The Star Chamber

Year: 1983
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Director: Peter Hyams
Writer: Peter Hyams/Roderick Taylor
Cast: Michael Douglas, Hal Holbrook, Yaphett Kotto, Sharon Gless, James B Sikking

A 70s-style thriller in the classic Pakula/Pollack vein about a shadowy world we all wish existed. It's also an erstwhile comment on a legal system out of control, where lawyers have so twisted the intent of the law that the worst kind of criminals walk on the slightest of technicalities.

The conceit is given weight in a way no essay or legal document could in the opening scenes. Two plainclothes cops know a crook has stashed his gun in a garbage can, but they can't look in it because they know a slimy lawyer will have the case thrown out because they invaded the privacy of the garbage can owner.

They wait for the garbage collectors to empty it and then retrieve the gun. Then just the sort of slimy lawyer they feared argues that because it was in 'common garbage' there was no way of telling the gun belonged to the crook. Although it makes the presiding judge Steven (Douglas) sick to his stomach, he knows the case won't stand and he has to throw it out.

Complaining about the state of affairs to friend and senior colleague Ben (Holbrook) later, Steven learns about a secret cabal of judges that meet in anonymity, consider cases away from the public gaze and nefarious influence of lawyers, and set shadowy wheels in motion to punish the guilty.

It's a great idea and a strong story, but writers Taylor and (director) Hyams go one further - the Star Chamber is as fallible as the traditional legal system, and Hardin has to embark on a race against time to stop a 'ruling' when he realises his secret colleagues have made a mistake with the evidence.

Is it a left or right wing movie? It's dressed in right wing clothes - get tough on crime, stop the legal system getting in its own way, etc. But the twist actually changes the political course of the movie - accepting the system is highly flawed but that the intent of impartial trial in a public forum with no room for emotional judgement is our only chance.

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