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Story of Bottoms and cohorts trying to make it through first year of Harvard Law. Of anything I ever saw this is the one movie that made me want to go to law school. It's one of those treasured movies I feel like I lived; I actually used to set my watch, sit back and smile before my exams just like my boy Timothy. Bottoms perfectly captures the feel of a smart, hip and modest kid from the sticks trying to hang tough in the pressure cooker. Houseman was a behind-the-scenes movie guy who became an overnight sensation with his portrayal of the brilliant, caustic Professor Kingsfield. Wagner is hauntingly beautiful as Bottom's elusive love interest. I don't know how someone first viewing this film today would look at it, but it still has a classic, timeless quality for me and I highly recommend it.
Thirty six years ago (!) before multiplexes and without the blunting effect of Tarantino and Bigelow, regular effective and intelligent movies like THE PAPER CHASE were made by film companies who co-existed in a gentleman's game called production and exhibition. Films like this were made as stand alone statements about life and love and education, and were shown in luxury cinemas that had furniture (lampshades, even!) in the foyers and well dressed, informed adult staff. Today, in this clever new century we have an industry that has sawn off its own creative head in order to film the blood spurt, and reduced movie-going to all the elegance of a supermarket. Other comments here will tell you the whole story, but as with this comment, each distill down to one thing: THE PAPER CHASE is an excellent and interesting film made in a year of truly exceptional memorable films. Sadly THE PAPER CHASE has not been seen on TV or in cinemas for three decades either, a calamity hopefully balanced by a DVD release so new generations can discover what sensible life and times 1973 was....and how life had hope and success within reach. Timothy Bottoms and Lindsay Wagner have never really gone on to anything better either. The late great John Houseman reinvented a career at aged 71 in this film and won an Oscar for his withering excellence. What a great script and performances, and a defining film in many ways. Students in film schools everywhere should study THE PAPER CHASE ...perhaps along with LOVE STORY and CARNAL KNOWLEDGE two other films of the same period that fit the look and style and success of this film. I would love to sit in on a discussion by today's 20 year olds who having seen each of those three films can explain their success.
I shall recite the facts of the case, forthwith. An idealistic first
year law student from the Midwest, named Hart (Timothy Bottoms), along
with several other students find themselves unprepared for the academic
rigors of Harvard Law School. Their insecurities bump up against the
high standards of the renowned and intimidating Professor Kingsfield
(John Houseman) who teaches a class in contract law. Further, Hart
happens to become romantically involved with a woman named Susan
(Lindsay Wagner) who initially fails to tell Hart that she is
Kingsfield's daughter. Complications ensue.
"The Paper Chase" is a rather slow moving drama laced with occasional humor. The dispassionate story is simple and straightforward, if perhaps slightly contrived. It lacks emotional intensity, especially by today's standards. But that's somewhat to be expected for a setting that is so cloistered and cerebral. Characters are stereotypical, but still interesting.
And the "heart" of the story is the discourse between student and professor, especially as Hart relates, or fails to relate, to the demanding Kingsfield, a man who never smiles. Kingsfield has a one-track mind. He lives, breathes, and sleeps contract law. He expects his students to do the same. Always impersonal, he's like an intellectual robot. And half the fun of the film is listening to John Houseman's monologues, as he "fills the room with (Kingsfield's) intelligence".
The film's color cinematography is fine; camera "takes" are very long. The film's visuals do look dated. Guys have long hair. And students use ... typewriters -- yikes! Background music is intermittent and mostly classical. Overall acting is fine. Both Timothy Bottoms and Lindsay Wagner give credible performances. And, of course, John Houseman is terrific. I can't imagine anyone else in that role.
Low-key, and nostalgic in its view of education, "The Paper Chase" is a good film to watch for its high technical quality, for its theme of the individual trying to measure up to society's expectations, and of course for the wonderful performance of John Houseman.
