The Paper Chase (1973) – Film Review
Director: James Bridges
Cast: Timothy Bottoms, Lindsay Wagner, John Houseman
By Sarah Morgan
Sometimes, great books make great movies. Other times, you wonder why anybody bothered trying to adapt them for the big screen. The Paper Chase seems to fall between those two stalls.
It’s based on the 1971 novel of the same name by John Jay Osborn Jr, who was drawing on a subject he knew – like the main protagonist, James Hart, he too studied at the prestigious Harvard Law School, and claims that the tutor who looms large over the story was based on several of the lecturers he met there.
Timothy Bottoms, then at the peak of his powers following acclaimed performances in Johnny Got His Gun and The Last Picture Show, plays Hart, an earnest and keen student who is nevertheless humiliated on his first day – he didn’t realise he had to study a case beforehand, so is stumped for an answer when Professor Charles W Kingsfield, the formidable contract law tutor, asks him a question.
Afterwards, Hart is determined not to be left in that position again, and diligently begins to focus. He also joins a study group comprised of a mismatched group of fellow students and begins a relationship with Susan, a married woman who turns out to be Kingsfield’s daughter.
As time passes, Hart’s obsession with impressing the tutor grows. He drives himself on, keen to be noticed, but every time he feels he’s making ground, something happens to bring him back down to earth with a bump.
Bottoms delivers a fine, likeable performance, ably supported by Lindsay Wagner (who was soon to become a household name as The Bionic Woman) as Susan. John Houseman, who first found fame as a member of Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre, won an Oscar for his role as the imperious Kingsfield; he went on to play the part again in a spin-off TV series which ran from 1978 to 1986.
However, it’s James Naughton who steals every scene as Kevin, a married student with a photographic memory but no analytical skills. His heartbreak on realising he’ll never make it to the bar is painful to see.
The Paper Chase is a well-made, classy affair but somehow it fails to really grab the attention. Although a pleasant enough diversion, it’s unlikely to live long in the memory. Perhaps reading the book might help.