The Star Chamber

A man has robbed and killed five women. The police obtain the gun with his fingerprints on it and finally capture him and obtain his confession. They could not legally search the garbage pail in which the gun was hidden (it was his property), so they waited until the garbage collectors had hauled the refuse into the truck before they took the gun as evidence. But the case is thrown out on a technicality: the gun was taken before the garbage had been mixed with other refuse in the truck rather than after. The man goes free and kills again. Then a man who has captured, tortured, and killed several children is similarly released. The father of one of the murdered children tries to shoot the killer in the courtroom and goes to prison for it; but the killer is released and soon kills again. These events are dramatically set forth in The Star Chamber.

These verdicts disturb the judge (Michael Douglas), but he has no option if he is to follow the law. If he didn't let the killer loose, the Superior Court would reverse his decision anyway. But a chance remark by another judge (Hal Holbrook) that he at least does something about these things intrigues Douglas, and finally he is admitted to a select group of judges who secretly carry out their own private sentences on such aggressors.

The viewer is torn: on the one hand, these criminals should clearly have been sentenced; on the other hand, if you take justice into your own hands, you go by no legally specified rules. You might even kill the wrong man. This is what happens in one instance in the film, which leads Douglas into a heroic although dangerous attempt on his own to right the wrong.

The film is a dramatic indictment of the legal system. But no alternative is presented, such as that of many European courts, which admit all evidence, no matter how acquired, and then indict those who gather it illegally. And like many propaganda films, The Star Chamber is so single-minded an attack that the cards appear to be stacked: one wonders whether most real-life cases are as open-and-shut as these. Thus the final effect is less than it would otherwise have been, even though this is a serious film dealing with an important legal problem.

Risky Business

A surprise hit, and in some respects a deserved one, Risky Business owes much of its success to the main character, Tom Cruise (Endless Love, Taps, The Outsiders), who plays the high-school senior whose parents are away for a few weeks, leaving him alone in the house. The problems begin when he answers a phone ad, bringing a professional prostitute into the house; still naive, he leaves her alone there, only to find on his return that she has robbed the place. He finds her, but he likes her too much to take any action. Soon she has all her friends moved in, whoring with his male friends, and he himself turns entrepreneur and institutes a call service that makes him lots of money—which he loses to her angered pimp.

Most of the film's effects, however, come from the literate script, the tightly woven story, and the verve and élan with which the whole thing is brought off. One note that may jar academicians is the principal character's getting into Princeton University in spite of having flunked his preliminary exams, simply because he introduces the university's representative to one of the hookers.

The film may be construed as a defense of free enterprise, albeit of a somewhat offbeat variety. But more importantly it is a story of an adolescent's suddenly coming of age, with a series of incidents that could not have been explicitly shown on a movie screen even a decade ago.

The Return of Martin Guerre

The Return of Martin Guerre is set in 16th-century France, with a highly credible rendering of the atmosphere and ambiance of the period. It is a fascinating story of an actual historical event.

A young man named Guerre marries, doesn't care for his wife and farm, and suddenly disappears. Nine years go by, and he equally suddenly reappears in the village—or is it instead someone resembling him? He recalls incidents by the hundreds that it would seem no one but Guerre could know; the townspeople instantly believe him, and so does his wife. But his personality is quite changed. Is he the real Martin Guerre? Doubts begin to arise; conflicting reports are heard. There is considerable evidence both ways, all of it so convincing that the viewer is inclined to change his mind each time new evidence arises. There is a fascinating series of courtroom scenes near the end, also based on historical records.

The whole thing is consummately acted and directed. There is not a moment when this film is not thoroughly absorbing.

John Hospers is the author of Understanding the Arts. He teaches philosophy at the University of Southern California.