#47 — Assault on Precinct 13 (John Carpenter, 1976)
By most assessments, the glory of American cinema in the nineteen-seventies was largely a result of major studios turning over significant dollars to daring directors who then spun that money into edgy masterpieces. The big entertainment companies were still reeling from the gradual but decisive collapse of the studio system and also didn’t yet know quite what to make of the new freedoms they had thanks to the abolition of the Production Code in favor of the ratings system. There’s a lot of truth to that, but it was also a time when the public appetite for boundary-testing visions was so strong that there were all sorts of filmmakers operating comparatively on the cheap and benefiting from similar freedoms. There’s unlikely greatness in that realm too.
John Carpenter had only made one chintzy, jokey sci-fi film, 1974’s Dark Star, when he was approached by some Philadelphia investors who were interested in hiring him to make the sort of exploitation movie that was routinely yielding healthy returns on minimal investment at the time. An unabashed fan of genre films, Carpenter wanted to make a western to pay tribute to the Howard Hawks films that he loved, but he found that the outlay of cash wasn’t sufficient. So instead, Carpenter simply borrowed and modified the basic plot of Hawks 1959 classic Rio Bravo, about a sheriff and his partners who defend the jailhouse from a band of hired gunslingers after arresting the no-good brother of a powerful local rancher. Carpenter transplanted the story from the bygone western frontier to the modern city; Los Angeles, to be precise. The result was Assault on Precinct 13.
In modernizing the story and placing in the inner city, Carpenter, perhaps inadvertently, drew a parallel between the Wild West and the surging crime rates and crumbling infrastructure of American urban centers. The film naturally, instinctively played on the fears of middle-class, upstanding citizens. Everything was falling apart and a band of thugs could step from the darkness into the wash of a flickering street light at any moment, immediately winning the battle of the night with the sheer force of their inherent menace. As the western was fading, structured as wounded, romantic elegies on the increasingly rare occasions they were made at all, Carpenter tapped into the muscular appeal of the genre by pointing out that the flying bullets and shattered glass weren’t necessarily a thing of the past.
In the film, the precinct house that winds up under siege is in its last hours, populated by a meager staff charged with closing it down for good. The few people left in the building the face off over a street gang that has shown up to besiege the station with gunfire in retaliation for earlier LAPD actions. A scrambled group of civil servants, remaining officers and lingering inmates all take up arms to defend the station and their own lives. Carpenter constructs the film with an feverish zest, pulling out every trick he can think of to prolong the action, such as making the gang especially adept at disguising the results of their mayhem so that any passing squad cars assume all is well.
As with many of the best films, there’s a sense that anything can happen and yet it’s all under tight, focused control. For a relative novice, Carpenter is notably sure-handed, dispensing the perfectly conceived beats of his story with inspired artfulness. Most of the characters are there primarily to serve the plot and the actors fall perfectly in line with blunted, direct performances, more concerned with getting from one storyline point to another than infusing an abundance of personality into the roles (with the exception of Tony Burton, who masters the tone of incredulous agitation). They clearly count on Carpenter to deliver the spirit and energy. It’s a good call, because he does it with great drive and style.