The Paper Chase (1973)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 9 out of 10

4-Word Review: He can’t please Kingsfield.

James Hart (Timothy Bottoms) attends his first year at Harvard Law School and finds himself obsessed with the notoriously stern Professor Charles Kingsfield (John Houseman). His fascination increases after he begins a relationship with Kingsfield’s daughter Susan (Lindsey Wagner). The rest of the story deals with the pressures and demands of being a law student.

This quite possibly is the quintessential movie about college life. Everything is captured in such a real and revealing way that it will very likely send the viewer back to their college days. Despite being nearly forty years old it doesn’t seem dated at all as it touches on many universals that every generation goes through at that age. If anything it is still quite topical. The few dated elements are actually fun to see including the scene in the pre-cellphone days where the students would line up and wait their turn to make a call on the dorm’s one and only pay phone.

The student characters have diverse personalities and seem like young adults one would meet during their college days, or even see on a campus today. It is nice to have a college movie where students are actually studying. In fact these scenes are some of the best moments in the film including Hart’s dealings with difficult people in his study group.

The Hart character is appealing and relatable. I liked how he is multi-faceted and displays elements from both his own era including his counter-culture hairstyle as well as past ones.

Having it filmed on-location and capturing the different seasons of the year makes the viewer feel like they are attending the school year right along with him. I particularly liked the scene shot in the historic Harvard stadium.

The film also makes terrific use of silent moments as there is very little music. Many college movies dwell on the loud and raucous partying, but there is a lot of quiet time as well particularly the first day of class in a large auditorium wondering what the instructor will be like. The opening sequence done underneath the credits showing an empty classroom quietly filling up with students was not only novel, but brilliant.

Houseman deservedly won the Oscar for his portrayal of the crotchety professor. Outside of a small and unaccredited role in Seven Days in May this was technically, at age 71, his film debut. Some may complain that the character is one-dimensional. We are never shown any type of softer side to him and I am sure most films would have thrown some in, but the fact that they don’t do it makes his mystique more interesting. My favorite moment of his is when at the end of the year the students give him a standing ovation while Kinsgfield responds with his trademark scowl before walking out of the room.

The supporting cast of students is terrific and many were making their film debuts. There is Graham Beckel as Hart’s study partner Franklin Ford who looks like a twin of Brad Dourif. There is also Edward Herrmann and James Naughton as Kevin Brooks a man with a photographic memory, but no analytical ability. My favorite though was Craig Richard Nelson as the moody and belligerent Willis Bell.

Blair Brown can also be seen as one of the female students during the classroom scenes. She speaks in a strange accent and I think she was trying too hard to get the Bostonian sound, but I ended up kind of liking it anyways.

The implementation of Kingsfield’s daughter into the story really didn’t work with me. Lindsey Wagner is a competent actress, but the way they meet on a sidewalk seemed too forced and random. It is also beating extreme odds that Hart would by chance get into a relationship with the daughter of a man that is the complete center of his universe and the fact that she turns out to be hip, sexy, and gorgeous even though she is related to a man who is anything but was also a stretch. It would have been interesting had there been a few scenes and dialogue between Kingsfield and Susan, but none is ever shown.

There is a part involving Hart sneaking into the library when it is closed in order to get into a section that houses the notes taken by the professors when they attended the school as students, which I found to be odd. I have never known any college that has done this and talking with others no one else has either. I was still willing to roll with it but found it frustrating that when Hart takes out the notes written by Kingsfield in 1927 that the camera doesn’t focus in on the page to allow the viewer to see it for themselves. Having Hart simply describe what he sees including some doodling that Kingsfield apparently made on the side of the page is not as satisfying.

I had a few problems with the end as well although it was not enough to ruin what is otherwise a great movie. However, there is a scene showing Kingsfield grading his student’s tests by himself even though most tenured professors who teach large classes have graduate assistants do this for them. It may be more cinematically satisfying especially for the general viewer to see Kingsfield doing the grading, but that is not how it actually works.

Also, when Hart receives the grades in the mail he doesn’t bother to open the letter, but instead turns it into a paper airplane and floats it into the ocean. I didn’t understand the motivation of this because during the film Hart spends an enormous amount of time preparing for the test, so I would think anyone who went through that would want to see what they got. If he wants to turn it into a paper airplane afterwards that is fine, but at least see the results. I spoke to a fan of the film who says he interprets this scene to mean that Hart was more interested in learning the subject for his own enjoyment and not concerned with what he got out of it, but if that is the case the film fails to bring that out earlier and instead seems to show the exact opposite.

My Rating: 9 out of 10

Released: October 16, 1973

Runtime: 1Hour 53Minutes

Rated PG

Director: James Bridges

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Available: VHS, DVD, Amazon Instant Video

7 responses to “The Paper Chase (1973)

  1. Wasn’t this also a TV show? I had a friend who went to MIT and he loved it for the Boston college atmosphere.

    I work at a university, although a mid-sized state university in the Midwest, so not much like Harvard, but you’ve really peaked my interest in this.

    • Yes, it was a TV-show and John Houseman also starred in it. It started on CBS and then went to Showtime. I never saw it, but others said it was good and the full seasons are available on DVD. If you watch this movie I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

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  3. I’m not sure if that’s exactly how I would interpret the ending to this movie. I haven’t watched it in several years, but I remember there being lots of talk throughout the film about how the “only thing that mattered” was what grades the students got in their classes–because that would determine what jobs/internships they would get in the law field. That’s obviously a really shallow way of looking at your studies, because one would hope that the grades would reflect how much a student learned in those classes (or how well they performed). I think the ending is showing that Hart finally realized that the opposite of the “only grades matter” attitude is the right one to take–what you learn from a class is really the only thing that matters, and the grade is just some letter attached to that experience that could never adequately capture what you went through. It’s a hopelessly romantic view of what it means to go to college (or Law School), but I guess that’s why it appeals to me so much.

    Your point about actually showing people studying in school is pretty funny. I think the first time I saw this movie was in my junior or senior year of high school, and I really liked it because I felt like it so perfectly captured what it felt like to work really hard to do well in school, and then ultimately succeed. When I got to college, I thought my friends would like it for that reason, and so I showed it to some of them one weekend night…but they all hated it because they said it “stressed them out” and “made them feel guilty” about not doing their homework. I was surprised, but I guess I could have chalked that up to most people not feeling quite as romantic about school life as I do. But–like you said–I think that also shows how well this movie resonates with people over time, even if they don’t entirely like what they see.

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