Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)

 


Joseph Kaufman, executive producer of Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13, wrote in a 1994 essay: “People have noticed that both Rio Bravo and Assault on Precinct 13 take place in besieged and isolated police stations, and that moral codes of behavior are important in the two films.” Kaufman is careful to point out that the Assault on Precinct 13 isn’t a literal imitation of Howard Hawks’s film, but there’s no mistaking the modern racial and sexual politics encoded in the distinctly western elements of Carpenter’s lean, mean, genre-defying masterpiece.


The film evokes an ever-shifting political pecking order when a cultural cross-section of society trapped inside a Los Angeles police station wages war against a violent street gang named Street Thunder. Blaxploitation star Austin Stoker stars as Bishop, a cop sent to babysit Precinct 13 as it closes shop. Tensions mount when cops shoot and kill six members of the gang. Members of Street Thunder go on a killing spree, senselessly (and fabulously) offing an ice-cream man (Peter Bruni) and the daughter (Kim Richards) of a man (Martin West) who’s obviously distrustful of authority. When the man avenges his daughter’s death and seeks refuge inside Precinct 13, Street Thunder descends on the station with menacing aplomb.

The dramatic set-up is very much that of a last-stand western, with a disparate group of characters forced to ally under threat from implacably hostile forces. Indeed, Carpenter originally wanted to make a western—Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo (1959) was an inspiration, but there are obvious resemblances to John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939) as well. In tone and feel, though, Assault on Precinct 13 is less a western than a horror movie (and certainly it has little in common with most police or crime films of the period, even if there is some connection to the then-popular vigilante genre). George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) was another starting point for Carpenter (and Romero in turn was a fan of Assault) and the influence is unmistakable.




The gang members swarm, they’re barely characterized, they barely speak, for much of the film we never see them close up, and their motivations are given only a cursory glance. They’re pure threat, pure otherness.

Assault on Precinct 13 begins as it means to continue, with Carpenter’s own famous five-note musical motif—reminiscent of John Williams’ shark theme for Jaws (1975)—repeated over and over on synth and drum machine as the plain, blood-red titles roll. Both the simplicity and the sense of foreboding set the mood for the movie to come.
A subtitle informs us that we’re in Anderson, California, “a Los Angeles ghetto”, and the action begins quickly with a group of gang members caught in a police ambush, shot dead apparently without being given a chance to surrender. A police chief heard on the news acknowledges that “law enforcement is being driven to deplorable extremes”, but insists that “the juvenile gang problem is completely out of control.”

Assault on Precinct 13 falls broadly into two parts. The first is devoted largely to establishing how all the key people end up at the police station where they’ll be besieged—not just its staff but also Lawson, the convicts, and their guards—and also to briefly introducing the gang and building a sense of menace.
Then, at almost exactly the halfway point, the gang’s onslaught on the police station, sparsely staffed and equipped because it is due to be permanently closed the next day, begins… and the mood changes dramatically. (The station is actually “Precinct 9 Division 13”, not Precinct 13, an odd anomaly usually attributed to the distributor thinking it made for a better title.) 
From here on Assault on Precinct 13 is almost entirely action. The pace is faster, and the lighting makes greater use of strong shadows.

The movie bombed in the US at first but the enthusiastic reception in Europe saved it from disappearing, and before long American critics and audiences also came to relish its unsettling qualities.









Popular Posts

SHOT BY KERN