So, you're planning on starting law school in the fall, are you? Even if it's not Harvard, you should definitely watch this movie to see what the Socratic method is all about and why you should carefully choose your study group members. Even though this movie was made nearly 20 years ago, it still rings true and feels current. John Houseman gives a terrific performance as the terrifying Professor Kingsfield. An absolutely outstanding movie!
I have friends who have gone to law school and their subjective descriptions
of how intense an experience that was seem to be validated in this now
30-year-old film. Houseman and Bottoms shine, the rest of the cast (while a
bit too stuffy) seem to compliment them without flaw. I liked seeing a very
young (unspoiled) Lindsey Wagner in her pre-bionic woman days. Truthfully,
though certainly dated at this point, this film still held my interest. I
was, however, disappointed in the last scene, for although it may have meant
to be liberating for the Bottoms character to shift his priorities the
timing, (upon receipt of his final grades) seemed ill chosen. Still, one
can't help but root for him through all of this. In the end one wonders if
while retaining his idealism he sacrificed his sanity.
Have there been any other movies that are as good about the process of
getting an education? Yes, you can guess from my login name that I'm a
lawyer. I didn't go to Harvard but I can attest that the student/faculty
struggle the movie depicts is realistic (and thankfully confined only to a
few traditionalist Socratic profs now). The stress and tension involved in
getting a law degree is accurate, too. We had a saying, the first year they
scared you to death, the second year they worked you to death, the third
year they bored you to death. I'd seen the movie years before I went to law
school and then I watched it again a few months after I graduated. I
actually started getting sick to my stomach and shifted uneasily in my chair
as I watched the classroom scenes. It was the one and only time a movie
induced a "flashback" for me and I can understand now why some war veterans
cannot watch war movies.
John Houseman hadn't been in a movie in years when he made this one and he got a deserved Oscar for it. Having a babe like Lindsey Wagner would've made law school easier but I wasn't that lucky. On the other hand, the romance in the movie depicts a dilemma that many people find themselves in---they're caught up in an important part of their life such as getting a degree, dealing with a very challenging job, and then suddenly an opportunity for romance comes along. Do you let the romance distract you from your larger cause? "The Competition" was another movie that dealt with that romance vs. career theme and did it well.
The year was 1973. The top ten films of that year were sure fire Oscar
contenders and some were one of the highest grossing pictures of that
year. The Best Pictures of 1973 were "American Graffiti","The Sting",
"The Exorcist","Save The Tiger","Cries and Whispers","Paper Moon",
"Cinderella Liberty","The Way We Were","Papillon","Serpico","The Last
Detail","A Touch Of Class",not to mention the several movies that
shattered the box office receipts that were the best of the genre,the
action flick/marital arts adventure smash hit "Enter The Dragon",and
the Southern crime drama "Walking Tall",and the musical "Jesus Christ
Superstar". The movie that took home the statues that year was "The
Sting",which won seven Oscars including The Best Picture of that
And the one movie that defined a generation,even some who have never seen it,it is still one breathtaking piece of cinematic work,and even 30 years after its release,it still has that impact,and that motion picture,"The Paper Chase" still holds that stance to this day. This was a film that had some great performances,literate screen writing,sensitive direction and handsome production. This was a tale of a young law school student from Minnesota,in his first year of Law at Harvard,is confused by his professional calling versus his inner evolution as a human being,may seemed a bit timeless yet dated,but instead goes into the vortex of his experiences as a student as he goes through the motions here,which gets the audience a series of sideways though entertaining of the thespian declamations. James Bridges directs his own adaptation of the novel by Jay Osborn. Jr. But the performances here are sensational,with Timothy Bottoms,who is excellent as the puzzled law student,Lindsay Wagner as the girl who plays not only his love interest,but is the daughter of a tyrannical college professor. But the one who steals the show is John Houseman,who won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in 1973 gives a outstanding performance as a hard-nosed but urbane law professor. A man who looms over students like a quietly arrogant Goliath. The three players here constitute the pervading plot triangle that gives the picture its intensity-Houseman as the classroom dictator,Bottoms the uncertain supplicant,and Wagner,who plays Houseman's daughter. This is a film that in some places,particularly on college campuses in shown as a midnight movie for student and it is available on video for those who really want to know what the experiences of being a law student is really like. A must see. It is to note,that Houseman later replayed his role of the college professor in a much-respected and Emmy nominated television series based on "The Paper Chase",which ran for six years on television.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
"The Paper Chase" charts the relationship between James Hart, a hard
working student in his first year at Harvard Law School, and Professor
Kingsfield, an imposing teacher who both terrifies and fascinates Hart.
