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Runner Stumbles, The

Kino // PG // May 19, 2020
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted June 8, 2020 | E-mail the Author
Though greeted with almost universally bad reviews, I'd been curious about The Runner Stumbles (1979) for decades, if only because it was the final film of producer-director Stanley Kramer. During the late 1940s through early ‘50s, Kramer had been an incredibly innovative producer, his credits including such outstanding films as Champion (1949), Home of the Brave (1949), High Noon (1952), The Wild One (1953) and the popular cult film The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (1953).

He added directing to his resume with the interesting Not as a Stranger (1955), but really took off in that field with a string of so-called "message films": The Defiant Ones (1958), On the Beach (1959), Inherit the Wind (1960), and Judgment at Nuremberg (1961) among them. He took a break from weighty drama for It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963), that big-scale comedy a huge popular success, as was Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967), perhaps his biggest hit relative to its cost.

But it was downhill from there. The Secret of Santa Vittoria (1968) and Bless the Beasts and Children (1971) were both pretty good but neither they nor any of Kramer's later films, including Oklahoma Crude (1973) and The Domino Principle (1977) made much money.

The Runner Stumbles was met with faint praise, most reviewers pegging it as almost ludicrously old-fashioned, some even finding it unintentionally funny. Based on a Broadway play by Milan Stitt, since revived to considerable acclaim, the movie has good and bad points, but isn't terrible.

The story, set in 1911, takes place in Isadore, a small town in rural Michigan. There, parish priest Father Brian Rivard (Dick Van Dyke) has been charged with the murder of young nun Sister Rita (Kathleen Quinlan). It seems like an open-and-shut case, as the gossip around town is that Father Rivard has been engaged in a highly inappropriate love relationship with the outspoken Sister. Nevertheless, inexperienced attorney Toby Felker (Beau Bridges) is determined to represent him.

In flashbacks, Sister Rita arrives at the parish after two elderly nuns teaching at the school become infirm, an illness eventually diagnosed as consumption (tuberculosis). But where they were strict and old-fashioned, she embraces unconventional teaching methods and the children clearly thrive in her care. The reserved Rivard is at first put off by her unfiltered outspokenness, but it's soon clear that she reminds him of how comparatively radical he once was, and cautiously he becomes friendly with her. Their long walks around town don't go unnoticed. A local prostitute warms them about the gossip around town.

The older nuns' TB threatens to force Sister Rita to be transferred elsewhere and so it's proposed that she move out of the convent and into the rectory. The mere suggestion shocks all, including Rivard's housekeeper, illiterate Mrs. Shandig (Maureen Stapleton). Rivard writes to Monsignor Nicholson (Ray Bolger), hoping to win his approval of the controversial solution. He turns down the request, but Rivard lies to Mrs. Shandig about the Monsignor's letter and, eventually, to Sister Rita also, claiming he had sent his official approval.

What's going on here? Did Father Rivard murder Sister Rita? If not, who did? What are their true feelings for one another?

The play and the film are closely based on a real-life murder mystery. Though the names have been changed, all of the major points match those in the film. It's an intriguing story, one that would still adapt well as a Broadchurch- or Scandinavian-type murder mystery TV miniseries popular today.

Kramer's film, by contrast, is marred and muddled by a mostly conventional approach and its emphasis on "forbidden love," and the spiritual quandary that results. Stitt, who also wrote the screenplay, falls back on Hollywood clichés of such tales. Rather than reach for the spiritual depths of, say, Bergman's Winter Light (1963) or Melville's Leon Morin, Priest (1961), it more closely resembles more "tasteful," inoffensive older Hollywood films like The Bells of St. Mary's (1945) and The Sound of Music (1965), despite its suffocating gravitas.

Kramer's good intentions are undermined by some bad choices. He liked working with composer Ernest Gold, who for this wrote an original, only-vaguely period-sounding song, "My Rumble Seat Gal," which Sister Rita teaches the kids in scenes a lot like "Do-Re-Mi" in The Sound of Music. When Dick Van Dyke briefly joins in, this drama about a horrific murder threatens to give off a Mary Poppins vibe.

Kramer also like to cast actors against type, a practice that often worked (e.g., Judy Garland and Montgomery Clift in Judgment at Nuremberg) but sometimes came off more like a stunt (e.g., Gene Kelly in Inherit the Wind). In The Runner Stumbles, Dick Van Dyke's possibly murderous priest comes off fairly well, but Ray Bolger's dour appearance in several scenes, in a part that might have been played by almost any older actor, is a distraction, with Bolger adding nothing to the part. Kathleen Quinlan, however, is very good, as is Tammy Grimes as a kind of half-witted parishioner who goes off the rails once her sickly father dies.

Though set in Michigan, the movie was shot on location in Roslyn and Ellensburg, in central Washington, later frequented by the TV series Northern Exposure and a good substitute for rural Michigan (other than the mountains in the background). What The Runner Stumbles does get it right is the period detail, the late-19th early 20th century buildings and set decoration all feeling authentic.

Some scenes late in the film play well enough one wishes the entire film had their energy: a harrowing fire scene and courtroom testimony detailing Sister Rita's grim fate. As with earlier glories like Inherit the Wind and Judgment at Nuremberg, Kramer uses little camera and editing flourishes transitioning between past and present, some of it merely distracting but here and there effective.

Video & Audio

Theatrically released by Fox, The Runner Stumbles appears to have received a perfunctory release at best, and rarely turns up anywhere. Its Kino Blu-ray release, in 1.66:1 widescreen, is a little disappointing, and probably sources an early HD transfer, as it lacks the detail and "popping" color of more recent transfers. The DTS-HD Master Audio (mono) soundtrack is okay, and optional English subtitles are provided for this Region "A" disc.

Extra Features

Supplements include a new audio commentary by film historian Peter Tonguette.

Parting Thoughts

Not as bad as its reputation but rather an interesting misfire, a Blu-ray release The Runner Stumbles doesn't generate a lot of excitement, but it's still worth a look. Recommended.

Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian currently restoring a 200-year-old Japanese farmhouse.

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