Thursday, February 14, 2013

John Carpenter: Assault on Precinct 13

Throughout Carpenter’s career, he has stated that many of his films are just westerns disguised as something else, specifically westerns modeled after his idol Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo. Whether Carpenter uses aliens, gangsters, or characters in a Mars prison, the director has made no bones about the fact that Hawks’ film pervades much of his work. Perhaps the most overt of these versions of Rio Bravo is Carpenter’s second film, Assault on Precinct 13. The best of Carpenter’s “siege” films (or neo-westerns), Assault on Precinct 13 is a brusquely made B-movie; it doesn’t waste a single frame. Seeing it again recently made me realize how grossly underrated the film was in my memory. Boasting the best of the Carpenter-scored soundtracks and some really expertly edited action scenes, Assault on Precinct 13 is easily one of my favorites of the American auteur.

The story concerns a street gang by the name of Street Thunder declaring a blood oath on the local police force after multiple gang members were killed during a police ambush. Carpenter gives us this simple premise within the confines of one day as he time-stamps his film and cross-cuts between three different events that eventually converge on the location of a soon-to-be-closed precinct.  The first part of the day that Carpenter introduces is four members of Street Thunder out for a joy kill. In what is probably the film’s most infamous scene, one of the gang members kills a little girl standing outside an ice cream truck. Around the same time of day, Carpenter introduces another story thread with the closing of the local police precinct. Finally, the third event of the film that Carpenter follows is a bus being commanded by officer Starker (Charles Cyphers); the bus is has three inmates on their way to death row, but it must stop at the precinct to get medical help for one of the inmates.

By time-stamping the film, the events are more intense since we always have the feeling that something ominous is on the horizon (of course, this idea of “time is running out = tension” is owed to High Noon) for the soon-to-be-closed precinct as all of these converge on the precinct. Within the precinct is Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker), a newly promoted Lieutenant who sent on assignment to oversee the precinct during its last few hours of operation. The only people to accompany Bishop for these final hours are Captain Chaney (Henry Brandon) and the station's two secretaries, Leigh (Laurie Zimmer in the strong-willed, Hawksian female role) and Julie (Nancy Loomis). As the bus pulls into the precinct, and Bishop locks up the other two inmates — the most important being the sarcastic Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston) — the father of the slain girl shoots one of the Street Thunder members and runs from the gang towards the safety of the precinct drawing the attention of the gang who then shift their focus towards terrorizing and killing those inside the building.

And from that simple premise we have what amounts to a genre formula, sure, but it’s executed extremely well. Like he did in Dark Star, Carpenter shows an amazing adeptness at being in complete control of a film so that it resembles exactly what he envisioned. Sure, Carpenter may not much like the film these days, but it’s a credit to the director that he was able to get creative control — a perk not afforded to a lot of filmmakers, but something that Carpenter would often get because he had no problems working with limited budgets — on what was just his second picture. One of the things I really love about Assault on Precinct 13 is that Carpenter is comfortable with his terse, no-frills genre film. There isn’t a moment of wasted dialogue or action; there’s no need to over-explain (or really explain at all) why the Street Thunder gang is so bad or what’s happening on an emotional level between the characters inside the precinct.

I was recently reading old Alan Sepinwall recaps of “The Shield,” and he would quote on more than one occasion David Mamet’s line about backstory being bullshit, and I think that Carpenter would agree with that. All we need to know about those trapped inside the precinct is that one is a cop, the other works at the precinct, and the other is a criminal. How the film will play out for these characters is simply stated at the beginning of the film when Bishop is told that “there are no more heroes.” That makes what happens inside the precinct even more important: Wilson, the criminal, becomes the hero. When Leigh makes a comment about how Bishop takes his coffee (an obvious “I take my coffee black” joke is made here), all we need to know is that Bishop has a sense of humor about being the only black cop in the precinct and that race won’t be an issue for him. When Leigh is shot trying to free Wilson and doesn’t even flinch — continuing to try and free Wilson while also dispatching the thug that shot her — we understand that Leigh is a proactive character instead of passive caricature.

