ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 (1976): Carpenter Lets His Inner Hawks Fly

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.

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