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Film: The Star Chamber

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 it's too late...

The title is from the name of a court in Late Medieval-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.
  • Bad Guys Do the Dirty Work: As Monk and Coombs catch up to Hardin in the warehouse during the final foot chase and are about to shoot him, the hitman shows up and blasts both of them, saving Hardin from being killed. Granted, the hitman was there specifically to kill them, and was going to shoot Hardin, too, but still....
  • Buddy Cop Show: While not technically one, the film does have several pairs of officers in it. Detectives Mackey and Wiggan have some humorous banter (so much so that they could almost carry a movie all by themselves), as do Lowes and Wickman. Detective Sarkin and Officer Nelson have a sort of mentor/rookie relationship.
  • Covers Always Lie: The DVD cover shows Michael Douglas as Judge Hardin holding a pistol. Hardin never holds a pistol in this movie, not even once.
  • Determinator: How Detective Lowes describes himself:
    "Listen, you're dealing with a plodder here....I happen to stick with something until I get an answer. Not because I think I'm a hot shit, but because I got nothin' else better to do. Listen, I wanted those two guys. I thought they did it. I wanted to bust 'em. Then it turns out that some other lice crawls out from under their rocks and they prove to be the guilty ones. But those first two, I would've got 'em. It might've taken a little while, but I would've got 'em. Otherwise, it didn't make much difference. That's all I got, is time. That's the advantage of a plodder. We're not fast. We're just persistent.
  • 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.
    • Harold Lewin also kills himself in prison offscreen after he accidentally shoots a cop in an attempt to kill his son's (accused) murderers.
  • 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.
  • Impersonating an Officer: The hitman, unless he actually is a police officer.
  • 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.
  • "Join the Army," They Said: When Detectives Mackey and Wiggan are searching the gooey garbage inside the truck:
    Det. Mackey: Join the police and see the world.
    Det. Wiggan: It's "join the navy and see the world."
    Det. Mackey: Oh, shit. I joined the wrong thing.
  • 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 members 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.
  • Minor Crime Reveals Major Plot: After Flowers is arrested for car theft, he spills on several other crimes he's committed, including stealing Monk's van under the orders of the men who really killed Danny Lewin.
  • 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. The father of the murdered boy also attempts these when the suspects get off this way, but ends up instead shooting a cop by accident when he tries to stop him.
  • Vigilante Man: The father of the murdered boy; also the judges.
  • Vomiting Cop: Rookie Officer Nelson throws up after he and his partner see the remains of Daniel Lewin.
  • 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...
  • You Watch Too Much X: This exchange, when Detectives Wiggan and Mackey are about to pursue Hector Andujar:
    Wiggan: You got a hunch, right?
    Mackey: Right.
    Wiggan: Instinct, right?
    Mackey: Right.
    Wiggan: You've been watchin' too much television again.