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Assault on Precinct 13
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Assault on Precinct 13

Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) is not John Carpenter's first feature--he made his debut with Dark Star (1974), a college project he began at USC with fellow student Dan O'Bannon and expanded for theatrical distribution--but it is Carpenter's first real solo outing. As writer and director, it's his project from start to finish, and you can see it as a transition picture, between the hungry young student filmmaker of Dark Star, tossing together a project on a shoestring with friends, and the assured, commanding young professional of Halloween (1978) crafting a fully-realized feature with the control of a master storyteller. Assault on Precinct 13 is where he announces his influences, finds his strengths, and begins to develop his style.

Ostensibly an urban crime thriller of street gangs gone wild, Assault on Precinct 13 is a siege picture, a cross between a Howard Hawks western and a horror film. The model for the screenplay came from Hawks' 1959 classic Rio Bravo, specifically the setting of a small group of lawmen and civilians holed up in a sheriff's office under siege from a gang of gunfighters. "Assault on Precinct 13 came together very quickly," Carpenter told Robert C. Cumbow. "An investor from Philadelphia had some money and said, 'Let's make a movie.' And I said, 'Let's go,' and I wrote the script in eight days. I wanted to do a western, but I wasn't able to do a western, and it was the closest thing to it." For Assault, Carpenter transforms the sheriff's office into a small police station in a desolate, nearly abandoned Los Angeles neighborhood. The station is in the process of being shut down while the personnel is being transferred to a new station across town, and this practically abandoned building becomes the fort where a group of cops, criminals, civilians and office workers barricade themselves against an attack by a nearly faceless gang.

George Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968) is the other major influence on the film, as Carpenter has noted in numerous interviews. The attack is an act of revenge by a local multi-ethnic gang in retribution for the massacre of its members by vigilante cops, but as far as our heroes are concerned, it comes without explanation. The gang is almost mindlessly driven to attack, like the zombies of Night of the Living Dead, but unlike Romero's undead this force has a unity. They are like worker ants in a colony swarming its prey, unfazed by wounds or comrades falling dead around them as they sacrifice themselves for the group, not individuals so much as cells in a single mass organism working as a unit for a single goal. That single-minded purity of focus recurs through such subsequent Carpenter films as Halloween, The Thing (1982), and Prince of Darkness (1987), among others.

Austin Stoker plays the newly-promoted Police Lieutenant Ethan Bishop, who suddenly finds himself taking command during what is essentially a siege, and Darwin Joston is Napoleon Wilson, a convicted killer being transferred to Death Row who ends up taking refuge in the station and teams up with Bishop to hold off the assault. Where Bishop is the committed man in an impossible situation who rises to the challenge, Wilson is the good bad man with a dry sense of humor, the first draft of a character that will return in more confident and engaging form in Escape from New York (1981) as Snake Plissken.

Darwin Joston was actually a neighbor of Carpenter's who he thought would make a charismatic anti-hero. Austin Stoker remembers that it was Joston, a friend and colleague in his actor's workshop, who suggested him to Carpenter. Stoker had starred in Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973) and Sheba Baby (1975) and played a police detective in Abby (1974) and Carpenter had seen him on the screen. He arranged a lunch meeting and gave him the role without even an audition. Nancy Loomis, who made her film debut as the station receptionist (and doubled as wardrobe mistress), went on to roles in Halloween and The Fog (1980), and Charles Cyphers, who plays Starker, went on to play the Sheriff in Halloween, Sam Phillips in Carpenter's TV movie Elvis (1979), and the Secretary of State in Escape from New York, among other Carpenter films. There were no stars in the cast but Henry Brandon, who has a small role as the police officer assigned to the station on its last night, whose career had spanned over fifty years. It was mostly in small roles but he earned cult status playing Chief Cicatriz, aka Scar, in John Ford's The Searchers (1956). Carpenter said he simply saw him in a casting file and said, "I want to cast him immediately."

Carpenter pieced together the visual landscape from numerous locations around Los Angeles. He used the Venice Police Station, which had been shut down and left standing vacant, for the exteriors, intercut with South Central Los Angeles for the surrounding neighborhood. The interior of the police station was constructed on a sound stage. With a relatively small budget (about $100,000) and a 25-day shooting schedule, Carpenter faced his first professional production (Dark Star was made over the course of years while he was a film student). He also edited the film himself, using the pseudonym John T. Chance as tribute to Rio Bravo (it's the name of John Wayne's character), and composed and performed the score on synthesizer, still a relatively novel electronic instrument in 1976. And Carpenter shot the film in Panavision, his first foray into what would became his format of choice. The widescreen frame emphasizes the emptiness of the desolate locations and the sense of isolation of the characters.

Assault on Precinct 13 is filled with references to Rio Bravo and his other influences. Bishop and Napoleon (freed from his cell as the gang members attack) toss guns and comments back and forth under fire, just like John Wayne and Dean Martin in Rio Bravo, and Napoleon's constant refrain "Got a smoke" (sharing cigarettes is the defining currency of friendship in Hawks films) finally gets one from Leigh (Laurie Zimmer), the station's administrator and the film's answer to the Hawks woman. A reference to "sunspotting" on a radio newscast calls out Night of the Living Dead and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Napoleon Wilson borrows a line from Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West when he tells a cop, "A man told me, 'You've got something to do with death'."

Carpenter kept much of the violence and spectacle off screen, suggested in fragments or hidden in shadow or simply described by the characters hiding out in the station, and saved his budget for a few complicated, carefully choreographed action sequences. But the seriousness of the threat is established early on with the gruesome massacre and the startling murder of a child and the film was threatened with an X-rating by the MPAA unless he removed the latter scene. Carpenter confessed years later that he got around the issue by cutting the scene on the print screened for the ratings board and then leaving it in the release prints.

It was not a financial success in the U.S. but it found an audience in England and Europe, and gave Carpenter the cache and confidence to make Halloween, which became the most successful independent feature of all time. It gave Assault on Precinct 13 a new lease on life and attention from American film critics, including a belated review in the New York Times. Vincent Canby praised the film and its director: "Mr. Carpenter is an extremely resourceful director whose ability to construct films entirely out of action and movement suggests that he may one day be a director to rank with Don Siegel." On that score, he was quite correct.

Sources:
Order in the Universe: The Films of John Carpenter, Robert C. Cumbow. Scarecrow Press, 2000.
"Q&A with John Carpenter and Austin Stoker," Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood, January 25, 2002.
"Bishop Under Siege: An Interview with Austin Stoker," Assault on Precinct 13: Collector's Edition Blu-ray. Shout! Factory, 2013.
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By Sean Axmaker

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