Released in 1983, this crime drama starred Michael Douglas and Hal Holbrook. Michael Douglas is Stephen Hardin, a young superior court judge in L.A. who's frustrated with having to set guilty criminals free on technicalities
. Hal Holbrook plays the older Judge Caulfield who initiates him into a group of judges who run an illegal secret court that reviews cases then votes to convict and sentence to death criminals they deem deserving. A hitman takes care of the rest.
After they dispatch two murderers, Hardin brings his own case up, wherein two burglars who allegedly raped and killed a little boy were set free by a good faith error of the police in gathering evidence. The hitman is sent out again. At the same time, a separate investigation has turned up evidence that indicates the boy was killed by members of a child porn ring, not them. Hardin is horrified by the error, and tries to have Judge Caulfield call off the hitman. Caulfield puts forth the following reasons for not calling off the hit: in order to protect themselves, neither the court or the hitman know each others' identity; also, the intended victims are probably guilty of other crimes and their deaths are an acceptable outcome. Besides, the court has to be protected for it to serve good. Hardin says they at least can warn the men, but Caulfield sees this as an unacceptable risk for exposure. Hardin attempts to stop the men from being killed before its too late...
The title is from the name of a court in Renaissance England notorious for the brutal, unaccountable methods it employed as a tool of the King's will, the Star Chamber
, which is similar to that of the secret court in the movie-hence the name
. It's also a term used for any unaccountable, inquisitorial proceeding, e.g. "star-chamber method."
The Star Chamber includes examples of the following tropes:
- All Crimes Are Equal: Subverted. We only see them go after freed killers, with the punishment that, in their view, fits the crime-death.
- Anti-Hero: Judge Hardin, and possibly the rest of the judges.
- Clear My Name: Hardin finds out two criminals they had sentenced to death are innocent, and has to do this for them.
- Driven to Suicide: A judge early on in the film, who shoots himself in the restroom after a banquet in his honor, presumably out of guilt over his involvement with the titular secret vigilante court.
- Hanging Judge: All the Star Chamber judges. The only crime they deal with is murder and the punishment for each one is death.
- He Who Fights Monsters: What Hardin starts to feel they're becoming when the court won't stop the killing of two innocent men in order to protect themselves and because they rationalize them as likely deserving it anyway.
- Hollywood Law: The first case evidence wouldn't be suppressed according to California state or federal rules in 1983.
- Irrevocable Order: A major plot point is the inability to call off a hit on a couple of lowlifes when they turn out to be innocent of child murder.
- Jumping Off the Slippery Slope: The turning point, stated above, if not before when Hardin and the rest go vigilante in order to pursue justice as they see it.
- Kangaroo Court-The titular court, naturally. Its self-appointed member decide based on the prior evidence whether a defendant was guilty (they always vote yes on this) and sentence him to death, all in secret of course, with a hitman to carry it out.
- Knight Templar: Hardin, though the rest of the judges fit this to a far higher degree. Possibly the hitman as well, since he's seen at the end in a police uniform. He may be a cop, or just has access to a uniform and vehicle, implying that perhaps rogue cops are involved, possibly covering any suspicion that the deaths are more than regular crimes. Of course, as the victims are murderers who got off, there is probably little incentive to investigate their killings anyway...
- Murder, Inc.: The court may qualify as this, though they don't do it for money. It makes you wonder how they get money to order the hits, unless that hitman isn't doing it for that either, as speculated in the Knight Templar entry.
- A dozen judges would certainly have the income to afford it.
- Never Hurt an Innocent: Hardin refuses to see two men die who are innocent of this particular rape and murder, though possibly guilty of others (we find out later they have committed serious crimes, though murder is not shown to be one.) Caulfield, on the other hand, argues they can't risk exposing themselves and have to pursue the greater good-plus as stated the criminals were guilty of something, in an impromptu debate on morality.
- Off on a Technicality: Shown twice, and pushes Hardin over the edge. All the other murderers the court judges qualify as well, and this is how they justify their acts, bringing justice (in their view) to people who escaped it legally.
- Professional Killers: The hitman, though its hard to say if he falls in the first or second category, but see Knight Templar entry.
- Vigilante Execution: Both of clearly guilty murderers who got off on technicalities.
- Vigilante Man: The father of the murdered boy; also the judges.
- Well-Intentioned Extremist: Judge Hardin and the rest are frustrated by the legal loopholes which help killers go free, wanting to bring them all to justice. Their methods, however...