To quote film critic Peter Tonguette, who did the commentary track for Kino Lorber’s new release of The Runner Stumbles, “if you make a movie with the word ‘stumbles’ in its title, the end result had better be Oscar worthy, or you set yourself up for film critic creative puns.” Tonguette takes a more positive view on the picture but, while the film has appeal as a curiosity, it probably wouldn’t stand out if it weren’t for the presence of Dick Van Dyke. Whether by choice or because of lack of offers, Van Dyke never appeared in many dramatic roles, instead becoming famous for his TV sitcom and various comedy films and musicals.
Father Rivard is an unusual part for him. As a priest accused of murdering one of his nuns, Van Dyke barely smiles, and it can make it seem like he’s trying too hard. It could just be the strangeness of seeing him act so seriously, but while the film is supposed to track his growing feelings for Sister Rita (Kathleen Quinlan), his expressions makes it hard to tell that his feelings are changing at all. Later, he’s much more successful at portraying Rivard’s grief and distress. The town couldn’t be more convinced of their affair, but it’s the viewers who will need to be persuaded.
The Runner Stumbles was director Stanley Kramer’s final movie. Known for his court room dramas, like Inherit the Wind and Judgement at Nuremburg, The Runner Stumbles switches back and forth between the past when Sister Rita was alive and the present, where Father Rivard is on trial. Kramer uses a lot of wipe transitions, but instead of serving the film, the effect is reminiscent of a student using Powerpoint for the first time and getting carried away with the animation.
Milan Stitt wrote both the play and its big screen adaptation. Instead of keeping Rivard’s feelings for Rita ambiguous, and leaving it up to viewers to decide if the town is overreacting, Stilt makes the townsfolk right about everything. It all started when Rita and Father Rivard started walking together. Then the other nuns came down with consumption and instead of sleeping in the convent with them, which would’ve meant closing the school, Sister Rita moved into the rectory with Father Rivard. This isn’t a tiny rectory. Sister Rita has her own room, yet the arrangement is considered improper (and while an obvious solution would’ve been for Sister Rita to move in with one of the locals, that option is never vetted for some reason). “God would protect her,” Mrs. Shandig (Maureen Stapleton) says, and in a film that takes a weird turn into hagsploitation, this might be its most important line.
The Runner Stumbles is a strange one, and unfortunately Tonguette’s commentary doesn’t answer some of its nagging questions, like why begin and the end the picture with James (Billy Jayne), one of Sister Rita’s students? And does the priest/penitent privilege still apply if a person’s no longer a priest?
The Runner Stumbles might not get my recommendation, but it is available on Blu-Ray and DVD starting May 19th from Kino Lorber.