Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on The Nook.
I’m not old enough to remember The Paper Chase when it was a new movie, but I am old enough to recall my mother being a fan of the television show. While the star of the movie is officially Timothy Bottoms and the star of the television show was a guy named James Stephens (which is an alias I’ve used, although not because of the actor), the real star of both was John Houseman. Houseman was a stage actor, the co-founder of the Mercury Theater, and a teacher at Julliard. The Paper Chase was his third film role, one coming in the late 1930s and one uncredited in the 1960s. After this film and the subsequent television show, Houseman was everywhere, and his image was indistinguishable from that of his role in this film.
The Paper Chase is the story of a first-year Harvard Law student named James T. Hart (Timothy Bottoms) and his experience with his classmates in a class covering contract law. That class is taught by Professor Kingsfield (John Houseman), a terror in the classroom, but the sort of man who takes the brightest minds in the room and sharpens them to become the brightest minds in the country. Kingsfield’s class is a trial by fire. He identifies students only by a seating chart and has no memory of any of them beyond the classroeom. No student’s cares or concerns penetrate the icy wall of Kingsfield’s demeanor. The grade they get is the grade they earn with no chance or possibility of favoritism.
The only real complexity thrown into the mix is the presence of Susan (Lindsay Wagner). She and Hart become an item, and have an on-again, off-again relationship, especially when he discovers that she is the married daughter of that same professor Kingsfield. The movie strains believability a bit there. Susan is roughly the same age as Hart, but we discover later in the film that Kingsfield was a Harvard Law student in 1927. Okay, it’s possible he had his children late in life, but that puts him at about 70 with his daughter in her early 20s.
Anyway, much of the film is the conflict Hart has between wanting to be with Susan and wanting to excel in law school. Specifically, Hart wants to impress Kingsfield. There’s almost something obsessive about his relationship with the man. Throughout the movie, despite Hart and his classmates having half a dozen classes, we see only the contract law class and encounter only Kingsfield as one of his teachers.
One of the other driving forces in the film is the relationship between Hart and five of his classmates. Early in the year, the six of them form a study group, with each person handling the bulk of the work for one class (Hart naturally takes contact law). The idea is that when it comes time for exams, each one will provide a full outline of the class for each of the others in the group, allowing each person to focus his attention on one class but gain the benefit of having done that for all six of the classes. One by one, members of the group leave due to argument, dropping out of school, or fits of pique until all that are left at the end are Hart, Ford (Graham Beckel), and Anderson (Edward Herrmann). And in the end, it’s just Hart and Ford who retreat to a hotel for three days to cram for their finals.
The Paper Chase isn’t really a movie with a plot and it’s also not really a character study. Instead, it is the story of a relationship between student and teacher and between student and school. The teacher/student relationship here is an interesting one, and I’m saying it that way to be politic. It’s not one that I’m familiar with. When I have students in the room in front of me, I get to know them. I actually give a shit about their success. The “sink or swim” mentality of Kingsfield might work well at Harvard Law, but it’s not the sort of thing that works in the real world, at least in my experience.
For all that, I found The Paper Chase to be strangely compelling. I’m not sure why I did, because most of these characters are insufferable. Kingsfield is the sort of teacher you hope never to have. He’s dismissive and rude, and even your best work gets you nothing more than being told it was adequate. The entire film is essentially Hart trying to impress Kingsfield in some way and Kingsfield being absolutely immune to anyone breaking through his ability to supremely not give a shit about anything aside from the law.
None of the other characters are much better. Bell (Craig Richard Nelson), who launches himself from the study group in a fit of anger, is exactly the sort of person most of us would assume is the default Harvard Law student stereotype. He’s smug, self-satisfied, convinced of his own genius, and dismissive of everyone else who doesn’t immediately recognize his brilliance. He’s openly hostile to everyone around him. Then again, almost everyone is. The only member of the study group who isn’t an insufferable tool is Kevin (James Naughton), and he spends the entire movie being lost in all of his classes and attempting suicide.
So I don’t really know why I found this film compelling and yet I did. I think it very well may be a combination of two things. First, I remember that my mother loved the television show, and I do like John Houseman. Second, I liked this a hell of a lot more than I liked Love Story, which is the only Harvard Law-related movie I have to compare this to. By comparison, this one is friggin’ Shakespeare.
Why to watch The Paper Chase: A fine example of an early-‘70s college drama.
Why not to watch: That’s pretty much all it is.