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Court of Last Resort

June 19th, 2010 · 4 Comments

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In the month of June, Joe Valdez “takes over” programming of the New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles with a series of double features on his favorite film themes.

Here’s Part 1 of a bill featuring high tech conspiracies in L.A.

Star Chamber 1983 poster Star Chamber dvd

The Star Chamber (1983)
Directed by Peter Hyams
Screenplay by Roderick Taylor and Peter Hyams, story by Roderick Taylor
Produced by Frank Yablans
109 minutes

Though Michael Douglas had played opposite Geneviève Bujold in Coma and Jane Fonda in The China Syndrome, uncovering conspiracies in the healthcare and energy sectors, the producer and actor took a step toward becoming a movie star with The Star Chamber, an unabashed B-movie of the type that used to star Richard Widmark or Sterling Hayden when movies titled Panic In the Streets or Crime Wave played the bottom half of the bill. With an irresistible plot involving Superior Court judges rendering their own justice whenever the law gets in the way, The Star Chamber is a Dirty Harry picture for people who can read without moving their lips. Equipped with way more intrigue and drenched with far greater suspense than required, when it comes to audience appreciation, this movie overachieves.

Co-star Hal Holbrook — Old Man Conspiracy in Magnum Force and The Firm — calling Michael Douglas “kiddo” isn’t the only thing that dates The Star Chamber like a vintage coat. While Sharon Gless makes a refined impression in her three scenes, no time is wasted on a romantic lead or subplots that don’t relate to the one we paid a ticket for: judges delegating vigilante justice. The script keeps most of its nuts and bolts out of view, remaining plausible by letting the audience’s imagination do most of the work. Adapted and directed by Peter Hyams, the film has credible dialogue, solid performances, elegant set pieces and is cloaked in the sinister shadow that Hyams would execute as his own director of photography on 2010, Narrow Margin and The Relic. The Star Chamber is the director at his most soldered.

Star Chamber 1983 title card

Detectives (Larry Hankin, Dick Anthony Williams) on the hunt for a serial robber and killer in South Los Angeles spot a suspect drop something into his garbage can. Lacking a warrant to conduct a legal search, the cops wait for trash collectors to dump the contents of the can into a garbage truck’s scoop, where they retrieve the murder weapon. At trial, Superior Court Judge Steven Hardin (Michael Douglas) is given no choice but rule the evidence, subsequent search and confession inadmissible on a technicality. Lamenting the miscarriage of justice to his mentor Judge Caulfield (Hal Holbrook), Hardin’s next case forces him to set free two suspected child murderers (Joe Regalbuto, Don Calfa) when LAPD officers (Charles Hallahan, David Proval) produce crucial evidence in an illegal search.

The father (James B. Sikking) of the murder victim opens fire on the suspects in court. Visiting the man in jail, Hardin learns that the body of another boy has been found after he set the suspects free. While Detective Harry Lowes (Yaphet Kotto) begins pursuing leads, Hardin approaches Caulfield, who has tantalized his protégé with hints of doing something about his frustration with the legal system. He invites Hardin to join a panel of nine superior court judges who comprise “a court of last resort”, reviewing cases dismissed on technicality and employing their own executioner to carry out sentences. While Hardin’s child murder defendants are soon found “guilty” by the panel, Detective Lowes produces information that the men really were innocent. Unable to cancel the “sentencing”, Hardin takes matters into his own hands and risks exposing the judges.

Star Chamber 1983

Star Chamber 1983 Michael Douglas

Star Chamber 1983 Sharon Gless Michael Douglas

Star Chamber 1983

Star Chamber 1983 Joe Regalbuto Don Kalfa Jack Kehoe

Star Chamber 1983 Hal Holbrook Michael Douglas

Star Chamber 1983 Yaphet Kotto

Star Chamber 1983

Star Chamber 1983 Hal Holbrook Michael Douglas

Star Chamber 1983 Michael Douglas

Rotten Tomatoes “Tomatometer” average among 5 users: 80% for The Star Chamber

Metacritic “Metascore” average among leading critics: Not available

What do you say?

Tags: Crooked officer · Forensic evidence · Gangsters and hoodlums · Hitman · Interrogation · Master and pupil · Midlife crisis · Psycho killer

4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Roger // Jun 19, 2010 at 10:17 am

    Nice choice. Hyams films generally fall apart around the end of act 2, when he seems to betray a lack of nerve in following his initial instincts all the way to their logical (or illogical) conclusions. I remember seeing this film on cable and wishing it got crazier as it went along… rather than deteriorating into a chase, which most of thrillers did in the ’80s. Capricorn 1 might be worthy as the 2nd half of this one!

    Congrats and keep going. (I hope we see Parallax View in this program again!)


  • 2 moviezzz // Jun 19, 2010 at 2:35 pm

    Saw this many times back in the 80’s. In fact, in a Social Studies class in middle school, we watched it (and had to sign permission slips since it was R rated).

    Haven’t seen it since and what happened to the remake? It was talked about several years ago.

  • 3 Joe Valdez // Jun 19, 2010 at 3:03 pm

    Roger: I still haven’t seen Capricorn One and it’s been years since I watched Outland on HBO. Peter Hyams never got distracted trying to win awards or make art and like most B-movies, you’re left wanting a bit more by the end, but I think several of his films are underrated, like The Star Chamber. Parallax View might make a double feature with Three Days of the Condor. Thanks for commenting!

    Jim: I can’t understand who would go through the trouble to purchase rights to an obscure ’80s title no one can be clamoring to see redone, when you could just rip off the plot and make a new movie, a better one, without calling it The Star Chamber. It probably makes some studio executive somewhere sleep better, but it wouldn’t make a bit of difference at the box office. Argh. I hope you enjoyed my remake rant. As always, thanks for commenting!

  • 4 JOE SOAP // Dec 18, 2011 at 7:31 am

    Seems strange they used the title ‘the Star Chamber’ when it’s definition is not even included nor is there even the slightest reference.

    I think a bureaucratic-vigilante-justice double bill of ‘The Star Chamber’ and ‘Magnum Force’ would be apt and Holbrook plays a similar yet converse character in both.

    Thinking ’bout it now, ‘The Star Chamber’ spliced with ‘Magnum Force’ is ‘Judge Dredd’.

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