Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)

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Director/Screenwriter: John Carpenter

By Roderick Heath

In the dark alleys of a modern cityscape, war is brewing. Heavily armed gang members stalk the dark, only to be spotlighted and coldly massacred by policemen, the bringers of death rendered dehumanised figures as the camera elides their faces and concentrates instead on their hands and weapons. In the following hours, the warlords of the gang, a peculiar multiracial confederacy known as Street Thunder, perform a blutbruderschaft rite, pooling their red blood in a bowl. They head out into a blandly shabby suburbia looking for any event, any victim, that will serve as a spark for a snowballing confrontation with authority, and give an excuse for an all-consuming mission of destruction. We’re where The Spook That Sat By The Door (1973) left off, the ghettos armed and battling the official death squads. This time, though, the institutional black man isn’t quite so outmatched. Late afternoon of the following day sees newly promoted police lieutenant Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker) of the Highway Patrol assigned to take command at Precinct 5, Division 13, a police station in his own one-time home suburb of Anderson, a notoriously wretched area of Los Angeles.
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The station is closing down, a hollowed-out shell of institutional function with faintly wistful Art Deco curlicues that hint at the ambitions of a different age, left out in the urban wilderness as the tides of civilisation retreat a few blocks. In the station, Bishop encounters the station’s curt departing Captain (James Jeter), and his crew for the shift: weary desk clerk Chaney (Henry Brandon), and office stalwarts Leigh (Laurie Zimmer) and Julie (Nancy Loomis). None of them are happy about holding the fort for the night, least of all Bishop, whose grimaces give away his frustration at being handed such a chickenshit assignment for his first job as a lieutenant. Two intersecting parties will decide the course of the day and night. A father, Lawson (Martin West), and his young daughter Kathy (Kim Richards) drive into Anderson to pluck his elderly mother from her home in the decaying neighbourhood to come and live with them.
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A busload of prisoners, including a killer headed for Death Row, Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston), is put in the charge of Strayker (Charles Cyphers) to be taken to a state prison. Wilson is an enigma to the lawmen, fending off questions about his motives in some mysterious killings and seemingly ready to proceed to death row with stoic composure. But he’s sure to pay back his abusive jailer (John J. Fox) by contriving to trip him with his chains before boarding the bus. One of the passengers for the big house is sick, obliging Strayker to find a safe harbour long enough to fetch a doctor, so he chooses the Division 13 station to stop at. A hell of a time to make a stop. The warlords of Street Thunder, one white (Frank Doubleday), one Chicano (Gilbert De la Pena), one Oriental (Al Nakauchi), and one black (James Johnson), gather with arms to seek out the right stage for a clarion killing, a ritual that seeks its single, perfect sacrifice.
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Much like his hero Bishop, John Carpenter was a man trying to get somewhere when he made Assault on Precinct 13, one feeling the pinch of frustration. This was to be his second released feature, and his first truly professional effort, following the theatrical release of Dark Star (1974), the film he and fellow film students at UCLA including Dan O’Bannon had pieced together for a pittance. One of its makers later laughingly described the result as the best student movie ever made and the worst theatrical release. Afraid he might never get a shot at directing again Carpenter had set to work busily writing scripts, some of which were produced, including as Irvin Kershner’s Eyes of Laura Mars (1978). Carpenter was particularly eager to make a Western, like many young filmmakers of the generation pejoratively labelled the Movie Brats, but that genre was entering its long twilight. So Carpenter had the bright idea of making one in a contemporary setting, boiled down to vistas of sun-baked tar and ruddy orange sunsets over a concrete wasteland descending into grainy dark. This wasn’t entirely a new idea. Don Siegel had purveyed the same notion with a straight-arrow import for 1971’s Dirty Harry. Martin Scorsese was thinking the same way about his release of the same year, Taxi Driver (1976), but where his approach was neurotic and interiorised, Carpenter attempted to keep the ritualised form intact and render the modern concerns more implicit.
