If you have difficulty envisioning a gripping drama about the travails of first-year students at Harvard Law School, your suspicions will be validated—and undone—by The Paper Chase. While the movie is hardly the most dynamic film of the ’70s, it’s consistently interesting, and often very entertaining. Based on a book by John Jay Osborn Jr. and written and directed by James Bridges, The Paper Chase creates tension by treating naïve Minnesotan James T. Hart’s first year at Harvard as a character-defining quest. When we first meet James, he’s an amiable longhair prepared for hard work and ready for a little fun on the side; in fact, very early in the year, he becomes involved with Susan (Lindsay Wagner), a pretty young woman who lives near the Harvard campus.
Yet James’ illusions of a smooth ride through school are shattered when he encounters Professor Charles W. Kingsfield Jr. (John Houseman), a demanding contract-law instructor. Defined by his open contempt for all but the most exceptional students, Kingsfield terrifies students previously accustomed to being considered the best and brightest. As the year progresses, James struggles to reach the “upper echelon” of the contracts class. Meanwhile, James continues his relationship with Susan—in the move’s least persuasive contrivance, she turns out to be Kingsfield’s daughter—and he wrestles with the strong personalities in his study group. For instance, James’ friend Kevin (James Naughton) represents the low end of Harvard’s academic spectrum, so poignant scenes depict Kevin buckling under pressure. Most of the picture, however, comprises James’ interactions with Kingsfield, whom the student alternately regards as a father figure, a guru, and a tormenter.
While generally a solid movie, The Paper Chase is not without flaws. James is a bit on the insufferable side, with his unrelenting self-centeredness, although he’s leavened somewhat by the concern he demonstrates for Kevin. And if the rotten way James treats Susan serves a story purpose—demonstrating the problems law students face while seeking life/work balance—it’s not much fun to watch James act like a schmuck. The Kingsfield character is a bit of a cartoon, as well. That said, wonderful performances in key roles compensate for shortcomings. Bottoms fills moments with vulnerability and warmth, while Houseman—a veteran theatrical producer who made an astonishing transition to acting with this film—turns derision into an art form. (Houseman won an Oscar for his indelible performance.) Supporting players Naughton, Franklin Ford III, Edward Herrmann, Robert Lydiard, and Craig Richard Nelson (as the members of James’ study group) portray camaraderie and friction well. Only Wagner, best known for TV’s The Bionic Woman, underwhelms.
The movie’s secret weapon is cinematographer Gordon Willis, the maestro behind the Godfather movies and myriad other ’70s classics; his elegant frames, filled with empty spaces and shadows, imbue the film with a sense of serious purpose. Bridges, marking his directorial debut, employs methodical pacing that lets Willis’ beguiling images weave their spell. All of this craftsmanship in front of and behind the camera elevates The Paper Chase into something that might be called sophisticated escapism. FYI, The Paper Chase became a TV series in 1978, running for four seasons (first on CBS and then on Showtime); of the actors from the movie, only, Houseman remained in place for the series, earning two Golden Globe nominations for reprising the Kingsfield role.
The Paper Chase: GROOVY