As I watched Michael Douglas’ oft-forgotten vigilante thriller The Star Chamber (1983), in which rogue judges delve out secret death sentences to the clearly guilty who got off on technicalities, I thought not of genre torch bearers like Dirty Harry and Death Wish but instead of that one Batman: The Animated Series episode where someone sporting a judge’s robe and yielding a killer gavel started hunting down all of Gotham City’s criminals who kept squeaking through the legal justice system.
Maybe that’s because in 2016 our collective exposure to superhero cinema and TV and our vague familiarity with the vigilante films of the 70s is such that the notion of vigilante justice has been completely normalized. We’ve seen these types of stories told over and over again by now, glimpsed every possible permutation, be it an old-school revenge thriller centered around an everyday Joe or Jane with a gun and a righteous ax to grind or a big budget comic book movie featuring very fit people wearing largely impractical costumes. As such, it’s almost quaint to now view a film in which vigilantism is held back as the big twist, the unthinkable and unconscionable solution to all of the main character’s problems, for nearly half the running time.
However, that’s exactly how The Star Chamber plays it. There might be a little bit of Death Wish in the film’s DNA, but you have to go through an awful lot of Law & Order to get there, first watching cops apprehend bad guys before moving on to courtroom scenes where lawyers do their thing. This pattern repeats itself multiple times, continually introducing us to new Los Angeles area cops and lawyers and new cases with the only constant being Michael Douglas as the judge on each case.
This actually makes for an interesting legal drama, one in which the criminals are but mere background props in courtroom scenes featuring byzantine conversations about police procedure, specifically the lawfulness of the methods used to gather key pieces of evidence, faintly calling to mind The People Vs. O.J. even though there’s more than three decades standing in-between this film and that show.
With each subsequent case, Douglas’ judge becomes increasingly more despondent with the state of the justice system, repeatedly freeing clearly guilty men on legal technicalities. This provides plenty of very actorly moments for Douglas, such as one “It’s gone all upside down!” monologue he fires off at his wife (played by Cagney & Lacey‘s Sharon Gless in her feature-film debut) while desperately searching in vain for some legal precedent which could save the District Attorney’s case against two suspected child rapists/pornographers/murderers (the triple threat).
If you don’t know where the movie is going with all of this, if you haven’t seen a trailer, read a plot synopsis, glimpsed the tagline on the movie poster or heard of the 15th century English court from which the film took its title then this is all fairly fascinating. The cops are not corrupt. The lawyers aren’t slimy opportunists. And the judge is not simply sitting on his perch and daydreaming about that 1 o’clock tee time at the country club. Director Peter Hyams (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Roderick Taylor) isn’t trying to scapegoat any one party in the justice system, even going out of his way to make it clear that the defense lawyer working for the suspected child killers is simply doing his job and otherwise wants nothing to do with his clients.
It’s actually the criminals who don’t get a fair shake in all of this. For example, in the world of Star Chamber listening to punk music automatically equates to drug addiction and a happy trigger finger. Furthermore, as Janet Maslin argued in her New York Times review of the film back in ’83:
Mr. Hyams works with such bold strokes that he tends to turn criminals into jumpy, wild-eyed mad-dog types, which means that the actors in the thug roles are at a great disadvantage. Heaven knows, there was no need for any of this visual underscoring of the notion that accused criminals are a depraved form of low life; the screenplay takes care of that by generally making them drug pushers or child molesters, with the occasional murderer for good measure. Not with aces up your sleeve or in your hat brim could you achieve a more thoroughly stacked deck.
Once Star Chamber pivots towards vigilantism, though, it somehow becomes simultaneously more and less interesting. The premise is sound, yet the film seems almost bored with itself once it finally gets there.
The pivot occurs through Douglas’ mentor (a reliably ingratiating yet subtly amoral Hal Holbrook), an older judge who had previously made vague comments which were secretly alluding to the secret court he established with 8 other judges. After Douglas is properly guilted by the father of one of the dead children whose suspected killers he let go, he presses Holbrook for more details about his earlier comments and is both horrified by and intrigued with what he hears. Holbrook, predating Judge Dredd by a decade, actually says, “We are the goddamn law!” while explaining how there’s an opening for another judge to serve on his secret death panel which hires hitmen to kill off those clearly guilty bastards whose cases were thrown out of court on some kind of technicality.
