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THE RUNNER STUMBLES

     

For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, May 22, 2020

EDITOR’S NOTE: Kino Lorber releases a lot of Blu-rays that are upgrades for films that have long been on DVD, but every now and again it comes up with something completely unexpected. This one’s an example, a title that has been out of circulation since its VHS release in 1985 and whose quality has been a matter of debate among movie buffs for decades. As it turned out, this was the final film for director Stanley Kramer. My review was published in the Deseret News on Jan. 10, 1980. (And Quinlan has had a strong career, mostly in supporting roles, on both TV and in movies, and she’s still working.)

Dick Van Dyke is a master comedian, as demonstrated by his classic eponymous sitcom and the beloved “Mary Poppins.” He has had a number of other career triumphs as well but most of his movies are lightweight comedies unworthy of his talent.

Van Dyke has also fared pretty well in a couple of more dramatic films: His TV-movie profile of an alcoholic, “The Morning After,” was a fine piece of acting, and he was even better as a broken-down silent-movie clown in Carl Reiner’s overlooked film, “The Comic.”

So it was that I went into Stanley Kramer’s “The Runner Stumbles” hoping to see Van Dyke really succeed in his first major-movie dramatic role.

But the runner does stumble and it’s very disappointing.

     

Kathleen Quinlan, Dick Van Dyke, 'The Runner Stumbles' (1980)

Actually, this is Kramer’s fifth disappointing film in a row during the 1970s, a sad downhill track record coming from the director who gave us such classics as “The Defiant Ones,” “On the Beach,” “Inherit the Wind” and “Judgment at Nuremberg.”

Saddest of all, Kramer’s ’70s films (“R.P.M.,” “Bless the Beasts and the Children,” “Oklahoma Crude” and “The Domino Principle”) though inferior, have shining moments that indicate they could have been better with a little more care. “The Runner Stumbles” is another near miss that might have been much better with a strong actor in the very complex character lead.

The story, by now fairly well known, is based on a 1920’s true incident wherein a priest (Van Dyke) falls in love with a younger nun and later finds himself charged with her murder.

The film is told in flashbacks with the priest on trial and in jail. Kramer, in typical innovative fashion, leads into the flashbacks with a number of unusual segues that are as successful as they are fascinating — but using flashbacks may have been a major mistake.

     

Because we know at the outset that a murder has been committed, we are led to believe that Van Dyke did not do it so the audience immediately starts asking “who done it?” Unfortunately, the murderer is easily spotted during the first 15 minutes, causing an extremely anti-climactic climax.

Kathleen Quinlan is a fabulous actress as she again proves here in the part of the young nun. She is far better than her material in most of her films, such as this year’s “The Promise,” a ridiculous sudser. It would be nice to see her get another part as good as “I Never Promised You a Rose Garden,” her first major role and the last one to really showcase her talent.

The rest of the stellar cast — Maureen Stapleton, Beau Bridges, Ray Bolger and Tammy Grimes — is uniformly excellent.

But Van Dyke is stiff and seems nervous throughout. If he had loosened up as much in the many one-on-one dialogue scenes as he did in the few emotional explosions he might have done a much better job.

“The Runner Stumbles” is rated PG for two words of profanity uttered by a young boy and one scene of violence.