Review: The Runner Stumbles

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

Though The Runner Stumbles fails to grasp what it reaches for, it offers some surprisingly telling moments in its humble look at the crisis of faith versus self-interest. The weight of the film is on the shoulders of Dick Van Dyke as a maverick priest exiled to a tiny rural parish, where his intellectual companionship with a young nun sent to teach in the parish school gradually stirs other feelings as well. Van Dyke’s uneven performance, often brilliant, just as often abysmally ragged, creates many of the problems in the film. Father Rivard says several times, for example, that Sister Rita’s presence renewed his faith and enthusiasm; but we never see this. In fact, it seems as if her appearance in Solona—a place where good people keep getting “stuck,” much as in John C. Fogarty’s Lodi—only intensifies his brooding by causing another problem for him to deal with, her sweetness-and-light approach proving insufficient to draw him off the darker side of human experience.

His obsession with God’s injustice is supported in his relationship with the Webers, a nearby farm family, whose portrayal calls up images out of Walker Evans—the only element in the film, by the way, that is really integrated with the period atmosphere so carefully built up. Kramer has directed as if the period were irrelevant; and Father Rivard’s A-OOGA-horned flivver seems quaint rather than typical in the film’s milieu. The use of flowers as an image of renewal and youth offered by Sister Rita to counterbalance Rivard’s cynicism is overdone and heavy-handed, as is the somewhat arbitrary opposition of Sister Rita’s progressive teaching methods to the corporal punishment meted out by the school’s two older nuns, a sort of convent-house Tweedledum and Tweedledee.·This kind of scattergun imagery, together with the overall patchiness of the work in general, defeats the film’s efforts to build a creditable rising tension. The murder mystery plot—who killed Sister Rita?—is linked with Father Rivard’s spiritual crisis insofar as his protestations of innocence in her murder are complicated by feelings of guilt for the murder of her soul, and his own. Here the two storylines do not serve each other (as they do in a similar film, Alfred Hitchcock’s I Confess), but tend instead to distract from each other, dividing the viewer’s interest rather than sharpening it.

Nevertheless, in this day of graphic sex and violence onscreen, it is hard to deny the power of a film that can genuinely shock its audience with two events as classically simple as the telling of a lie and the stealing of a kiss. The lie scene is particularly good, with three characters trying to keep the monsignor from learning the truth while trying equally hard to avoid an outright lie. Rivard’s subsequent attack of guilt does not seem an overreaction, because the lie itself is carefully built up as the film’s momentous central event, an act of grave commitment. The kiss scene might have been as powerful, but for its trashy sub-B trappings: Sister Rita’s habit torn to reveal a lovely bare shoulder (the habit itself is one of the more astounding items in the film, displaying Kathleen Quinlan’s figure as no nun’s habit ever did in reality), Rivard’s melodramatic tearing-off of her veil and caressing of her hair—it all overstates the case. But there’s a profound understanding of Catholic guilt in the reckless abandon of Rivard’s passionate embrace, as he simultaneously proclaims his loss of God and lust for the woman. Buchner’s Woyzeck says, “When God goes, everything goes”; and it’s undeniable here: With the despair of lost faith comes the impulse not only to stop resisting·temptation but to indulge it to the hilt. By the film’s end Eros and Christ are at stalemate, and Rivard’s inner crisis is unresolved. The boy James’s whispered “Peace be with you” is no answer, and probably isn’t intended to be—but far from being comforting, it seems an empty platitude, as does Kramer’s use of James throughout the film: His appearance at the beginning and the end, as well as his key scenes with Sister Rita (which balance similar encounters between Father Rivard and a schoolgirl, in an abortive nod to The Children’s Hour) don’t serve any clear purpose, since we never know the boy himself, or care much about him. The too-much-yet-too-little finish of the film leaves us with the uncomfortable feeling that Sister Rita’s death actually was the best solution to Father Rivard’s problem, and we wonder what would have become of his faith and effectiveness—as well as hers—had it not happened.

© 1980 Robert C. Cumbow

THE RUNNER STUMBLES
Direction: Stanley Kramer. Screenplay: Milan Stitt, after his play. Cinematography: Laszlo Kovacs. Production design: Alfred Sweeney Jr. Editing: Pembroke J. Herring. Music: Ernest Gold. Production: Kramer.
The players: Dick Van Dyke, Kathleen Quinlan, Maureen Stapleton, Beau Bridges, Ray Bolger, Tammy Grimes, Billy J. Jacoby, Jock Dove.

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.