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Assault on Precinct 13 signalled Carptner’s real arrival as a director of force on the low-budget film scene, although its report would be largely drowned out by the colossal success of his follow-up, Halloween, two years later. Assault on Precinct 13 is however certainly one of Carpenter’s best films, perhaps even the best in a pound-for-pound sense. Not that Carpenter was subtle at this stage of his career about drawing on the influence of films he loved. Much like he’d do with Mario Bava and Dario Argento on Halloween, here he transposed Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo (1959) into a modern setting, and mixed in a little of Night of the Living Dead (1968), which some Hitchcock and Sergio Leone references thrown in. Wilson drops quotes from Once Upon A Time in the West (1968) with a teacher who told him he was “something to do with death” and promise to explain what he’s about at the moment of dying. Cicatriz himself is the desk clerk. Bishop’s anecdote about a fateful childhood attempt to scare him straight was borrowed from a story Hitchcock liked to tell about himself. He names his heroine after Leigh Brackett, screenwriter of Rio Bravo and a slew of great films. He cast Stoker as Bishop in emulation of George Romero’s similar ploy, although where Romero had anticipated the nascent Blaxploitation genre, Carpenter was riding the tail end of the wave, contemplating the harsh scene of the post-Civil Rights and liberationist high.
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Carpenter’s attuning of his framing to environment is the stuff of film school classes throughout, from Bishop’s early drive through the streets of Anderson, a zone of horizontals where cars cruise straight flat as trains and there seems to be nowhere to hide from the baking midday sun, the buildings looming as taciturn and isolate as John Ford’s Monument Valley outcrops. Later, when the warlords cruise the same streets, the great, fat, lengthy silencer on a machine gun slides out of the car window and extends right across the widescreen frame, mimicking the horizon. This manages to be at once one of Carpenter’s most menacing shots and one of his most blackly humorous, the threat of militarised death immediately looming over anyone in range note with deadpan calm. Whilst the latter part of the film unfolds like a familiar war movie, this section clearly anticipates the gamesmanship of Halloween: the doped-up warlords are as alien and implacable as Michael Myers and arbitrary in their predations, but also armed with a very specific ideal, a faith that bringing terror and bloodshed to the world will shock it into some new state of awareness. So they drive around the blocks searching for the right moving target. The tense, cagey ice cream man (Peter Bruni) who’s plainly spent a lifetime bringing tinny, jaunty charm and sweets to kids around this neighbourhood even as he knows damn well what sicknesses its adults are cultivating, is wary enough to finger his revolver whenever he sees the warlords’ car drive by.
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Carpenter serves up his central, definitive shock early on. As her daddy tries to use a pay phone to get directions, Kathy walks up the parked ice cream van to make an order. The driver anxiously waits until the warlords’ car is out of sight, before serving her. But the warlords have doubled back, and the white warlord toys with shooting the ice cream man, inserting the barrel of a pistol into his mouth but seeming disappointed by his petrified lack of resistance. Ah, but here comes Kathy doubling back to swap her regular vanilla for vanilla twist; in a moment the white ice cream and golden locks are smeared with brilliant red, and goodnight Kathy. Even in the ruder climes of mid-’70s exploitation film, what balls it took to pull that off. Halloween’s famous punch-line to its opening scene, revealing Michael Myers as a child utterly given over to icy slaughter, and his grown self’s disinterest in killing kids, could well be Carpenter’s fiendish idea of payback as well as a mea culpa to all the shocked grindhouse patrons. Lawson doesn’t know what’s happened, as all the gang’s guns have silencers, until he returns to see his daughter dead and the drier expiring on the tar. The driver manages to tell Lawson about his gun in the van, so Lawson takes the gun and jumps in his car, pursuing the warlords through the streets. Forcing the warlords to pull over, Lawson’s focused rage proves an edge deadlier than the white warlord’s drugged-up berserker disinterest: Lawson guns down the warlord, and flees his comrades in stark terror.