In one of my favorite scenes, we just watch the four members of the gang in their car loading their weapons, and we know that these are some bad dudes that are going to do some bad things. Little grins creep over a few of their faces while the stone cold killer of the group (the one that shoots the little girl by the ice cream truck) looks at his weapon in a trance (the same eerie, expressionless look he gives the girl before he shoots her; a kind of precursor to The Shape). I love little moments like that. Again, Carpenter, in only his second film, has complete control over his story and characters.  The shot in the car is only like 10 seconds long, but it works amazingly well at giving all of the characterization we need for these thugs. It’s not important why they do what they do; it’s all about that moment on that day; it’s all about what they’re going to do on that day.

The scene jives with his theory on what made Hawks so great: watching characters in a group with props, and how the way the characters interact with those props can tell the audience a lot about them. This is clearest in the scenes between those inside the precinct during the raid. Whether it’s a cigarette or a gun, Carpenter takes great pleasure in watching the interactions between Wilson, Bishop, and Leigh (Carpenter gives another nod to Hawks by having Wilson constantly asking for “a light” for his cigarette). And what’s even better: he doesn’t have to waste time with backstory. Here is a group of characters thrown into an intense, seemingly impossible situation (again, this is something that Carpenter loved about Hawks’ films), and Carpenter is (rightfully) content with just placing his camera in front of the action and seeing how these three very different characters must come together to get out of a jam.

Stylistically, a lot of what we will come to expect from a John Carpenter film can be found in Assault on Precinct 13. The music is fantastic and sets the tone for the rest of the film. I think the main theme is Carpenter’s best work even though I l absolutely love Halloween’s theme. Typical for Carpenter, he uses the main theme to drive the momentum of the movie from scene to scene, never using it to underscore moments of action or terror. When the cold, expressionless Street Thunder member murders the ice cream truck driver and the little girl, Carpenter wisely lets the natural sounds of the eerily empty neighborhood streets act as the only sound during the scene (aside from the silenced gun shots). I’ve always felt that one of the things that Carpenter truly got more than a lot of genre filmmakers was that you didn’t always have to underline and highlight and put a star next to your big scenes.

Carpenter also uses the entire width of the frame for effect, showing how desolate the town is (something he would perfect with his Anytown, USA setting of Haddonfield, IL in Halloween). In the famous “ice cream truck” scene, Carpenter keeps his camera back to establish just how empty the frame is with the truck pushed all the way to the left of the frame. We’ve already seen the four members of Street Thunder loading their guns and taking aim at innocent people on sidewalks, and so we have the foreboding sense that something bad is going to happen. The fact that Carpenter shoots it all in broad daylight and frames the horror with such a wide scope with no superfluous sounds makes it all the more affecting (again, he would perfect this with Halloween). Everything looks so normal, yet we know it’s not, and we know — thanks to the time-stamping and the way the music and editing move the film along to its main setting of the precinct — that the most unrelentingly tense parts of the film are ahead of us. Like Hawks, he doesn’t do anything flashy, but there’s an amazing understanding here already by such a young filmmaker not to overstep. I could see a lot of filmmakers taking this premise and wanting to rub the audience’s nose in the ugliness—to make the film super grimy or too claustrophobic. But Carpenter wisely refrains, and much as he did with the horror genre (trust me, more on that later), he keeps his camera back and uses the width of his frame to create an unease — a displacing effect that shoving the camera (and the audience) right into the action could never hope to accomplish. 

The setting of the film begins to resemble not just Rio Bravo but also Night of the Living Dead. The precinct, and the gang members that descend upon it, make us think of the farmhouse and those within trying to defend themselves from zombies in George A. Romero’s seminal horror film. What starts out as a focus on just the four Street Thunder members turns into a torrent of seemingly infinite thugs that breach the precinct. The editing during these scenes — edited by Carpenter using the pseudonym John T. Chance, which was John Wayne’s character in Rio Bravo —is top notch. When Wallace and Leigh and Bishop are fending off the intruders, Carpenter cuts back and forth between all of the primary characters. Wallace barely holding the door that the thugs are trying to breakdown, Bishop trying to unlock a container with a shotgun in it, and Leigh — wounded arm and all — trying desperately to load her gun. Carpenter also cuts on sound a lot (usually on the sound of guns cocking) and expertly moves throughout the cramped precinct from one moment to the next during without missing any of its intensity; he quickly establishes the tension in the room as the characters frantically try to slow down the onslaught of terror, reminding us of Romero’s intense low-budget horror film.

