Vintage Cable Box: “The Star Chamber, 1983”

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“I’ve got five women shot through the head.  I got bodies piling up all around me.  I’m passing out the ammunition!”


The Star Chamber, 1983 (Michael Douglas), 20th Century Fox

Test case: a couple of undercover cops are chasing a suspicious character who dumps his gun in a garbage can. They’re about to search the can when one officer informs the other the search would be illegal without a warrant. They arrive at the conclusion that they have to wait for the approaching dump truck to put the contents of the can into the truck (then it becomes city property) before they can execute the search. These are the little-known technicalities of law enforcement.

There are legal searches and illegal searches. Peter Hyams’ thrilling The Star Chamber operates on the presumption of a failed criminal justice system where peace officers are handcuffed by defense attorneys (and their clients) who cop pleas, use reverse logic and appeals to get off. Even when the cops do everything by-the-book, including a trace on the gun, searching the defendant’s home and finding damning evidence that places him at the scenes of several murders (as well as a confession from the accused), they are told the search was still construed as illegal because the garbage was not in the body of the truck.

The system deeply frustrates disillusioned young Judge Steven Hardin (Michael Douglas).  He commiserates with his mentor and friend Caulfield, played by an enigmatic Hal Holbrook, who tells him, in no uncertain terms, he “does something about it”.  The body of a 10-year-old boy is found, mutilated, raped, and murdered.  Soon after, two suspects (Don Calfa and Murphy Brown’s Joe Regalbuto) are apprehended because of a bloody shoe found in their van.  Despite all evidence implicating the two in the crime, and the words of the boy’s grieving father, Hardin has no choice but to release them on a technicality.  The boy’s father tries to shoot the suspects in court.  He injures a police officer and is sent to jail, where he kills himself.

Holbrook informs Douglas he presides in his own court (along with a few other veteran and highly respected judges); in his own words, “a court of last resort”, wherein they review cases of justice denied, and criminals escaping sentencing and punishment in exemplar the test cases I described. Once guilt is determined, they carry out sentencing (essentially a contract hit-man they retain for vigilante-style executions). This is sort-of like a Supreme Court with handguns and silencers. The Star Chamber derives it’s title from “… an English court of law which sat at the royal Palace of Westminster.” Penalties were swift and judgment was absolute. Due to the recent suicide of a celebrated judge (and a member of their chamber), a chair needs to be filled. Douglas takes the job, and his first order of business is to punish the two scumbags who walked.

Now we get to the tricky part. A car thief named Flowers (hilarious DeWayne Jessie) is apprehended, and in order to cop a plea, he provides information to obsessive Inspector Yaphet Kotto about the van Calfa and Regalbuto used. Apparently it was lent out to a trio of criminals for nefarious purposes, including solicitation, kidnapping, and child pornography. This tidbit exonerates the two scumbags from that particular crime. Unfortunately, the order has already gone down for their sentencing, and Michael Douglas is the only man willing and able to stop it. He appeals to the vigilante judges, but they tell him, essentially it’s out of their hands. The anonymity of the judges and their hit-man works both ways, so that neither party can admit culpability. Douglas doesn’t accept this, so he goes out on his own to warn the two before the hit-man can get to them first.

So The Star Chamber plays like a treatise of criminal justice and legal loopholes, but this is pure exploitation with regard to our fears (as taxpayers and unarmed civilians) about how this fragile yet powerful system can be manipulated by anybody with a set of law books. I’ve always enjoyed Peter Hyams’ work, from it’s silliest (Stay Tuned) to it’s scariest (Outland). Though he retained the services of Richard Hannah to shoot The Star Chamber, Hyams, a member of the A.S.C., generally shot most of his movies in addition to directing. There is some great handheld camera-work in this movie, and well-choreographed chase scenes. The Star Chamber starts clean and polished and ends up grimy and sweaty. This is a revenge fantasy in the Dirty Harry mold, replete with reactionary/conservative ideology (a revelatory scene later in the film has the judges informing Michael Douglas that Calfa and Regalbuto are scum and should be executed anyway). Nobody’s giving peace and love a chance in this film, and I love it!

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month. Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.

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