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The closest safe harbour is, of course, Bishop’s new command. Lawson makes it to the station and collapses, gasping out vague explanations before folding up in a catatonic ball. Chaney ventures outside to see what he was running from, only to collapse on the lawn, assumed at first to be a pratfall, only for Bishop to venture out after him and very quickly retreat under a hail of bullets. The siege has begun. Carpenter’s poles of civilisation are blocs of anonymous drones dedicated to conflict, and the rest of the poor bastards caught between them, and he throws into its titular besieged outpost a cubic set of archetypes at war with a relentless, faceless enemy representing unleashed chaos: Cool Outlaw, Tough Woman, Flailing Patriarch, Aspiring Black Man. Street Thunder actualise a boogeyman of common imagining, the underclasses of the urban landscape uniting into a powerful and marauding force: lucky for the world their project is tinged with drug-induced nihilism. The white warlord’s cold, implacable face is a layer of whitewash away from Michael Myers’ incarnation of primal dread. The zombie-like implacability of the gang members also anticipates Carpenter’s radical-edged reconstruction of Hawks’ Thing from another world as a metamorphic gestalt in his 1982 remake, gathering everything into itself. Ripe for a multitude of interpretations, from a commentary on the anonymous quality of poverty and social exclusion to the state of modernity threatening old school hard-won individuality such as Carpenter’s heroes wield.
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Whilst mashing together his own favourite films, Carpenter is also rapidly developing his own private mythos. His uneasy feelings about authority, mediated by making the lawman another form of outsider, his instinctual fascination for the outlaw, complicated an apparent, blithe lack of compunction about working against all civilised rules. Wilson is the blueprint for Escape from New York’s (1981) Snake Plissken and Ghosts of Mars (2001) Desolation Williams, the superlative hard-ass maverick, outside the law, “out of time and out of luck.” Bishop is trying real hard to be the shepherd, but his annoyed grimaces and barely constrained irritation give away his rueful realisation his promotion hasn’t yet rescued him from patronising: “That sure got around fast,” he comments when the departing Captain lets slip he knows it’s Bishop’s first day out with his new insignia. “Black?” Leigh asks him, meaning coffee, but she’s answered with his immortal quip, “For over thirty years.” A couple of years earlier Stoker had appeared in Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973) where he played the voice of intelligent and conscientious humanity speaking up for itself in the face of disenfranchising; here he’s the guy tolerating every slight for the sake of a project started when, in his own description, he walked out of Anderson by his own volition. Thomas Wolfe was right; you can’t go home again, as Bishop finds the locals are now packing high velocity weapons.
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Strayker and his menagerie arrive, only to find the station seeming to be quickly going to the dogs as the phones cut out, so Strayker contemptuously decides to move on, only to be cut down along with his underlings by the gang’s bullets. Wilson finishes up trapped under one of his dead prisoner pals and need Bishop to come haul him out. Only Wilson and Wells (Tony Burton) are left from the bus, bundled into holding cells and left to stew whilst Bishop and the two office workers try to work out what the hell’s happening. Sniper bullets start punching through the windows, shattering the glass, only the sound of breaking glass to announce the fusillade, all racket of gunfire perversely lacking, only George Washington’s youthful fetish for the sweet song of the whizzing bullet itself. This is a flourish Carpenter wields with particular cunning, threat without source, deadliness without catharsis, locked in a nightmare zone where the familiar rules of life (and movies) are suspended. Then come the invaders, dark figures in the windows, incarnations of blank threat. Guns are few, ammunition low. The heaviest weapon on hand is a pump-action shotgun the Captain was seen locking up in a chest earlier with import in castrating Bishop.
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The two women almost see to be in a uniform of their own, long skirts, wool sweaters, although character is soon divergent: Leigh is hardy and taciturn, Julie fretful and brittle, soon suggesting they haul Lawson out to please the besiegers and desperately hoping they’re gone when the bullets cease. No, they come breaking in the back door as Leigh goes to check on the two prisoners, a bullet tearing a groove in her upper arm. Leigh stays cool and waits until the gun-wielding thug gets close, then socks him in the face with the cell keys before a kick to the balls. And that’s how the modern action heroine was born, kids. Wilson helps her defeat the next goon, and Bishop manages to pass him the shotgun in time to blast away a few more suckers. Wilson’s eye gleam with ferocious glee as he comprehends the chance gifted him, but immediately unleashes on the next gang members to attack: they’re no friend to him or Wells. It took Seijun Suzuki to make a film called Pistol Opera, but Carpenter made it first, as he turns the central sequence of gunplay, as Bishop, Leigh, Wells, and Wilson battle off their persecutors, into a mischievous piece of near-musical sonic orchestration, the tempo of gunfire speeding up and gaining rhythm.
