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Star Chamber, The
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by Jack Sommersby

"A Favorable Verdict"
4 stars

While it's not likely to result in a whole lot of intellectual discussions, it fastens upon the tail-end of a fascinating subject.

One couldn’t exactly accuse the Peter Hyams-directed Los Angeles legal drama The Star Chamber of playing fair, but it’s consistently absorbing and deftly engineered despite a ludicrous action-filled finale that has to be seen to be disbelieved. Michael Douglas stars as Steven Hardin, a Superior Court judge who’s become disillusioned with the legal system with his having no choice but to release defendants due to loopholes defense attorneys have cannily exploited. Someone has been murdering elderly ladies for their Social Security checks, and when two police officers chase down the suspect and wait until a garbage truck comes along so the gun he’s thrown into his receptacle can be emptied into the truck’s scoop, the defense argues that because the suspect’s garbage wasn’t mixed with the truck’s other garbage, the police still needed a warrant. And when two strung-out men are stopped in their van by the police for driving around suspiciously, which yields the discovery of a bloody sneaker of a recently-discovered corpse of an eight-year-old boy who was kidnapped and forced to participate in a porno movie with his throat slashed afterward, because the driver’s parking tickets were in fact paid yet showed non-paid on the police’s computer, which was the reason for the police pulling them over, the search is ruled inadmissible and that shoe, the prosecution’s main piece of evidence, thrown out, and the prosecutor has no choice but to drop the case. Where the classic Dirty Harry was a clinched-fist protest against a legal system viewed as more concerned with the legal rights of criminals than those of their victims from a policeman’s point of view, The Star Chamber makes the same argument from the viewpoint of that of a judge who wants to do the right thing but has no choice but to adhere to a judicial system he’s sworn to uphold -- Steven wants to rule in the prosecution’s favor but knows the cases will just be reversed by the appellate court. Douglas doesn’t summon up a whole lot of depth in his performance (it lacks the nuances a more complex actor would’ve brought to the party), but he’s focused and stays in character throughout. Already burnt-out in his young career, Steven is on the verge of quitting and going into private practice when his mentor, Benjamin Caufield (Hal Holbrook), a judge himself who’s equally appalled at having to release criminals in his courtroom (“Someone’s taken justice and hidden it in the law”), casually tells Steven he does something about it; when Steven presses him, Benjamin casually (and manipulatively) brushes him off, feeling Steven out, knowing he won’t let the matter drop until he finally has an answer. (The masterly Holbrook is perfectly cast. Not only does he expertly convey slipperiness, but he’s much the superior actor that his character’s professional seniority over Steven can be seen as the actor’s seniority over the bland Douglas.) With Steven being hounded by the press for judgments he can’t help rendering, and with the father of the murdered boy’s attempt to kill the defendants with a gun he’s snuck into the courtroom, Steven, at his breaking point, demands an answer, and the one he gets he’s far from prepared for.

With a panel of ten judges on a surreptitious court held in Benjamin’s mansion, they hear cases, and if a guilty verdict is rendered a hit man is employed to literally carry out a death sentence. And this “star chamber” has an opening after one of their members committed suicide by gunshot in the restroom of a ballroom in the movie’s opening scene where he was being honored for his integrity after decades on the bench. There’s not a whole lot of psychological complexity to be had in The Star Chamber, and this is its main fault. Steven, with no kicking and screaming, allows his morals to be sullied for what he perceives to be a better cause, but it starts to keep him up nights; and when two defendants with a long criminal history are found to be innocent when the real culprits are caught, with their impending assassination already in place, Steven is put in an uncomfortable position. “If they’re not guilty of this particular crime,” reasons Benjamin, “aren’t they guilty of so many other crimes?” “But they’re not guilty of this particular crime,” counters Steven. (The movie is based on an actual secretive court in England from the late-fifteenth to the mid-seventeenth century, only there it was instituted so powerful members in the upper hierarchy wouldn’t be above the law.) Hyams, who co-wrote the screenplay, doesn’t bother drawing correlations between the star chamber’s death sentences and states that carry out the death penalty, and this prevents the movie from gaining much traction in our collective minds -- after all, if some states can order a man’s death, why not this star chamber? But Hyams clearly isn’t interested in such ambiguities. He’s after mood and suspense and atmosphere, and he generally succeeds. Hyams’s previous outing was the excellent sci-fi thriller Outland, which found Sean Connery’s federal marshal doggedly determined to put a stop to an intergalactic drug ring; here, Douglas’s judge finds himself in the untenable position of maintaining “justice” in a court hypocritically indifferent to an incorrect sentencing. They think they’ve thought of every contingency, but if one slips through the cracks, then what? That stalwart Yaphet Kotto is superb as a police lieutenant, with John DiSanti doing a priceless turn as his second-in-command who loathes doing paperwork (in the movie’s best scene he manages to get a car thief to come out of hiding in a parking garage by calmly laying out that shooting him dead rather than merely injuring him will mean fewer forms to fill out); James B. Sikking is deeply affecting as a grieving father, and Joe Regalbuto and Don Calfa are frightening as trigger-tempered low-lives. Hyams loves actors, and he resists the urge to serve up stereotypes for the sole sake of mechanically moving them about a plot line; and though the material doesn’t provide him the opportunities for the visual panache of Outland, The Star Chamber is an exceedingly good-looking production, with Hyams’s technical prowess lending many of the talking-heads scenes the necessary snap and precision. (If there’s a boring moment in it, it escaped me.) In the grand schema of cinema, the movie doesn’t really come to much, but it’s entertaining stuff all the same.

The bare-bones DVD provides the first opportunity to see this in its proper 2.35:1 aspect ratio for the first time on home video.

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originally posted: 03/08/15 12:45:04
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User Comments

3/15/05 Jeff Anderson Even though it's manipulative, it keeps you interested. James B. Sikking is a STANDOUT!!!!! 4 stars
4/28/03 R.W. Welch One of your better conspiracy flicks, has a good low-key darkness about it. 4 stars
3/02/03 y2mckay Solid vigelante conspiracy movie. Predictable but still wildly entertaining 4 stars
3/02/03 Jack Sommersby Manipulative as hell, but undeniably affecting. Hyams directing is, again, top-notch. 4 stars
3/02/03 Charles Tatum Hyams' direction rises above predictable material 4 stars
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  05-Aug-1983 (R)



Directed by
  Peter Hyams

Written by
  Peter Hyams
  Roderick Taylor

  Michael Douglas
  Hal Holbrook
  Yaphet Kotto
  James Sikking
  Joe Regalbuto

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