Not everyone at Harvard Law School can cut the mustard, especially not with a lecturer like Charles Kingsfield (John Houseman) in charge of their classes. He tells his students straight away that he is a proponent of the Socratic method of teaching, that is he will ask them a question, they will answer, and no matter how often they can respond there will be another question to follow: this is how they learn the probing technique necessary to become lawyers. But one student, James Hart (Timothy Bottoms), is singled out from the first lesson as Kingsfield quizzes him on a case he has not studied, not being aware there was homework before the course began. Soon Hart is throwing up in the toilet...
Often with films set in halls of learning, never mind actual schools, there's not a focus on the process of teaching, it's more the backdrop to a different kind of story be that a comedy or a romance or thriller... whatever, The Paper Chase was a relatively rare instance of the audience invited to contemplate the reason the students were actually there. Of course, once Animal House and its ilk arrived on the scene, classes were for squares and there were a host of other activities we watched the characters get up to that did not involve study, which made for an interesting experience going back to this. Not that it was immune from extracurricular activities, as Hart still had a romance to juggle with his work.
In some ways this relationship let the drama down somewhat for the big twist about his girlfriend's identity was pretty contrived, and it comes early on in the proceedings as if to acknowledge the filmmakers were all too aware it was a hackneyed device, so let's get on with it. Future Bionic Woman and general television star Lindsay Wagner, making one of her few movie appearances, played the partner Susan, and if you couldn't divine quite why she was important to the narrative, it was less because of her connection to Kingsfield and more that she was a distraction to Hart's labours over his books. Any more than that she didn't add to the worth of her appearance, leaving Wagner with a rather thankless, ill-defined persona to deploy.
More rewarding was Hart's battles with Kingsfield, and Houseman, one of the great men of American theatre, managed to snag a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for what was just about his film debut, something he was both flattered and embarrassed about since he was not a trained thespian - though he must have known something of the craft having worked with actors for decades, as demonstrated by his command of the screen in every scene he's in. A late career of character roles awaited him and made him something of a national treasure, not least when he reprised his Kingsfield role in a successful television series which did justice to the original material, sort of a Kids from Fame with law students.
Hart is good at this learnin' lark, perhaps not as good as he wants, and the toil of attaining these dreams is not skimped upon, with plenty of sequences depicting he and his fellow students suffering the pressure of getting it right. Late on Hart observes the study group he joined has dwindled to half its members by the end of the year, and one of those drop-outs (James Naughton) has a particularly tragic tale to tell once he decides he has had enough: the thought of him scraping a living now, struggling with alcoholism and with a baby on the way is haunting. It also underlines what's at stake: those grades are all-important, but Hart's mistake is making this a personality clash with Kingsfield, regarding the tutor as a challenge to get the better of instead of concentrating on his work to get him through the year. Time and again the venerable old gentleman proves he had no interest in Hart's competitive streak, but the young man will not be discouraged, and this dichotomy is the strongest aspect of a rebel story that turns out to have lower stakes than expected - for Hart. Music by John Williams.