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Zimmer made only a handful of films before she quit acting, supposedly ill-at-ease in her performances, despite Carpenter’s encouragement. It was a real loss, as her excellence here as the ever-so-cool yet subtly sensitive Leigh readily matches Stoker’s poise and Joston’s squirrely charisma, the water light of extreme world-weariness and fried emotional reflexes in her eyes even as she boots bad guys in the bollocks and swaps charged glances with Wilson as she lights his cigarette. Leigh and Wilson seem magnetically attracted from first glance, a cosmic joke played on them both. Leigh’s coup comes as she talks the antsy Wells out of a planned dash for freedom, taunting him with the certainty of his death as he holds a gun on her, only to realise his gun’s not actually loaded. Julie is already dead, killed without anyone to notice during the furious battle. Wells has a plan – “It’s called ‘Save-Ass’” Soon after Leigh talks him out of it it’s proposed someone try to sneak out of the building via a drainpipe linked to the basement, get to a parked car, and race off to the nearest phone box. “What’s the difference between this and what I was gonna do ten minutes ago?” Wells demands. He and Wilson go head to head in a loaded game of potato to see who’ll be it. Wells expects to lose. He does. Out he goes, and manages to escape the drain and hotwire the car without flaw. He races up the road and halts before the phone box. But one of the gang members has been waiting on the back seat for such a ploy; he sits up and shoots Wells through the head.
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Wells and Julie are the designated victims of course, the ones just little less stoic, a little lacking in sangfroid, although their frailty is of course perfectly human. Part of the specific power of Assault on Precinct 13 lies in the way it meets all criteria for a hard-charging pulp movie but retains a sense of mortality and its meaning for all its characters (save the gang members, but fuck those guys anyway), from Kathy to Julie to Wells, as Bishop and his pick-up posse fight nominally to protect Lawson. There’s real power in the repeated gesture of jackets being draped over the dead Kathy and Julie, pathetic victims of forces brewed on a great scale. Early in the film Kathy proposes to her father they ask directions from a cop because her teacher told her the police are there to help, only to be told by her father that her teacher’s “never taken any big steps outside the sixth grade.” The film’s opening evokes ruthless brutality in the name of state security, but by the end it’s allowed a tacit faith in the ideal of the civic guardian, so long as that guardian is an actual representative of the community he’s policing. Bishop is post-Blaxploitation hero, a man seeking to redefine institutions according to his identity rather than the other way round, whilst still contending with all the compromise, frustration, and occasional terror that comes with such a struggle. Leigh is the Hawksian one-of-the-boys ladies dragged out into the glare of the Women’s Lib sun, hardy, self-sufficient, mature, able to take care of herself as much as anyone in this situation can. By contrast the gang members engage in an act of nihilistic intent, a death-dream invocation.
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Meantime Carpenter records the bristling, protoplasmic mass of the new social landscape in his widescreen frames within the tight, rectilinear assurances of the station architecture, and his own frames, characters huddling together, breaking apart, forming and reforming their alliances. Present straits aren’t so different from the schoolyard, confirmed during Wilson and Wells’ potato bout. Childhood tends to haunt the characters, from Bishop’s recollections of being scared straight to Wilson’s opposite experience of preordained fate: everyone’s the product of something that puts them on a path, and Carpenter’s ultimate, humanist idea is that everyone retains an aspect of the heroic in them, despite the opinion of Bishop’s commander that “there aren’t any heroes anymore,” often suppressed and sometimes honed by circumstance. Assault on Precinct 13 is a way station in Carpenter’s slyly evolving variety of social mindfulness in genre cinema, coming just after Dark Star, which sent up the Domino Theory and the idea of the nuclear deterrent, the Domino Theory, and the technocratic subservience of modern life in general, and long before Escape from L.A. ’s (1997) raw disgust and final push-the-button nihilism. It would be easy to dismiss Street Thunder as a conveniently literalised version of urban angst, except that Carpenter pointedly removes sectarian meaning from their looming vision by making them multiracial, the warlords each designated by specific, cliché modes of dress – the white warlord and his black singlet, the Chicano with his Che-like garb – and their weapons of choice. Urban warfare is a blend of state-of-the-art weaponry and down-and-dirty tribal warfare, cars becoming rolling barricades.
