The final film directed by self-appointed cinematic moralist Stanley Kramer, this peculiar drama presents a sensationalistic story in a manner that ranges from absurdly lighthearted to absurdly overwrought. To be fair, most scenes occupy a palatable middle ground of rationality and restraint. Nonetheless, the extremes define this piece, as does the suffocating artificiality that permeates every scene, whether the scene in question is bad, good, or indifferent. To get a sense of why this picture is simultaneously respectable and ridiculous, The Runner Stumbles stars jovial song-and-dance man Dick Van Dyke as a middle-aged priest suspected of not only sleeping with a pretty young nun, but also of murdering her—not exactly “Chim Chim Cher-ee” territory. And when Ray Bolger, the Scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz (1939), shows up to represent the full weight of religious authority, The Runner Stumbles approaches self-parody.
Set in a remote part of Michigan circa 1911, and based loosely upon a true story, the picture begins with Father Rivard (Van Dyke) fetching his parish’s latest addition, fresh-faced Sister Rita (Kathleen Quinlan), from a transit station. They strike sparks immediately, because she’s challenging and curious while he’s a bundle of conflicts—on one hand, he’s a stickler for rules and tradition since he’s tired of fighting the church establishment, and on the other hand, he’s a passionate freethinker who once imagined a more important destiny for himself. Rita’s attitude represents a bracing change from the two sickly older nuns she was hired to assist, and Rita soon raises eyebrows by teaching secular songs to local children. Later, when the older nuns contract tuberculosis, Rivard suggest that Rita move into his residence, thereby separating her from contagions. This scandalizes everyone involved, from Rivard’s devout housekeeper, Mrs. Shandig (Maureen Stapleton), to the monsignor with authority over Rivard’s parish, Nicholson (Bolger). The fraught scenario climaxes in a noisy final act comprising a fire, illicit sex, and a trial shot through with venomous accusations. Framing the main storyline is a recurring courtroom sequence featuring Rivard—incarcerated on suspicion of murder after Rita’s body is discovered—receiving counsel from his inexperienced young lawyer, Toby Felker (Beau Bridges).
Excepting Bridges’ loose and naturalistic work, everything about The Runner Stumbles is old-fashioned and sterile. Quinlan plays her role like Shirley Temple with mood swings, utterly failing to make Rita’s dangerous instability seem credible. Van Dyke is equally stiff in many scenes, though he paints colors of bitterness and rage with surprising skill. Unfortunately, Van Dyke is so broad and theatrical during the film’s crucial trial scene that he undercuts his few good moments elsewhere. That’s why the abrupt and unsatisfying ending doesn’t really matter: It’s just one more false note in an atonal symphony.
The Runner Stumbles: FUNKY