A question: should you accept the opinions of film critics without wondering if they might be wrong? My answer: no, you should not. I came to that answer when I was 14 and I chose to ignore the negative reviews surrounding the theatrical release of Stanley Kramer’s THE RUNNER STUMBLES. In a recent revisit to the film, my answer was reaffirmed.
THE RUNNER STUMBLES was based on a mildly successful 1976 Broadway play by Milan Stitt. Its odd title was inspired by Isaiah 40:31, which is crucial to the plot concerning a priest accused of murdering a young nun with whom he had a romantic affair.
Set in a rural section of Washington State in 1927, THE RUNNER STUMBLES focuses on a small parish run by Father Rivard. The priest sees his geographically isolated posting as punishment for an earlier espousal of ideas that were considered radical by his superiors. The young Sister Rita arrives to help run the parish school, and her optimistically cheery personality has a marked effect on the somewhat dreary parish. But things get thorny when the elderly nuns in the parish convent develop tuberculosis. Sister Rita is moved from the convent into Father Rivard’s rectory, and suddenly they become the source of town gossip due to the amount of time they spend together. When Sister Rita is found dead, Father Rivard is arrested as the likely killer.
As with the best of the Kramer canon, THE RUNNER STUMBLES puts questions of morality to responsibility to the test, and the results are harsh and cruel. It is not an anti-Catholic film, thankfully, but it raises questions of religious dogma and whether the clergy should be held to a different set of standards.
Throughout his career, Kramer had a penchant for offbeat casting witness his use of Fred Astaire in ON THE BEACH or Judy Garland in JUDGEMENT AT NUREMBURG and he continued that tradition in Dick Van Dyke to play the tormented Father Rivard. Considering that Van Dyke’s that his reputation rested on his classic sitcom and 1960s musical films like MARY POPPINS and CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG the casting was more than a little daring. Yet Van Dyke responded with a beautifully measured performance that carefully mined the priest’s inner tumult. His character’s transition out of rigid self-doubt into a wider scope of emotions is presented with a dramatic subtlety that would be difficult for any classically trained actor and all the more surprising for someone with very little experience in straight drama.
As Sister Rita, Kathleen Quinlan rivaled Van Dyke for capturing the depth of emotional struggle. Quinlan came to THE RUNNER STUMBLES after an astonishing breakthrough role in the 1978 I NEVER PROMISED YOU A ROSE GARDEN and this film showed her ability to spin gold from difficult parts. (Sadly, her subsequent roles never matched the level of intensity of these back-to-back triumphs.) The rest of the film’s ensemble Maureen Stapleton as the priest’s unbalanced housekeeper, Beau Bridges as his dubious lawyer, Tammy Grimes as an illiterate townie, and Ray Bolger (of all people) as an icy monsignor were top-notch.
Kramer was never a favorite of the critics during his peak years, but audiences came out for his work. By the 1970s, however, Kramer lost his rapport with audiences and the critics seemed to go out of their way to barbecue his late efforts. When THE RUNNER STUMBLES appeared in 1979, it was lambasted with such comments as being “old-fashioned” (Variety), “silly” (Roger Ebert) and “dispirited” (New York Times).
THE RUNNER STUMBLES was Kramer’s last film, and the negative critical reaction ensured he would not work again. (Kramer died in 2001.) I am glad that I ignored the critics and caught the film during its brief release; it later appeared on VHS video in 1985, but the film never turned up on DVD.
With luck, THE RUNNER STUMBLES can be given a shot at redemption it is a beautiful little film that was unfairly kicked aside, and its return will catch many people with the positive surprise of its rich and provocative contents.