July 8, 2002 -- "Change of Habit" is an interesting film from a historical perspective. It was the last Hollywood film that Elvis Presley, the king of rock and roll, ever starred in as an actor (he later appeared in a couple of concert films). This film came along at a pivotal time for Elvis, Hollywood and the nation. The societal shock waves erupting everywhere in 1969 are evident in the film itself. This film will be released on DVD on July 30. This is a review of an advance copy of the DVD.
Most of Elvis' earlier films were thin vehicles to cash in on his enormous popularity as a singer. This film, however, has a more serious message in keeping with the turbulent times. Elvis stars as Doctor John Carpenter, who runs a medical clinic in an inner city ghetto inhabited mainly by those of Puerto Rican descent. Three nuns are sent to help with the clinic, Sister Michelle Gallagher (played by Mary Tyler Moore of "Ordinary People"), Sister Irene Hawkins (Barbara McNair of "They Call Me Mister Tibbs") and Sister Barbara Bennett (Jane Elliot who would later go on to star as Tracy Quartermaine on the "General Hospital" TV show).
As an "experiment" the three nuns don't tell anyone at the clinic they are nuns and they don't wear their habits. Naturally, there is an attraction between Sister Michelle and the doctor. This tension, along with the additional tension of the nuns trying to remain relevant in an increasingly secular and chaotic society, form the main conflicts in the film. Social evils are represented by the local drug pusher, the local loan shark and the local store owner who gouges and shortchanges his minority customers. The local priest has literally shut the doors of the church to the problems of the outside world. He is portrayed as utterly irrelevant. Two Black Panther types also show up in the film to exert some force on the establishment. A local cop, played by Ed Asner (who would later become famous as Lou Grant on TV), is portrayed as an unusually sympathetic character for a member of the establishment. This film was the first time that Mary Tyler Moore and Ed Asner appeared together.
One of the more interesting characters in the movie is Sister Irene Hawkins. As the only major black character in the film she finds herself defending her credentials as a black person to the two Black Panther characters. Hawkins acquits herself well in the scene. She is a strong character in the film, although her on-screen time is limited. Racial tensions in the film exist close to the surface. Although there is little violence in the film, it seems ready to burst forth at any time. The film tries hard to make a social statement, but there is no clear message or resolution to the problems it explores. In the end, it really makes no statement, but it does call into question the existing social structure of the time. The movie serves as a reminder that Hollywood's portrayal of the Catholic Church in a positive light was well on the way out. The film shows that Hollywood was trying to catch up with the social revolution of the 1960s, but it wasn't sure what to make of it. Still, the film's script is unusually thoughtful for an Elvis film.
Elvis looks very comfortable in front of the camera, and he should, having starred in a large number of films for nearly a decade and a half. He is not convincing as a doctor, but then it is hard to believe that Elvis is anything but Elvis. He looks remarkably young and fit for a man who would die less than 10 years later after allegedly abusing his body. There are no famous Elvis songs in the film. The few that Elvis sings are forgettable. This is a "G" rated film which is not really aimed at kids. That was common then. If it happened now, you'd stop the presses. Moore, McNair and Elliot all do a fine job in their roles as undercover nuns and Asner is memorable as a calm, brainy cop with a large vocabulary. The film is competently directed by William A. Graham who worked mostly in television directing episodes of many famous series, including "The Fugitive," "Police Story" and "The X-Files." This film rates a C.
The DVD is in letterbox format and has a monaural soundtrack. It includes cast and filmmaker biographies and production notes. English, Spanish and French subtitles are available on the DVD. The film to DVD transfer appears to be good. The image quality is sharp.
Click here for links to places to buy this movie in video and/or DVD format, the soundtrack, books, even used videos, games and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.