Sunday, June 24, 2012

Assault on Precinct 13


A police lieutenant with a sense of honour bridles at being assigned to a babysitting job at an about-to-close station house. A prison bus makes a detour when one of the convicts falls ill. A gang pull off a hit that leaves a young girl dead. A grieving father takes the law into his own hands. The paths of these disparate characters converge at the titular Precinct 13. A siege ensues.

John Carpenter’s brutally efficient thriller really doesn’t need a synopsis. It probably doesn’t even need a review. Only his second feature length film – it followed ‘Dark Star’ and was made two years before ‘Hallowe’en’ – ‘Assault on Precinct 13’ sets out a goodly number of what would become Carpenter’s trademarks, much as the basis of Sam Peckinpah’s aesthetic was established by his second film, ‘Ride the High Country’.

The Peckinpah comparison is perhaps more apposite than might readily be apparent. Although Carpenter has yet to make a western, the genre informs much of his filmography. His touchstone isn’t a Peckinpah film, however, but Howard Hawks’s ‘Rio Bravo’, a movie that defines its own genre credentials: the western as siege drama. (As well as writing, directing and scoring ‘Assault on Precinct 13’, Carpenter also edited the movie, crediting himself under the pseudonym John T Chance – the name of John Wayne’s character in ‘Rio Bravo’.)


In ‘Halloween’, the town of Haddonfield is laid siege to by the legacy (and murderous reappearance) of Michael Myers; in ‘The Fog’, Antonio Bay is besieged by … well, the clue’s in the title; in ‘Prince of Darkness’, a church is threatened from without and within by evil; even his most recent film ‘The Ward’ engages with the theme, albeit on a psychological level. Appropriately, much of his work is confined to a single locale (the asylum in ‘The Ward’; the arctic research station in ‘The Thing’) or a restricted setting (the walled off Manhattan prison in ‘Escape from New York’). John Carpenter at his best does claustrophobia better than any other filmmaker.

Other Carpenter tropes present in ‘Assault on Precinct 13’: the widescreen cinematography that juxtaposes dangerously open spaces with tight interiors (DoP Douglas Knapp pre-supposes Dean Cundey’s work on ‘Halloween’, ‘The Fog’, ‘The Thing’, et al); a minimalist score by the director himself; the anti-hero as main character (Darwin Joston’s laconic portrayal of Napoleon Wilson, all rockabilly quiff, insouciant attitude and total lack of compunction when it comes to the use of weapons, lays some of the groundwork for Kurt Russell’s iconic Snake Plissken); and the interaction and development of characters in a pressurised environment (one of the chief pleasures of ‘Assault’ is watching Laurie Zimmer’s transformation from lip-glossed sweater girl to gun-toting action heroine, unflinchingly blowing away numerous bad guys despite a wound that’s paralysed one arm!)


Clocking in at just under an hour and a half (with the siege itself starting roughly at the 40 minute mark), the script is as minimal as the score. There is little or no backstory – the script hints at some revelation as to Wilson’s charismatic first name, but deliberately refuses to deliver – and the dialogue is pared down to what’s strictly necessary. Wilson’s much repeated “You got a smoke?” ultimately takes on as much weight as any discussion of what the mob want and whether our beleaguered protagonists have any means of escape.

In addition to proving himself remarkably intuitive as a director of action and suspense, Carpenter drew memorable performances from his three leads: it’s surprising that neither Joston or Austin Stoker (who plays Lieutenant Bishop) had bigger film careers, while Zimmer’s complete disappearance from the acting world at the end of the 70s was nothing short of enigmatic and inspired Charlotte Szlovak’s 2003 documentary short ‘Do You Remember Laurie Zimmer?’

Remember her? Based on ‘Assault on Precinct 13’, I’d say the lady was pretty damn unforgettable.

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