Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Fill this blog with your intelligence

TCM is spending tonight and the first part of Wednesday morning looking at people who died in 2014. One of the names that is not as well known is that of cinematographer Gordon Willis, whose movies include The Paper Chase, which TCM is airing tomorrow morning at 8:45 AM.

Timothy Bottoms plays James Hart, a recent college graduate from a small town who has been accepted to be a law student at prestigious Harvard Law School. Hart is an underdog type, and as such, wants to prove that he belongs at Harvard Law School with all these other hot-shot students. So Hart and the various other students set up study groups, with the idea that each of them is going to focus more heavily on one particular subject from among the mandatory areas of law that first-year law students have to take, and then help each other with the various areas of expertise. Or at least that's the plan; it's not quite going to work out that way. But more to the point, we're told from the beginning how difficult law school is supposed to be, especially the first year.

One of the more difficult professors is contract law professor Kingsfield, played by John Houseman. Kingsfield is a taskmaster, expecting everybody to sit in the same seat every day so that he can call on them more easily; he's only going to call on them by surname, which seems highly impersonal, but there you are. Not only that, but he's goign to teach these young skulls full of mush not only about contract law, but how to think, using the Socratic method. You can see why anybody encountering this on his first day at law school would find it rather intimidating.

And that first year of law school does turn out to be quite demanding, taking a toll on the various students, including Hart, who wonders if he's going to succeed. It doesn't help his confidence any when he tries to get in Prof. Kingsfield's good graces by agreeing to write a précis for a law review article, but being unable to complete the task. Still, there's time to find a love interest, which Hart does in the form of the lovely Susan (Lindsay Wagner, before she became the Bionic Woman). The only thing is, Hart finds out later that Susan is in fact the daughter of Prof. Kingsfield!

In between, there is a series of interesting adventures for the students, with some facing extreme difficultiy and others facing a bit more humor, such as the attempt to find a copy of Kingsfield's senior law review article from the 1930s, and Hart's ultimate failure to refer to it when he could have rebutted Kingsfield in class one day. At the end of the movie, we reach the end of the first year, with the movie leaving open the question of what's going to happen to Hart in the last two years of law school.

Overall, The Paper Chase is a well-made movie made excellent by the presence of John Houseman. I had no desire to be a lawyer, but the movie does make law school seem like an interesting, if demanding place. Timothy Bottoms and Lindsay Wagner are good enough; we ultimately don't care that much about the other students; and Houseman is great as Kingsfield, and richly deserved the Supporting Actor Oscar he won. Houseman had had one small role in a film back in the 1940s, but had otherwise worked mostly as a producer. He stepped in front of the camera for The Paper Chase, and it gave him a second career that lasted until his death 15 years later. And since the movie is being shown in honor of its cinematographer, Gordon Willis, I have to admit that I don't always notice much special about cinematography. Harvard Law School is lovely to look at, but I wouldn't consider myself expert enough on cinematography to comment on whether indoor scenes are particularly good or not, other than to say I never found it distracting.

The Paper Chase is well worth watching, even if you're not interested in the law, for the masterful performance of John Houseman.

1 comment:

Tom said...

Interestingly, in his Oscar acceptance speech, Mr. Houseman thanked Gordon Willis for his camera work and for helping to craft the character. (This clip can be found on YouTube)