"The Runner Stumbles" approaches the marketplace with several strikes against it -- the first being that graceless title, destined to be confused with "Running," a loser of a different sort. The title bearing on the content of the picture, a conscience striken, ultra-repressed romantic melodrama about the events that lead a glum middle-aged priest (Dick Van Dyke) to be tried for the murder of an ecstatic young nun (Kathleen Quinlan) remains utterly obscure.

The stilted, outmoded exposition imposed by director Stanley Kramer and writer Milan Stitt, who adapted his original play, would be better suggested by a title like "Forbidden Passion," especially since the affair that smolders between Father Rivard and Sister Rita is depicted as the traditional unconsummated forbidden passion. Plenty of snappy titles are waiting to be extracted from the frequently risible dialogue, starting with Van Dyke's fateful "Welcome, sister."

And my ears sizzled when the sorely tempted priest was asked rhetorically (indeed, proverbially), "Can a man take fire in his bosom and not be burned?" It also seemed a shame to waste the title of a raucous ditty that Sister Rita teaches her pupils to set the mood for their melodious outings: "My Rumble Seat Gal."

In addition to the painfully high-minded, inevitably prurient treatment of "taboo" subject matter, the screenplay falls back on a confusing flashback structure. It begins with Van Dyke in jail, recalling his first encounter with Quinlan for lawyer Beau Bridges, then jumps from mid-recollection to mid-trial, as Ray Bolger, cast as a starchy monsignor, takes the stand. Having created a certain narrative congestion, the filmmakers never quite escape it.

The setting is a poor, picturesque mining town in the late '20s. We're led to believe that Van Dyke has been posted to this backwater by Bolger as punishment for unorthodox thinking. Quinlan arrives to take over the parish school when illness incapacitates the previous teachers, a pair of aging, crotchety nuns.

When the illness is diagnosed as consumption, Father Rivard and Sister Rita begin residing under the same roof, without the monsignor's permission. Around town tongues wag even more recklessly. Inside the rectory Maureen Stapleton, the priest's fluttery, protective housekeeper, nibbles her lower lip with ever more urgency.

Feeling that fire in the bosom, Van Dyke tries to smother it by insisting that he and Quinlan avoid speaking to each other. Naturally, the passion intensifies, fueled by higher-octane repression. Eventually, the combustible atmosphere provokes a symbolic conflagration -- the old nuns' residence catchs fire -- after which the lovers confess their passion but manage to rise above temptation.

Sister Rita's subsequent demise, under mysterious circumstances, leaves Father Rivard doubly deprived.

The serene small-town locale (Roslyn, Wash.) and dreadfully genteel tone recall the picturesque soap-opera ambience Delmer Daves used to specialize in, from "A Summer Place" through "Youngblood Hawke." Kramer isn't a very deft practitioner of antiquated romantic kitsch.

What may spare Kramer total embarrasment is the potential appeal of Kathleen Quinlan's prettiness. It's no wonder poor Father Rivard trembles on the brink.

Quinlan may be trying to carve out an empire for herself as a new princess of screen soap opera. She's done back-to-back victimization in "The Promise" and "The Runner Stumbles." She's an undeniably winsome presence, but it remains to be seen how far she can go in the rumble seat of brokendown vehicles.