The Star Chamber
(SPOILERS) Peter Hyams’ conspiracy thriller might simply have offered sauce too weak to satisfy, reining in the vast machinations of an all-powerful hidden government found commonly during ’70s fare and substituting it with a more ’80s brand that failed to include that decade’s requisite facile resolution. There’s a good enough idea here – instead of Charles Bronson, it’s the upper echelons of the legal system resorting to vigilante justice – but The Star Chamber suffers from a failure of nerve, repenting its premise just as it’s about to dig into the ramifications.
It seems that was largely down to director Peter Hyams, whose ’80s run comprises a string of impressively “not quite there” pictures. He opted to revise Roderick Taylor’s screenplay: “I said to Sherry Lansing, who was the head of Twentieth Century-Fox and is a woman I will love till the day I die, ‘I'll make this movie but I gotta re-write it from page one. I have to change it from a Donald Trump Republican script to a left-wing, anti-vigilante movie.’ My idea was to whip everyone up into a vigilante frame of mind and then pull the rug out from under them, and tell them that they're wrong”. Which is fine enough, if obvious, and ultimately the movie’s weakness, as the shift in perspective of Michael Douglas’ Superior Court Judge Steven Hardin is too easy, too inevitable.
The early section of The Star Chamber offers a convincing selection of technical breaches, whereby Hardin is compelled to dismiss cases on the basis that the method of search, seizure or arrest was flawed or could be disputed. One of these, in particular, involves particularly grisly child murder and pornography, and Hardin is both chagrined at having to throw the case out and repudiated by the victim’s father (Hyams regular James Sikking, who can also be seen in Capricorn One, Outland and Narrow Margin).
Hardin is already under consideration by his mentor, Judge Caulfield (Hal Holbrook) for admission to the clandestine Star Chamber, a group of judges taking matters into their own hands (well, those of a hitman who carries out their dirty work, at any rate). Their title is taken from a court reputedly established under Henry VII, meting out justice where other courts were unable to, and one might reasonably regard the premise itself as a pulled punch; shadowy upper echelons are more commonly considered unanswerable. Added to which, a keen interest in genuine justice and moral rectitude isn’t generally part of their repertoire (or, if legit, coercion into toeing the line where necessary might be expected).
An out-and-out right-wing approach, if more familiar, might at least have exerted more nuance, if you’re willing to read between the lines (ie Dirty Harry being at once grimly cathartic and a vilification of the character). Hardin, though, finds himself crossing the line from upholding the law to breaking it very easily – all it takes is Sikking committing suicide – but almost immediately recants when he learns the duo identified as responsible (Joe Regalbuto and Kubrick-alike Don Calda) didn’t actually do it, and attempts to have the hit cancelled, meeting a brick wall when he takes this to his fellow chamber members.
I’d have been more impressed had Hardin doubled down, but Hyams instead pursues a third-act thrill ride as Hardin visits a derelict warehouse straight out of Blade Runner – also a PCP lab – and is threatened by the duo he’s attempting to warn. Hyams makes this section a tense, edge-of-the-seat experience, and it’s a reminder of the limits of a proficient journeyman who fails to recognise their limitations as a writer. It’s a nice touch that the hitman (Keith Buckley) dispenses with the PCP fiends and is about to do the same to Hardin before Detective Lowes (Yaphet Kotto intervenes), but if this had been made half a decade earlier, you can bet the final shot of the movie (Hardin and Lowes listening in on a Chamber meeting) would not have offered such a neat “order restored” promise.
In which regard, Douglas was still in the nascent in movies at this stage, having left The Streets of San Francisco and scored hits in supporting roles in Coma and The China Syndrome – both conspiracy thrillers, notably – but eliciting less luck with his stabs at leading man duties (Romancing the Stone would change all that the following year). The earnest fellow isn’t a type that really fits him – he naturally hints at duplicitous, flawed or untrustworthy – but he’s well supported by Holbrook (no stranger to conspiracy fare as a one-time Deep Throat). Kotto’s great in an underserviced cop role (his conversation with Douglas at a diner is a highlight). Sharon Gless was a surprise to see, not just for a movie role but also a girlfriend (well, wife) one. Jack Kehoe (Jerry Geisler) is a defence attorney who does his job too well.
Adding to the somewhat-at-odds, ’70s-refitted-for-the-’80s vibe is Michael Small’s score, evoking his earlier work on The Parallax View and Marathon Man. Richard N Hannah is credited as cinematographer but Hyams is all over the movie’s look (and there was a lawsuit, it seems, identifying this as a union violation). No doubt Arnie would claim it’s much too dark, but I think it looks great. The Star Chamber isn’t a great movie, though. It’s an engaging enough way to pass the time, but probably exactly the kind of competently unremarkable fare most characterise of Hyams’ oeuvre.