Dick Van Dyke and Kathleen Quinlan star in “The Runner Stumbles,” a 1975 drama about a priest, a nun and a lot of controversy. The film also stars a very young Beau Bridges with Maureen Stapleton, Tammy Grimes and Ray Bolger.
The setting is a depressed coal-mining town populated by poor residents. Heading up the Catholic community is Father Rivard (Van Dyke), who has some progressive ideas, but still wants to keep the laws of the church front and center. This small community respects Rivard, but when young nun Sister Rita (Quinlan) comes to the community, things get unsettled very quickly.
The community is used to the two current nuns who are older and have strict ways of running the school. When Sister Rita comes along she changes everything and brightens up the lives of the children, to the dismay of the two old-fashioned nuns. However, when they are confined to their beds with consumption, it is Sister Rita that takes on the responsibility of the children’s schooling.
The movie begins with the indictment of Father Rivard for the murder of Sister Rita, and with his lawyer (Bridges), the story of their lives comes to light. Through flashbacks it is revealed that for the first time in a long time, Father Rivard had someone with which to discuss things. Sister Rita was bright, energetic and full of life. And she was also full of love. The two found themselves falling in love with each other, and torn between their love for each other and their vows to the church.
Needless to say, the townsfolk see the attraction between these two and rumors spread. Everyone is used to the old-fashioned nuns and finds it hard to think of the modern way Sister Rita teaches their children. They also find it strange that Father Rivard is spending so much time with Sister Rita.
The psychological struggles with Rita and Rivard are gripping for viewers. Is the vow of celibacy really that important? But rather, is the love between a man and a woman a sacred bond?
It is not until the very end when the trial comes to a climax and the reality of the circumstances comes to light. The acting in the film is excellent. It is perhaps unfamiliar for viewers to see Van Dyke in this role, but he plays it to perfection, and Quinlan is uplifting in her role. While it is a bit slow moving, the drama of the story is intoxicating.
“The Runner Stumbles” is rated PG and available on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber Classics.