The Paper Chase is a drama that focuses on first year law students, known as 1Ls, at Harvard Law School. The film is an adaptation of a novel of the same name penned by John Jay Osborn, Jr., himself a graduate of Harvard Law School. The magnificent acting, quality story, and remarkable music make The Paper Chase, an underrated film, one that should be watched.
The story centers around James T. Hart as he grapples with his first year of law school. Charles W. Kingsfield, Jr., a contracts professor with a foreboding reputation and demeanor, becomes Hart’s most difficult professor. Kingsfield’s use of the Socratic Method accurately reflects law school pedagogy, while terrorizing unprepared students. The Socratic Method is the practice of using persistent questions and answers to test the knowledge of the individual being questioned. Kingsfield declares that his students arrived with a skulls full of mush but will leave thinking like lawyers.
The difficulty posed by Kingsfield results in Hart developing a keen interest in him. Hart contends that if he knows everything about Kingsfield and his work, then he will be able to anticipate his questions and make the grade so he can join the coveted law review. However, the balance of the law school workload and Hart’s extra study of his contracts professor is challenged as Hart becomes romantically involved with Susan Fields. This results in Hart being emotionally pulled in multiple directions while attempting to do well in school, specifically Kingsfield’s class. Hart is understandably dumbfounded when he learns that Susan is Kingsfield’s daughter. This realization obfuscates an already tense and complex situation.
The Paper Chase has excellent pacing. The film starts on the first day of the academic year and ends on the day Hart receives his first year grades. This makes the framework of the film manageable and lends itself to nice pacing. It also appropriately complements the film’s setting.
Throughout the year, Hart is a member of a study group comprised of other law students. These interstitial sequences offer a nice change of pace to the classroom portions and scenes with Hart and Susan. The progression of the year and the character development that occurs therein are organic and easily flow with the story itself.
The two most obvious tonal themes are the tension and stress from law school and the romantic tension and comedic elements from Hart’s relationship with Susan. This is mixed with the ironic fact that Hart is interested in Kingsfield’s daughter.
Yet the tone is not limited to these elements. As briefly mentioned above, Hart’s interest in Kingsfield leads to him learning that Kingsfield, though a top-notch and stern professor, is a human. This plays into the theme of perspective and growth. It may seem strange that a law school student has not figured this out, but Kingsfield’s reputation and aura make him seem, to some students, larger than life. Nevertheless, Kingsfield’s mystique diminishes as Hart accesses his notes and material in the law library. This succinctly illustrates that everybody is human, no matter their accomplishments or what they would have you believe about them.
Another important tonal theme is Hart being faced with his priorities. On the one hand, he is immersed in the paper chase of getting degrees, admission into the American Bar Association, and a salary. On the other hand, he is faced with investing time and emotions with other people, namely Susan. These facets, and the resulting character growth, are handled well and make the film’s characters seem like grounded humans, not merely extraordinary protagonists and quasi-antagonists.
The Paper Chase’s acting, from the principals to the supporting cast, is nothing short of brilliant. Timothy Bottoms’ James T. Hart is a very relatable character. Bottoms does an impressive job at showing Hart’s humanity and nuances. Additionally, Harts interest in Kingsfield and the struggle of balancing coursework and a relationship are convincingly depicted.
John Houseman’s performance as Charles W. Kingsfield, Jr. is a tour de force. Houseman owns everything about the character, from his wardrobe to his use of the Socratic Method to personifying his reputation at the law school. It is truly a superb performance, but this role may have, in a sense, typecast Houseman, at least in the minds of viewers. It may not have impacted the types of roles that followed, but, after watching this movie, it was difficult to separate Houseman’s character in a different film from Kingsfield’s shadow. As previously noted, Houseman does a terrific job at demonstrating the utility (and fear) associated with the Socratic Method.
Lindsay Wagner’s Susan Fields is also excellently portrayed. Wagner effectively shows Susan’s disillusionment of those in or associated with the law school. Her down-to-earth perspective is nicely juxtaposed with Hart’s preoccupation with making the grade and “chasing paper.” Wagner and Bottoms also have terrific on-screen chemistry.
Graham Beckel, James Naughton, Edward Herrmann, Robert Lydiard, and Craig Richard Nelson compose the supporting cast, as depicted in the first year study group. Fortunately, the group consists of several noticeable character archetypes, which make each character feel expressly unique.
Beckel’s Franklin Ford III and Bottoms’ Hart have good chemistry. Ford is initially seen as arrogant, but viewers will likely warm up to him when Hart help put things in perspective. Naughton’s performance of Kevin Brooks effectively shows that people can be geniuses without having the “paper” to “prove it.” Herrmann’s Thomas Craig Anderson is well done. Anderson is focused on conducting superfluous academic exercises and has difficulty prioritizing and concentrating on the task at hand. Robert Lydiard’s O’Connor is a smart student who does not tolerate the incessant bullying from Craig Richard Nelson’s Willis Bell. The most incorrigible character in the film is Bell, but Nelson does a good job in his performance.
Viewers will likely have real-life counterparts of the represented character types. The study group is also very accurate reflection of group dynamics, not simply character models. Its construction and effect are admirable aspects of the film.
Gordon Willis’ cinematography is strong throughout the film. The wide and long shots of the classroom nicely capture its environment and will make the viewer feel as though they are sitting alongside the other students. The use of close ups, especially of Kingsfield, are well done and mix nicely with the shots of the students being tested by the Socratic Method. Naturally, the cinematography is well-blended with the film’s strong production design and scenery.
It comes as no surprise that John Williams’ musical score is another technical highlight of the film. Williams employs excellent orchestrations which often feature harpsicord; this makes the music memorable and distinctive. The composition during the sequence in which Hart is working on a supplement expertly mirrors the 1L’s tension as it frantically builds and beautifully concludes.
James Bridges does a masterful job in his screenplay and direction of The Paper Chase. The memorable characters, exquisite performances, and inspiring, grounded story create a final product for which Bridges should be fêted. He also does a wonderful job in managing the technical aspects of the film.
John Houseman received the Academy Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role. The film also received Academy Award nominations for Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium and Best Sound. The win and nominations are further examples of Bridges’ noteworthy direction.
In conclusion, The Paper Chase is a very special film. Its characters, story, and lessons will not soon be forgotten. Sadly, it is an extremely underrated film. If you have not seen The Paper Chase, it would be wise to watch it. Even if you have no desire to go to law school, there is plenty to glean from this movie. For those interested in a legal career, it would behoove you to watch this film before embarking on your law school adventure.
Distributor: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
Production: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation; Thompson-Paul Productions
Director: James Bridges
Producer: Rodrick Paul; Robert C. Thompson
Screenwriter: John Jay Osborn, Jr. (book); James Bridges (screenplay)
Director of Photography: Gordon Willis
Editor: Walter Thompson
Production Design: George Jenkins
Music: John Williams
Release Date: October 16, 1973 (USA)
Cinematographic Process: Panavision
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Copyright Holder: N/A
Cast: Timothy Bottoms; Lindsay Wagner; John Houseman; Graham Beckel; James Naughton; Edward Herrmann; Craig Richard Nelson; Robert Lydiard; David Clennon; Lenny Baker; Regina Baff
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Rating: PG; Descriptors: N/A
Running Time: 1 hours and 53 minutes (113 mins.)
 The Paper Chase. Directed by James Bridges. 1973. Los Angeles, CA: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, Inc. 2003. DVD.