SIEGE MENTALITY: ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 (1976)

November 19, 2013

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The violence in Assault on Precinct 13 is a result of simple geometry. Director and writer John Carpenter sets up four narrative lines that collide at a soon-to-be-shut-down police station. Taking advantage of the wide Panavision frame, Carpenter emphasizes horizontals, from long shotgun barrels to threatening gang members strung out across a darkened road like holes in a belt. This nearly wordless group of thugs has the station surrounded, its cowering occupants an uninspiring group of rookie cops, wounded secretaries and wiseass convicts. Enclosed and in the dark, these panicked heroes learn how to turn the space to their advantage, choking off the gang’s freedom of horizontal movement and funneling them into a narrow chamber that evens the odds. Reducing the action film to its basic elements, Assault on Precinct 13 still packs the force of a blunt object to the cranium. The textured transfer on the new Blu-Ray, out today from Shout! Factory, is the ideal way to re-acquaint yourself with its concussive impact.

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Carpenter’s first feature, the sci-fi comedy Dark Star, had started as a student film project during his time at USC, completed in stops and starts when money became available. Assault marked his professional debut, with a full cast and crew to go along with producer demands. The reported budget was $100,000, and he had twenty-five days to shoot it in. Originally titled “The Anderson Alamo”,  Assault was his homage to Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo (1959). Unable to afford an editor, Carpenter cut the film himself, using the pseudonym “John T. Chance”, the name of John Wayne’s character in the Hawks Western. Without the resources or the acting talent at Hawks’ disposal, Carpenter reduces the earlier film’s leisurely story to its central siege sequence. John Wayne, , Dean Martin, Walter Brennan and Ricky Nelson hole up in the one-horse town’s prison to guard inmate Claude Akins, whose land-grabbing brother has sent his hired goons to break him out. The prison interior becomes a proving ground, where Martin battles his alcoholism and Nelson enters maturity, and Carpenter uses Precinct 13 to similar effect. Outside of the station house all the characters are ciphers, while inside their inner lives begin to leak out.

The four narrative strands are: Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker) is a rookie cop sent to oversee the shutdown of Precinct 13; a local gang, who has stolen a large cache of weapons, stalks through the town; a father and daughter innocently prepare for their day; three convicts are being transported through town on a bus. A sick prisoner lands the bus at Precinct 13, while the father is chased in as well, as the only eyewitness to a cold-blooded murder. Shot in various locations in Los Angeles, from Watts to North Hollywood, the exteriors are wincingly bright, exposing vice in every shot. A bulbous warden lands a blow at cuffed inmate Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston) before he is transferred, while the silent gang commits random acts of violence. Anarchy is in the air.

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Inside Precicnt 13, a Hawskian world blooms. Bishop is eager to honor and serve the city, despite being born black in the underprivileged neighborhood of the district. He’s cool and calm as the facade of law and order comes crumbling down around him. He’s aided by Leigh (Laurie Zimmer) a world-weary secretary who matches wits with Napoleon – a convicted murderer with a deadpan retort to every calamity, and who is always in search of a smoke. Carpenter fans the erotic flare between Napoleon and Leigh with moves from To Have and Have Not, the Hawks noir with Bogie and Bacall from 1944. The actors are limited in range, but Carpenter gets Laurie Zimmer to speak in a low, husky monotone, channeling Bacall’s slinky slow motion delivery. She is the only one able to puncture Napoleon’s armor of distanced cool. When she lights his cigarette with a flick of her wrist, a glimmer of recognition flashes across his face. She is, like him, a guarded loner.

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There is not much time for flirtation in Assault, with death literally at the door, so Napoleon fatalistically brushes off their attraction with a joke:  “In my situation, days are like women – each one’s so damn precious, but they all end up leaving you.” Then the bullets start quietly flying out of the gang’s silencers, and the group begins to get comfortable with the idea of death. It creeps closer as the gang pushes them into the basement, their last stand dependent on a  few bullets and a tank of gas. This finale borrows from The Thing From Another World (1951), a favorite from Carpenter’s childhood that Hawks produced (and likely directed, despite being credited to Christian Nyby). Where that film climaxes with its vegetal alien stumbling on fire through a cloistered hallway, Assault does the same with a multi-cultural group of gangland killers in the cellar of a police precinct. While on the streets outside they have every angle covered, down in the depths they are funneled into a shooting gallery. The more cramped Carpenter’s frames become, the more the attackers lose their edge. At this point all the narrative lines converge into one final conflagration.

Assault on Precinct 13, furtively released in the United States as a rote exploitation item, was rapturously received in England. Carpenter became the subject of an adulatory profile in Time Out London by Tony Rayns and Scott Meek in March, 1978, months before Halloween made him a household name. Clearly frustrated at a lack of studio support, Carpenter makes complaints that still ring true today: “The money has gone way up, and a lot fewer movies are getting made. And it’s because so much money is being gambled on individual films that so many hands get to finger each project. I wonder how many films that are personal to a director are going to be made in the years to come.” Carpenter had his run, and is now back to struggling to get projects off the ground. His last feature was the severely underrated The Ward (2011, reviewed here), for which the closing lines of the Time Out London piece would be apt: “Check out for yourself what America doesn’t know it’s missing.”

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