, with 1080p resolution, is presented in the widescreen aspect ratio of 1.85:1. Overall, the palette is subdued, with colors desaturated to give the outdoor locations a depressed look. The interiors exhibit a yellowish tint. The rectory contains brown wooden furniture and shadowed areas. The only views we get of the convent are the front facade and the room where the two older nuns rest in separate beds under white sheets. The room has an antiseptic appearance. The only bright color is the blue front of Sister Rita’s habit, allowing her to stand out from the bleak, dull landscape around her. The lack of vivid color contributes to the somber mood of the story.
The audio is presented in English 2.0 DTS-HD with optional subtitles in English SDH. Speech is sharp and distinct throughout, which is important considering the film is dialogue-heavy. The period automobile that father Rivard drives has occasional pings and rickety noises and the sounds of it clattering down dirt roads break the silence of the pastoral fields and meadows it passes. The children singing My Rumble Seat Gal reflects Sister Rita’s engagement with the world as well as her comfortable rapport with the children. Sounds of a fire in the convent late in the film include cracking flames, pieces of the structure collapsing, fire hoses shooting water, and a fire engine unceremoniously running over a bed of flowers. The absence of ambient sound underscores the location’s remoteness and isolation. There were several sound dropouts, one lengthy one during critical dialogue.
Bonus materials include an audio commentary and several theatrical trailers.
Audio Commentary – Film historian and critic Peter Tonguette notes that The Runner Stumbles was the last film directed by Stanley Kramer. It represents Dick Van Dyke’s most serious, unlikeliest screen role. He had established a connection with audiences through lighthearted comic and/or musical films and The Dick Van Dyke Show. Though the film takes place in the Midwest, it was shot in Washington State. Director of photography Lazlo Kovacs establishes the geography of the town and surrounding areas as Rivard drives Sister Rita to the church. Other actors who made the transition from light comedy to more serious roles are discussed, with Tom Hanks being a prime example. In his memoir, Van Dyke mentions being frustrated by Stanley Kramer’s direction. “I could not get hold of the part.” Kramer told him he didn’t want to see any vestige of the popular, happy image Van Dyke was known for. An overview of Kramer’s career is outlined. Between 1969 and 1979, Kramer made 6 feature films that suggest a director trying to remain relevant in a system that had moved on. Kramer’s films are characterized by “liberal preachiness.” Sometimes directors’ final films blaze new trails. Kramer was trying to “develop a rapport with the new kids on the block.” The leisurely pace allows the story to unfold unrushed and with time for viewers to get to know the characters. Kathleen Quinlan had “an open, endearing affective quality in her early films that was immensely appealing.” The Runner Stumbles received terrible reviews when it was released and was mocked for being out of step and remote from the cinematic style of the time. A parting thought notes that perspectives on film history can always evolve.
Trailers – Six theatrical trailers are included: On the Beach, Inherit the Wind, Judgment at Nuremberg, Not as a Stranger, True Confessions, and The Rosary Murders.
– Dennis Seuling