The film offers nice ambiance quiet study halls, ancient academic buildings, dimly lit student accommodations, tense classrooms and study groups and so for anyone who has attended a prestigious university, the film has a certain charm. This is academia as pure romance; campus as a fantasy-land of character building, imparted wisdom, young love and tough life lessons.
Mostly, though, it's the film's distinctly 1970s vibe which really elevates things. Like most Hollywood films of the era, "The Paper Chase" borrows liberally from New Wave and Neorealist movements, lending the film a tone which oozes an air of relaxed realism. Its cast, with their 70s moustaches, bell-bottoms and big hair, also convey a sort of anti-establishment vibe, which most Hollywood movies at the time possessed.
The film is also strange in the way that it manages to both romanticise Harvard and be "against" Harvard types. As the film unfolds, Hart goes from a kid killing himself chasing paper ("paper chase" literally means chasing grades, knowledge, money, status, approval etc), to a kid who realises that external approval ultimately does not define who he is, what he knows or what he's worth.
The film is too ambiguous (or confused) to be accepted as a simple pro-hippie "middle finger to paper chasers" flick, though. Professor Kingsfield may be the typical stern father figure who rules with an iron fist only because he "wants what's best" for his boys, but there is also a sense that Kingsfield is himself a man resigned from "the paper chase". That it is Hart (and the Professor's disgruntled daughter) who is really projecting an authoritarian image onto Kingsfield, when in fact the elderly man really is, in his own way, himself a sort of anti-authoritarian figure, in possession of very strong values. What the film offers is thus something slightly different to other anti-establishment, counterculture movies of the time. It's not a matter of "sticking it to the man", but recognising that "the man" (in this case, the authoritarian Kingsfield) is demonized only because "man" is fundamentally unable to define himself unless he places himself in opposition to others.
8.5/10 An excellent film, its appealing atmosphere making up for its failures as a romance or message movie. Worth two viewings.
Timothy Bottoms battles through his first year at Harvard Law School, attempting to stay one step ahead of his no-nonsense professor, but inadvertently falling for the instructor's comely daughter (Lindsay Wagner, pre-"Bionic Woman"). Director/screenwriter James Bridges adapted the script from John Jay Osborn, Jr.'s book, and does a pretty good job realizing the many pressures of academia. Bridges was the perfect director to work in 1970s cinema, and, with Gordon Willis' cinematography, he brings a gritty yet unshowy style to the movie that looks good without ever seeming pretentious. On the other hand, there's nothing very colorful about lectures or study groups no matter how polished the handling. Certainly worth-seeing for the acting alone, with John Houseman giving an Oscar-winning supporting performance (he was later tapped to star in the television spin-off). **1/2 from ****
I saw this on an early VHS video transfer that was just awful. I then saw it years later on TCM in widescreen DVD format and was blown away by all I'd missed on that c****y video version. This is a first rate drama of a harried Harvard law student. Make sure you see this in widescreen so you can get the full effect of the wonderful scenes like the one where Hart and his buddy sneak into the upstairs library with the glass lighted floor to sneak a peek at Kingsfield's law student notes. I especially liked the way director James Bridges reflected the lighted floor off of Hart's glasses. A very nice touch from an underrated director. No car chases, no action sequences, no over the top plots, just a simple character driven story set in the beautiful Harvard law school. This is what great filmmaking is all about.
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