To understand the significance of this turn in the film you have to remember Star Chamber arrived in theaters after audiences had been inundated with vigilante movies like Dirty Harry, Death Wish, Billy Jack, Walking Tall, Ms. 45 and the bluntly titled Vigilante for over a decade. These films, most of which were regarded by critics as “fascist,” Right Wing fantasies, rose in response to the urban decay of major cities like New York and the lingering damage caused by the 60s to the public’s faith in social institutions and the criminal justice system. Dirty Harry served as judge, jury and executioner because if he simply arrested bad guys the courts would end up letting them out. Buford Pusser walked tall and carried a big damn bat because his hometown had been overrun by scuzzy Southern gangsters. And so on and so on.
These films were rarely morally complicated, typically centering around everyday figures with a justifiable outrage related to some personal tragedy. Sometimes these crusading heroes were cops of some sort. Other times they were just normal people. However, they always had to act outside of the system because the system let them down.
And along comes Star Chamber to tell a story about some of the highest representatives of our criminal justice system expressing just as much frustration with it as Harry or Pusser. Furthermore, they are neither motivated by personal tragedy (ala Death Wish) nor driven by insanity (ala Taxi Driver). Instead, they are simply driven by a sense of right and wrong, namely that it is wrong to let the guilty go just because (for example) a cop didn’t wait the extra 2 minutes to find the murder weapon and DNA evidence in a dumpster truck. Plus, they don’t actually get their hands dirty. Somebody else does the killing for them while they keep busy, e.g., attending posh fundraisers, shaking hands with politicians the like.
This should work. This should be some forgotten classic of the genre. Alas, it’s probably been forgotten because it’s little more than an also-ran from the era, a film with a good beginning, interesting twist and then completely lackluster second half.
The problems arise as soon as Holbrook explains the concept of his secret court (which we are to infer is the Star Chamber of the title even though that phrase is never used in the film). There’s an astonishing casualness to Holbrook’s explanation, Douglas’ reaction and Hyams’ staging of the scene. It feels like the casualness of it is intentional, that we are to notice the juxtaposition of life and death “being decided in a lavishly appointed conference room, equipped with green lamps and rows of leather armchairs,” to again quote Maslin’s review.
However, Hyams leaves precious little room for air in this most crucial of sequences. As soon as Holbrook finishes his explanation the film instantly cuts to Douglas filling out the 9th chair of the Star Chamber and delivering a verdict on a case, creating a sense of narrative whiplash, as if there’s a missing scene in which Douglas either hesitates before joining or is at least introduced to the other judges in the Chamber, perhaps surprised to find some familiar faces. Hyams at least has some fun ramping up the tension as his camera follows each face around the table as they render their verdict, finally landing on Douglas, who has a serious “What the fuck did I get into here?” expression before looking over at a re-assuring Holbrook and semi-confidently declaring “guilty.”
But the film has switched gears too abruptly, and what should be the beginning of a morally ambiguous second half translates into a series of basic judgment + kill sequences (i.e., the Star Chamber judges, the unnamed hitmen kills) intercut with Yaphet Koto as a cop investigating Douglas’ lingering child murder case. Inevitably, the Star Chamber gets something wrong and doesn’t react accordingly, thus upsetting Douglas’ moral constitution. It all leads to an unintentionally funny climax in an abandoned warehouse where Hyams’ attempt to ratchet up the tension by emphasizing ambient noise simply makes Douglas’ footsteps sound so loud you wonder how he could possibly hope to sneak up on anyone.
Thus The Star Chamber stands as a real curiosity, a film which intriguingly switches from legal drama to vigilante thriller but then doesn’t have the courtesy to even be a competent thriller. There’s a better movie just begging to be let out here because for all my talk at the top about having seen stories like this too many times by now I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a vigilante justice story quite like The Star Chamber. It’s such a shame they didn’t do their premise justice, no pun intended.
THE BOTTOM LINE
As a film which intriguingly switches from legal drama to vigilante thriller halfway through and stars a Michael Douglas who was right on the cusp of breaking through with Romancing the Stone, Wall Street and Fatal Attraction, The Star Chamber is a real curiosity, but that’s often all that it is, a mostly forgotten vigilante thriller that’s been forgotten for good reason.
The Star Chamber is currently streaming on Starz On Demand.
HOW 1983 OF THEM…
Pretty much everyone seems to smoke.
Kids constantly play Intellivision.
They go to a Dodgers-Braves game and complain about star player Dusty Baker’s super exorbitant salary of $800,000, remembering of course that Baker’s managing career has since eclipsed his playing days in most people’s memories and the league minimum salary in 2016 is just over $500k.