Monday, 3 September 2018

Movie Review: The Paper Chase (1973)


A classroom drama, The Paper Chase creates an intriguing premise within a haughty academic milieu, but fails to properly develop its own thesis.

At Harvard University, Hart (Timothy Bottoms ) is a first year law student. In the Contracts Law class of the legendary Professor Kingsfield (John Houseman), he quickly realizes how tough the year will be. Kingsfield uses the Socratic method to probe his students' knowledge, and the underprepared are immediately exposed. Hart joins a study group pulled together by Ford (Graham Beckel), and including the pompous Bell (Craig Richard Nelson) and the uncertain Brooks (James Naughton), who possesses a photographic memory but weak analytical skills.

Hart works hard and starts to impress in Kingsfield's class. He also meets and starts a relationship with the carefree Susan (Lindsay Wagner), although he is warned that a distracting romance is the worst thing for any first year law student. With several of the class members struggling to keep up, Hart uncovers Susan's secret, further complicating his progress.

Directed and written by James Bridges as an adaptation of the novel by John Jay Osborn Jr., The Paper Chase enjoys an engaging opening third. Bridges creates rich Ivy League campus surroundings where bright minds come to prosper, and even the most intelligent students from around the country will be challenged. The Kingsfield classroom scenes are stirring, and convey the sense of dread mixed with excitement as a fabled professor, an institution himself, sinks his teeth into a new group of recruits.

When the film moves away from the learning sessions and into the parallel on-campus lives of the students, The Paper Chase loses momentum. Hart himself is a bit of an empty vessel, and the study circle group members are sketched in with the broadest of strokes. The romance side-plot between Hart and Susan develops too quickly, as they are in bed and proclaimed as a couple before any sparks are lit, creating no emotional buffer to fall back upon when Susan reveals her secrets.

The movie crackles back to life whenever Kingsfield comes back to the screen. The contemptuous professor gradually turns the boys into men, training their minds in readiness for a career full of nimble arguing. In the process he earns their respect, and transforms from a symbol of fear to a respected mentor. John Houseman earned the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for a domineering performance.

Like many first year students, The Paper Chase toils towards the end of the academic year. Subsidiary plot points about Kingsfield's old student notes, Brooks' struggles to keep up, and Hart accepting a side-assignment half-heartedly float in and out as isolated chapters and mostly get in the way. The film shines in the company of the Professor, but slacks off between classes.






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