As we recently remarked in our review of It Happened At The World’s Fair, Elvis Presley was one of the most prolific creatives from the mid-50s to 1970 as he milked his general popularity for everything that it was worth. With an average of two films a year, the quality from film to film could be considered inconsistent at best. As he approached the end of his acting career, Elvis wanted to tackle more dramatic roles rather than just going for his standard light, musical pictures. With this in mind, you can kind of see why he attached himself to his 31st and final feature film role, 1969’s Change of Habit from William Graham. This overstuffed picture allowed Elvis to not shoulder the burden of carrying a movie for once as Mary Tyler Moore (Thoroughly Modern Millie) took on the lead role (while Elvis stayed front and center in the marketing). The resulting film is an oddity that amuses and confounds in equal measure. It is one memorable way to say farewell to narrative filmmaking.
If you have not already picked up on the double-meaning of the title, you should know that Change of Habit is the story of three young Catholic nuns – Sister Michelle (Moore), Sister Irene (Barbara McNair), and Sister Barbara (Jane Elliot) – on the verge of taking their final vows who go undercover as your typical missionaries in street clothing in an underprivileged community. The reason for this particular plot point is due to the belief that citizens who may need their help might be reluctant to talk to a nun. Their identities are a secret even to Dr. John Carpenter (Presley), a physician who has earned the trust of the community who welcomes the assistance of these three women. Without a habit to shield them from some of the more grotesque elements of the world, the women are subjected to sexual harassment, threats, financial exploitation and more. While each woman finds themselves taking up a cause, Michelle has the added drama of possible complicated romantic feelings for the good doctor. The ladies do start making a change in the neighborhood, but their secret identities might not be able to stay hidden for long.
There is so much thrown into this movie that it is little wonder why the narrative feels so disjointed at points. The mere idea of undercover nuns may seem like a lighthearted romp, but Change of Habit takes itself very seriously. As a speech therapist, Sister Michelle works to help people such as a stuttering teenage Puerto Rican boy, Julio, who does not take Michelle’s perceived romantic interest in John very well, to say the least. Michelle and John also help out a little girl who is perceived to be deaf but is actually diagnosed by the Sister as autistic. The movie earns kudos for being one of the first to acknowledge autism, but its cringeworthy, problematic “treatment” carried out by John will make compassionate hearts break. Sister Barbara faces rampant misogyny when she is not trying to take down the local supermarket owner who price gouges his ethnic customers. Then there is Sister Irene, a black woman who is trying to figure out how to work with the militant black men while trying to eliminate the nefarious local loan shark of the neighborhood. There are problematic elements around every corner.
If the film had tried to tackle just one, maybe two, social issues, the effectiveness may have worked out in the film’s favor. As constructed here, we have a film that contends with wildly different tones. The first shot of Elvis performing to a group of young people reads almost like a Russ Meyer film, but by the end you have a possible race riot and an attempted rape. The performances from the cast help this one out significantly. Moore is a ray of light in this story filled with dark turns. Presley is solid but not given a whole lot to do, especially since his character barely changes from the first time we meet him until the last. He also only provides the audience with a handful of songs that would barely qualify this one as a musical. There are so many strikes against this film narratively, but the way it is executed makes it extremely watchable. It feels like you are on a rollercoaster as you zig and zag through various unexpected plot points that may confound but keep you intrigued. At a swift 90 minute runtime, it does not overstay its welcome. Change of Habit is not a good film, but it is one worth exploring if you enjoy the cast and want to see what an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach looks like on film.
Change Of Habit makes its Blu-Ray debut courtesy of Kino Classics with a digital AVC encoded 1080p transfer that appears to be derived from a solid older master that is in good shape. This transfer maintains the natural film grain of the presentation with only minor spikes in a few shots. The picture has a few moments of softness, but colors are well saturated with the bright hues coming through nicely. Instances of print damage such as nicks and lines occasionally pop up, but overall clarity and detail is strong. The presentation is enjoyable throughout most of the runtime with image stability and delineation being handled well. Skin tones are natural and consistent with subtle facial features easily noticeable in closeup. Black levels hold up well with very little in the way of crush. This presentation may have looked a bit better with a new master, but fans of the film will be pleased to see how good it looks.
The Blu-Ray comes with a delightful DTS-HD 2.0 Master Audio track that serves this film really well. This is a film that relies on music to enhance its story, and this track handles it flawlessly. There is a richness to the William Goldenberg score and the clarity of the songs that is really lovely. This track shows no discernible age related wear and tear such as hissing or popping. All of the sound effects and music appear to be faithful to the intent of the creative team. Nothing ever overpowers the dialogue or other important information. Dialogue and background noises are represented in perfect harmony with all competing elements. There are also optional English (SDH) subtitles included for the feature film. Kino Classics has done a wonderful job with this one.
- Audio Commentary: Film Historians Howard S. Berger and Nathaniel Thompson provide a thoughtful and entertaining commentary track in which they discuss the place of the film in the careers of its stars, the attempts to tackle social issues, the reception and legacy of the feature, the music in the film and more.
- Trailers: The two-minute trailer for Change of Habit is included. There are also trailers for Frankie and Johnny, Clambake, Thoroughly Modern Millie, What’s So Bad About Feeling Good? and Come September.
Change Of Habit is quite the narrative swan song for Elvis Presley, who blithely tackles various hot button issues that come into his orbit thanks to these nuns. Mary Tyler Moore is doing the best work in the film, but even she is not strong enough to save an inconsistent script. You understand the desire to want to take aim at some of the ills of the world, but this one is not structured enough to be effective. Kino Classics has given this bizarre film a Blu-Ray featuring a decent A/V presentation and a top-notch commentary track. This one is recommended for only the most ardent fans of the talent involved.
Change Of Habit will be available to purchase on Blu-Ray on October 19, 2021.
Note: Images presented in this review are not reflective of the image quality of the Blu-Ray.
Disclaimer: Kino Classics has supplied a copy of this disc free of charge for review purposes. All opinions in this review are the honest reactions of the author.
Dillon is most comfortable sitting around in a theatre all day watching both big budget and independent movies.