The 10 File: “The Paper Chase”

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LOGOI’m introducing a new feature here this week, and I would greatly appreciate any and all feedback about it. I call it The 10 File. Every so often instead of reviewing a current film or TV show, I will access this file and offer a commentary on a movie worthy of being called a classic and earning the score of an undisputed 10. My hope is to introduce such films to those who may have missed them when they first came out or to remind those who may have seen them that they are definitely worth watching more than just once. Without further ado let’s have at it.

Way back in 1973 one of the best legal dramas ever made hit the silver screen, and I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve watched it. “The Paper Chase,” based upon the novel of the same name by James Jay Osborn Jr., tells the story of James T. Hart (Timothy Bottoms), a first-year law student at Harvard University, and interestingly enough Osborn wrote the book while he was a law student at Harvard.

As the academic year begins, we watch a group of students filing into a large lecture hall, and after they are all seated, we see a seating chart, complete with student pictures, unfolded on the lectern. Then the legendary Professor Charles W. Kingsfield Jr. (John Houseman) points at a name on the chart, and in a booming voice says, “Mr. Hart, will you recite the facts of Hawkins vs. McGee?”

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Unfortunately Hart did not realize that the reading assignment for the first day of class had been posted in two places on campus, and therefore he had not read the case. In the ensuing few minutes, Kingsfield mercilessly embarrasses Hart in front of the class, and thus begins the relationship that’s the nucleus of this absolutely marvelous film.

Kingsfield, a graduate of Harvard Law School, has been teaching at his alma mater four 40 years, and his specialty is contract law. Kingsfield stories are rife on the campus, and some of them maintain that the professor has actually driven some of his students insane. In class he wastes little time before telling his students what they can expect.

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“The study of law is something new and unfamiliar to most of you unlike any schooling you’ve ever been through before. We used the Socratic method here. I call on you, ask you a question, and you answer it. Why don’t I just give you a lecture? Because through my questions you learn to teach yourselves. Through this method of questioning, answering, questioning, answering, we seek to develop in you the ability to analyze that vast complex of facts that constitute the relationships of members within a given society. Questioning and answering, at times you may feel that you have found the correct answer. I assure you this is a total delusion on your part. You will never find the correct, absolute, and final answer. In my classroom there’s always another question, another question to follow your answer. Yes, you’re on a treadmill. My little questions spin the tumblers of your mind. You’re on operating table. My little questions are the fingers probing your brain. We do brain surgery here. You teach yourselves a law, but I train your mind. You come in here with the skull full of mush, and you leave thinking like a lawyer.”

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On Hart’s first night in his dorm, a student from across hall knocks on the door, introduces himself as Franklin Ford III (Graham Beckel), and invites Hart to join his study group. The idea is for each student in the group to pick a particular course to outline, and then the members exchange them at exam time. Initially in addition to Hart and Ford, the group comprises Kevin Brooks (James Naughton), Thomas Craig Anderson (Edward Herrman), Willis Bell (Craig Richard Nelson), and O’Connor (Bob Lydiard).

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By combining the drama of the unbelievable pressure facing the first-year law students with some wry humor and even a bit of romance, “The Paper Chase” offers first-class entertainment from beginning to end. Watching how the study group members deal with the rigors of Harvard is fascinating. The acting is consistently excellent throughout, and Houseman even won an Oscar for his superb portrayal of Kingsfield. Although the scenes in which the students interact during the study group, in the dormitories, and at various other places are always interesting, the segments in Kingsfield’s classroom make the film what it is.

Complementing Houseman’s performance beautifully is Bottoms’ portrayal of the befuddled Hart, who must struggle to overcome the miserable first impression he made on Kingsfield. Bottoms really makes us feel Hart’s combination of trepidation and determination as he attempts to convince the unapproachable professor that he’s worthy of being a Harvard law student.

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All of the other young actors who portray Hart’s classmates are exceptionally good in their respective roles, and Lindsay Wagner also turns in a nice performance as Hart’s love interest, Susan Fields. The overall casting of the film could not have been any better.

If you have never seen “The Paper Chase,” you should treat yourself and share in the adventures of Hart and company as they pursue the grades at Harvard that will land them a job with a prestigious law firm after they earn their degrees. You will think about these students long after you have seen this outstanding movie. And I guarantee that you will never forget Kingsfield, one of filmdom’s most memorable characters.

Look for another film from The 10 File in the future, and please let me know your thoughts about this idea.

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