The Star Chamber
Screenplay : Roderick Taylor and Peter Hyams
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1983
Stars : Michael Douglas (Steven Hardin), Hal Holbrook (Benjamin Caulfield), Yaphet Kotto (Detective Harry Lowes), Sharon Gless (Emily Hardin), James B. Sikking (Dr. Harold Lewin), Joe Regalbuto (Arthur Cooms), Don Calfa (Lawrence Monk), John DiSanti (Detective James Wickman)
Peter Hyams' "The Star Chamber" takes it name from an English court in the mid-1600's that was composed primarily of lawyers and judges to supplement the regular common-law courts in both civic and criminal matters. While this court was popular at first, it was soon abolished because it became too arbitrary and too powerful for its own good.
"The Star Chamber" lifts that idea of a secretive, backroom court and drops it into a modern setting. It asks, what if a group of powerful, like-minded judges got together and formed their own court that would re-evaluate murder and rape cases that had slipped through the American judicial system because of minor technicalities? A court that would not only re-try cases, but also sentence and carry out punishments, all in the name of justice and good will?
While at first this sounds ludicrous, unethical, and immoral, Hyams and co-screenwriter Roderick Taylor use the first forty minutes of the film to convince us that there could be acceptable reasoning behind just such an institution. Through the eyes of Steven Hardin (Michael Douglas), a young, idealistic California judge, we twist our stomachs and clench our fists while watching known sleazebags go free because of the smallest errors in police procedure.
The first case involves a man who has robbed and killed five elderly women picking up their welfare checks (what could be worse than that?), who goes free because the police officers who saw him drop a gun in a trashcan didn't wait for the trash to be mixed with other trash in the garbage truck before searching. If it had been mixed, it would have become "common trash" and eligible for a search, but because they searched the scoop of the truck that contained only the murder's trash, it became invasion of privacy, and all the evidence found afterward in his house (including wallets and personal items from the murdered women as well as a full confession) becomes inadmissible. Is this what our courts were set up to do?
Hardin doesn't want to set this man free, but he knows that if he doesn't, the appellate court will. His patience and ideals are further tested when a 10-year-old boy is murdered as part of a kiddie porn ring, and two men, Arthur Cooms (Joe Regalbuto) and Lawrence Monk (Don Calfa) are found in a van with one of the boy's bloody shoes; yet, he has to let them go because of another minor slip-up in police procedure.
When Hardin finally goes to a friend, an older judge named Benjamin Caulfield (Hal Holbrook), he is invited to "do something about it," as Caulfield puts it. Caulfield invites Hardin to join his modern incarnation of the Star Chamber, which makes sure men like Monk and Cooms get the punishment they deserve. As both Hardin and Caulfield see it, the safeguards built into the American justice system are no longer serving their intended purpose of protecting innocent citizens wrongly accused, but rather acting as loopholes to be exploited by obviously guilty criminals.
Up to this point, everything seems to be rational and justifiable. The film goes to great lengths to draw a line between "justice" and "law." They are not the same thing, and Hardin complains that justice has actually been buried beneath the mounds of legal books he is constantly surrounded with. At the point in his life and career when it seems the system isn't working anymore, the Star Chamber comes along and fills that empty spot, the one created by men like Dr. Harold Lewin (James B. Sikking), the father of the murdered 10-year-old boy who has to watch Hardin set his son's killers free.
But, just when we're getting comfortable with this seemingly justifiable creation of backroom law, Hyams pulls a switch on us. What if the Star Chamber happens to be wrong? What if an innocent man is wrongly convicted? What can be done? At that moment, Hardin realizes the American ideal of setting a hundred guilty men free before punishing one innocent man might have a purpose after all. The film invariably comes down hard on the fact that any system of justice in a complex society will have flaws, and the trick is in balancing the costs.
"The Star Chamber" is a sharply-made film, directed with pace and style by Hyams and beautifully photographed by Richard Hannah, who uses a great deal of murky darkness penetrated by harsh beams of light; everything in the movie seems dim and ambiguous. Hyams stages most of the scenes in settings filled with symbols of law and justice, whether than be the paneled courtroom, Hardin's office with floor-to-ceiling shelves of aging law books, and or the smoky Star Chamber with its dim lighting and echoing chants of "guilty."
For most of the film, Hyams manages to keep its rather ludicrous plot afloat. Unfortunately, it begins to unravel in the end when a police detective (Yaphet Kotto) becomes too involved, and Hardin goes on a quest to warn two innocent men who have been mistakenly sentenced to death by the Star Chamber.
The film comes to an abrupt and rather unconvincing ending that is obviously meant to leave the viewer unsatisfised. After all, the movie is about justice, a notion whose definition means different things to different people. "The Star Chamber" never has a chance for a happy resolution, which relates to the most painful aspect of the legal system; even when a murder is justly sentenced, in some ways it makes no difference because his victim will still be dead.
©1997 James Kendrick