Halloween was the movie that estab­lished John Carpenter’s career as a craft-con­scious wiz­ard of gen­re film­mak­ing but hind­sight has allowed gen­re fans to dis­cov­er that his per­son­al­i­ty as a film­mak­er was already firm­ly estab­lished with his pri­or film, Assault On Precinct 13.  This crafty, low-bud­get blend of sus­pense and action shows off all the styl­is­tic tics that would make Carpenter a beloved fig­ure with gen­re mavens while also pay­ing trib­ute in a big way to Carpenter’s own film­mak­ing hero, Howard Hawks.

Assault On Precinct 13 takes place on the final day of oper­a­tion for the title loca­tion, where most of the staff and equip­ment has been removed.  Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker) is sent there on his first day as a police lieu­tenant to preside over the night shift before its offi­cial clos­ing.  Things become a lit­tle tricky for Bishop when a bus trans­port­ing a few pris­on inmates has to stop there for med­ical rea­sons, a bus that hap­pens to con­tain noto­ri­ous death row inmate Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston).

AOP13-posHowever, those issues are small pota­toes com­pared to what’s hap­pen­ing around the precinct.  A nihilis­tic gang that has stolen a large cache of auto­mat­ic weapons is on the prowl.  They hap­pen to kill a lit­tle girl (Kim Richards!) who wit­ness­es one of their mur­ders, caus­ing her father (Martin West) to shoot one of their mem­bers in retal­i­a­tion.  When he retreats to the precinct for help, the gang vows to take him and every­one in the build­ing down.  This forces Bishop and Napoleon to join forces, along with help from precinct staffer Leigh (Laurie Zimmer) and con­vict Wells (Tony Burton).

Assault On Precinct 13 is often com­pared to the Howard Hawks clas­sic Rio Bravo, with good rea­son: both movies con­tain a mis­matched group of heroes, includ­ing a wom­an as resource­ful and brave as the men around them, who look past their dif­fer­ences to unite over a shared code of hon­or and save the day.  Fittingly, Carpenter’s treat­ment of this con­cept has an old-Hollywood sen­si­bil­i­ty in the snap­py repar­tee between the heroes and a care­ful sense of struc­ture that uses the first half of the film to build up the con­flict and estab­lish the char­ac­ters.

However, Assault On Precinct 13 isn’t just homage to Hawks as it also shows Carpenter devel­op­ing his own unique styl­is­tic tics.  He uses the Cinemascope frame to great effect, giv­ing this small-scale pro­duc­tion an almost Leone-sized sense of visu­al flair, and shows a knack for craft­ing sus­pense­ful stalk­ing sce­nes that would pay off a few years lat­er in Halloween.  It was also his first film with a self-com­posed elec­tron­ic score, using arid, min­i­mal­ist syn­the­siz­er tex­ture to give the action a son­ic pulse that sup­ports his punchy edit­ing.

Carpenter also shows his prowess with direct­ing an ensem­ble cast, a trait that would dis­tin­guish lat­er films like The Fog and Escape From New York.  He couldn’t yet afford the char­ac­ter actors that would pop­u­late his future work here but he gets strong, like­able per­for­mances from a lesser-known cast.  Stoker brings an instant­ly believ­able sense of decen­cy to his role that makes his char­ac­ter easy to root for and Joston gives a real crowd-pleaser of a per­for­mance as a lacon­ic, dry­ly humor­ous con­vict who fol­lows his own code.

Forgotten star­let Zimmer is also wor­thy of note as the female mem­ber of the team, bring­ing both believ­able tough­ness and a sul­try charm to the role.  She’d be out of films by the end of the decade and it’s a shame because her work here sug­gests she could have had a big­ger career.  Elsewhere, Carpenter fans will want to keep an eye out for one of his future reper­to­ry cast mem­bers, Charles Cyphers, who pops up briefly as a pris­on offi­cial.

In short, Assault On Precinct 13 wasn’t the hit it deserved to be but it was John Carpenter’s first clas­sic film.  If you loved Escape From New York or They Live, you can find the roots of that tight­ly craft­ed, pop­ulist action sen­si­bil­i­ty here.