Paper Chase, The (1973)

Paper Chase, The (1973)

“I need a way of living that I can rationalize!”

An ambitious law student (Timothy Bottoms) dates the daughter (Lindsay Wagner) of his professor (John Houseman) while joining forces with a handful of his classmates to prepare for final exams.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • James Bridges Films
  • Lawyers

James Bridges’ adaptation of John Jay Osborn, Jr.’s novel about a first-year Harvard law student struggling to survive and thrive is perhaps best remembered as the showcase for John Houseman’s Oscar-winning performance as Professor Kingsfield — a larger-than-life instructor who is simultaneously revered and feared by his students.

Indeed, in its depiction of Bottoms’ relentless quest to earn Houseman’s respect — and its overall presentation of the rigors of law school, complete with plenty of heady dialogue and ruthlessly competitive interactions —

The Paper Chase fully succeeds, and we remain enthusiastically engaged; as Vincent Canby points out in his review for The New York Times, it’s refreshing to see a movie that “acknowledge[s] the existence of a mind”. Unfortunately, however, this focus is interrupted time and again by a poorly developed romantic subplot, one which ultimately feels both contrived and unsatisfying.

Wagner’s character, while potentially fascinating, is insufficiently developed to earn our interest; instead, she functions merely as a distraction for Bottoms — someone who happens to conveniently possess an insider’s perspective on the man Bottoms is single-mindedly obsessed with. Meanwhile, Bottoms’ character eventually becomes so callously self-absorbed that we stop rooting for him — a dangerous outcome for a film predicated on whether or not our dauntless protagonist will succeed in his quest.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • John Houseman as Professor Kingsfield
  • Gordon Willis’s cinematography

  • A fascinating glimpse at the rigors of law school

Must See?
No, though it’s certainly worth a one-time look for Houseman’s performance.


2 thoughts on “Paper Chase, The (1973)

  1. A once-must (as a personal recommendation).

    I usually attempt to post thoughts on films right after I have seen the film, so that it is fresh in my mind – especially when it comes to a film I have only seen once or twice.

    That’s not always possible, however. And, in a case like this, some time has gone by and I had only seen ‘TPC’ once before. But I generally like Bridges’ work a lot and this film is no exception.

    What stays with me most in terms of this film is the satisfying feeling derived from following college students realistically; I think this film very accurately lays out the
    feeling and atmosphere of its milieu. And I find value in that. I felt I was really in this world.

    And, yes, DP Willis (as usual) does a remarkable job, so that’s a major plus for me personally.

  2. I felt the same way about the overall ambiance of the film — which is why I was so especially disappointed in how the storyline ultimately played out.

    My thinking on the “must-see” status of this one actuallly shifted midway, from “Of course” to, “Oh, shoot — no; just can’t recommend it.” That doesn’t often happen to me. Usually it’s a more clear-cut feeling earlier on.

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