Assault on Precinct 13 espouses many of the same motifs as Rio Bravo, and the setting and second half of the film feel an awful lot like Night of the Living Dead. But it still feels wholly Carpenter, and I don’t hold it against Carpenter for wanting to piggyback off of those classic films with his second film. He used his creative control to make a love letter, and I’m okay with that (of course, we have the benefit of knowing what he would follow-up this film with). There’s a lot to admire about Assault on Precinct 13; I like that there is some socio-political subtext in the film, but that Carpenter wisely doesn’t make the film about that — there just isn’t enough time due to Carpenter wisely cramming in as much suspense and humor into the 90 minute film that he forces the viewer to pay attention only to what is happening on the screen in those moments. There’s no time to slow down and think about that possible socio-political subtext, but Carpenter, like he did in Dark Star, isn’t avoiding the socio-political subtext. Again (to briefly revisit what we talked about in the last entry of this retrospective), Carpenter loved EC Comics, and one of the things that EC Comics did every now and then was use their comics, whether they were horror or science-fiction stories, as a way to make social commentary about race or gender or whatever. But really, despite the fact that Carpenter is sneaky in making those kinds of comments, his film is just a lot of fun: funny, succinct, tense, and still surprisingly effective after all these years. 


  1. Such a great entry. This movie is very high on my "why haven't I rewatched this now that I'm not an idiot 20-year-old" list. I do remember distinctly that the backstory for those characters simply didn't exist, and I loved that economy of storytelling. The moments on screen mattered, not the moments off.

    1. Thanks, Stacia! I had the same thoughts as you for the longest time; it's one of the reasons why I was really excited to get started on this retrospective: I was super excited to re-visit this film. It's so much better than I remember it being, and it's interesting to see how with his first two films, Carpenter was already in such control of those elements that we would come to know him for.

  2. "Whether it’s a cigarette or a gun, Carpenter takes great pleasure in watching the interactions between Wilson, Bishop, and Leigh"

    Such a great observation and is one of the best things about this film. In particular, I love the look Leigh gives Wilson at one point - like an acknowledgement of two badasses getting the job done - an exchange of mutual respect, which you would see later on towards the end of ESCAPE FROM NY between Snake and Maggie.

    Such a great film and this is only reinforced if you see the shoddy remake, which jettisons almost everything that made the original so good.

    1. Thanks, J.D.! Yeah. I have no interest in seeing the remake. Thanks for the comment. Sadly, I don't recall the moment from Escape from New York because it's been maybe 10-15 years since I've seen it! I'm really looking forward to re-visiting that one.

  3. ...and Kevin is back with superb aplomb, such a great piece here.

    To me this film has always really been 3:10 to Yuma with a much more explosive climax, essentially a wonderful articulation of Carpenter's chief dynamic when he was really in his full stride (1976-1985ish): a classicists temperament towards filmmaking execution with an exploitation cinema sensibility. You point out all the Hawks references, and do it correctly. Correctly in that, to me, the film doesn't seem that 'Hawksian', just its characters are. Carpenter's style wouldn't show the full on Hawks influence until he had more money for more set-ups (see The Thing and especially Christine) and could really blow up measured approach.

    Really, really a shame he never got a real good Western script. He claims he never wanted to do a 'real' Western because 'there are no more 'Western' tough guy actors', but that is BS I think. This will mean more when you get to Vampires, but he really wanted to do one. So bad, I'd argue, that he'd agree to do Vampires, the closest he ever got to a true 'Western'. The writing in that film is piss poor IMHO. I love your talking about 'pulling back to show the emptiness of the frame', it's such a clear Western thought. You need that in any border/frontier town, and he just finds them in contemporary times.

    I can say I've seen the remake. It's not great, and it is a shame, Ethan Hawke could have done something interesting there I think.

    1. Thanks, Jamie! I'm looking forward to watching Christine (still haven't seen it) tonight. Carpenter's own attitude towards the film is interesting: he only did for the paycheck but has grown to love it over time. You're right in calling Vampires his western; although, Ghosts of Mars could be called even more of a western than that film and the closest he's come to making a legit remake of Rio Bravo.

      Thanks for the comment and for checking this out!