Thursday, September 26, 2013

'70s Flashback: "The Paper Chase" and "The Warriors"

John Houseman as Professor Kingsfield.
The Paper Chase. James Bridges' 1973 drama about the first year in Harvard Law School has aged well thanks mostly to Timothy Bottoms' appealing performance. Bottoms plays James Hart, a Minneapolis native who initially seems out of place with his classmates--many of whom are affluent and/or brilliant. Hart, though, is a hard worker and doesn't lack confidence (indeed, while he's a genuinely nice guy, he is also self-centered).

Timothy Bottoms (and hair) as Hart.
With Hart as the film's focal point, Bridges keys in on the young law student's relation-ships with: Professor Kingsfield (John Houseman), a demanding teacher of contract law; Susan (Lindsay Wagner), Hart's girlfriend and, as he learns later, Kingsfield's daughter; and Hart's fellow students in his study group. Hart's admiration for Kingsfield, a Harvard legend for 40 years, borders on obsession--at one point, Hart breaks into the law library to read Kingsfield's private papers.

While Houseman won a Best Supporting Actor as Kingsfield, the character remains intentionally enigmatic. We only glimpse Kingsfield outside the classroom environment. Susan reveals a few details about her father, but even their relationship seems more professional than personal. In one of the film's best scenes, it's difficult to know if Kingsfield is being honest or intentionally distancing Hart:

HART: Professor Kingsfield, I just want to tell you that I truly enjoyed your class.

KINGSFIELD: That's fine.

HART: What I meant is, you really mean something to me. And your class has really meant something to me.

KINGSFIELD (after long pause): What is your name?

Lindsay Wagner, pre-Bionic Woman.
The Paper Chase effectively captures the pressures of a prestigious law school, where the grades--not just getting a degree--impact one's future. That's not surprising since the screenplay was based on the novel by John Jay Osborn, Jr., a 1970 Harvard Law School graduate. The film is less successful in exploring the relationship between Hart and Susan. The couple never seems happy together. It's almost as if Susan's presence serves merely to provide a counterpoint to the law school scenes--which are the best part of the movie.

The Paper Chase was adapted into a critically-acclaimed CBS TV series in 1978 with Houseman back as Kingsfield and James Stephens as Hart. Nevertheless, it wasn't a ratings hit and was cancelled after one season. Showtime revived it in 1983, where it ran for three years and ended with Hart's graduation from law school.

Michael Beck as Swan.
The Warriors. Walter Hill's once-controversial 1979 gang film can now be appreciated for what it is: a stylish chase drama with few pretensions. The plot is set into motion when Cyrus, the charismatic leader of the largest gang in New York, calls for a one-night "gang convention" with nine delegates each from over 100 gangs. Cyrus's message is not necessarily a peaceful one; he wants to unite all the gangs so they can control the city's streets. While many gang members cheer, some do not--to include Swan, a member of the Warriors.

When Cyrus is unexpectedly assassinated, the real culprits frame the Warriors and kill its leader. Swan (Michael Beck) takes command and the rest of the film chronicles the Warriors' night-long trek to get back to the safety of its home turf in Coney Island. Along the way, they must negotiate, fight, and flee from the many gangs trying to avenge Cyrus's death.

The outlandish gangs contribute to the film's surreal look: The Punks wear overalls and striped shirts; the Boppers sport purple vests and black pimp hats; the Lizzies is an all-girl gang; and, most famously, the Baseball Furies wear baseball shirts, sport Kabuki make-up, and use baseball bats for weapons.

Deborah Van Valkenburgh as Mercy.
One of the strongest elements in The Warriors is the evolving "romance" that develops between Swan and Mercy (Deborah Van Valkenburgh), a young woman he meets along the way. Beck and Van Valkenburgh have a natural chemistry that enhances the "opposites attract" relationship of their characters. My favorite scene in The Warriors is when, during a rare quiet moment, Swan and Mercy watch a "normal couple" returning from a prom on the subway--knowing their lives will never be like that, assuming they even survive the night.

In many ways, The Warriors sets the stage for Hill's more polished (and better) 1984 picture Streets of Fire. Both films take place principally at night in an urban setting, employ rock and pop music to great effect, and feature a romantic "odd couple."

The climax on a Coney Island beach provides an effective
contrast to the night-long chase in the city.
When The Warriors was originally released, it was linked to three outbreaks of violence at theaters where it was playing. The film does not condone nor glamorize violence. And it doesn't seek to manipulate its audience in the manner of films like Death Wish and Billy Jack. Unfortunately, any film with a topical subject matter has the potential to affect its viewers in an undesirable way, despite its intentions.


The Lady Eve said...

I have such fond memories of The Paper Chase and Timothy Bottoms as Hart. He was also superb in The Last Picture Show and I've always wondered why his career seemed to tank in the '70s. He was apparently considered for the Richard Dreyfuss role in Jaws - and I think he'd have been great in the part (and it would have made him a certified movie star).

toto2 said...

I also enjoyed "The Paper Chase" mostly because of the honest student angst and the performance of Timothy Bottoms. I haven't seen all of "The Warriors" but am quite a fan of the underrated "Streets of Fire". I thought this was a great pairing of films!