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Two cops spend the night circling around the precinct in disorientation, sent out to chase down the peals of gunfire reported by houses near the station but cannot find. Telephone men have vanished. A black hole might as well have opened in this corner of the city. There’s a great if casual joke in the plight of the cops who can’t find anything wrong in the middle of a warzone, one that Carpenter would parse again in his work, like in The Fog (1981) where the need to keep the news going out is an urgent theme in the midst of a corrupt and oblivious community, and They Live (1988) where the act of actually penetrating a web of distraction to perceive truth is turned into an overtly political act, and the difficulty of piecing together coherent narrative in the face of crisis in Ghosts of Mars. The evocation of paranoid isolation would prove a Carpenter specialty in his early films, where he’d turn his straitened budgets and productions to his advantage in creating precisely described pockets of reality. The absurdist approach to this in Dark Star, where his shaggy astronauts were forced to wander the universe, gave way here to a tighter, less meditative but no less anxious sense of characters dangling on the end of life’s long rope.
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One of my favourite moments in the film comes when Lawson tries to alert the police in a phone booth out in some wasteground after gunning down the white warlord, only to see his fellows marching out of the dark: the confrontation seems to be taking place at the end of the universe, the last survivors of humankind battling for the one bloc of light left. One indelible aspect of the film’s texture is Carpenter’s electronic music score, performed on a bank of early synthesisers with the film’s art director Tommy Lee Wallace, who would become one of Carpenter’s regular collaborators (another, Debra Hill, helped out as an uncredited editor). Carpenter took a lot of licence from Lalo Schifrin’s score for Dirty Harry, but he finished up creating something original enough that it had a deep impact not just on Carpenter’s own film style, but on the emerging forms of electronic music and hip hop. Electronic drones declare the presence and attack of the gang members, thudding drum beats with a woozy groove sustain suspense, synthesiser strains wail in the dark like police sirens and make a repetitive cracking sound like a burst tyre flapping against asphalt. Plaintive declarations from an electric piano evoke Bishop’s survey of his old neighbourhood at sunset and recurs as characters survey the dead and face the fallout of a night of carnage.
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Carpenter finally lands his most definite nod to Hawks as he appropriates Rio Bravo’s famous blood-in-the-glass scene: the two cops pull over in frustration only to hear what might be rain on the roof, only for one to get out and realise the rain is actually dripping blood, trickling down from the dead body of a murdered telephone repairman, hanging with arms splayed a grotesque wind chime. Meanwhile Bishop, Wilson, and Leigh have their backs to the wall, literally. They retreat into the station’s basement for their last hope of standing off a mass charge along with their catatonic charge Lawson. Bishop banks all on his marksmanship, planning a Viking funeral for the gang members by igniting some acetylene tanks whilst the trio shelter behind a broken sign that reads, hilariously, SUPPOR YOUR LOC POLIC. The traditional last gallant ending for siege dramas is raised as Leigh suggests she keep the last two bullets in her gun for herself and Wilson; “Save ‘em for the first two assholes who come through that vent,” Wilson instructs. “There are two things a man should never run from,” he comments, the first being a wounded man and the unspoken second acknowledged only in the long gaze held between him and Leigh.
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The final charge of the gang members sees Bishop rising to the status of classic American hero, Hawkeye, the deadly shot and frontier tamer, uniting two hitherto barely related varieties of American iconography. “Can’t argue with a confident man,” Wilson notes repeatedly and with increasing sarcasm as his shots go wild, but at last one hits and the hallway explodes in boiling flame. The cavalry arrive at last, a squadron of police cars screeching to a halt outside, cops pouring into the desolated station and coming across the three combatants still ready to fight on with any weapon at hand, only for the smoke to slowly clear and reveal nominal allies rather than more foes, our heroes slowly easing out of their defensive postures. Carpenter gives them their moments to walk out of the movie like from a stage, Leigh alone and integral, needing no theatrics of injury despite being battle-wounded. She’s followed by Wilson and Bishop together: “You’re pretty fancy Wilson,” the cop grants. “I have my moments,” Wilson replies, and out they march That’s Carpenter’s notion of Elysium – cop and criminal, black guy and white, grinning at each-other and walking out of hell. He’d stick them both back in there for The Thing and They Live. The urban Nibelungenlied is over, but every myth is told and retold, each time a little differently.

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