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A Western in South Central: John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13

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Filmed in 1975, Assault on Precinct 13 is slow to move all the chess pieces that set the various characters and their story arcs on a collision course. Carpenter, admittedly inspired by the Westerns of Howard Hawks, was attempting to make a throwback Western of his own: one sans John Wayne — who was still alive at the time but who, with a tiny budget, Carpenter could clearly not afford. In fact, Carpenter could not afford to make a Western at all. And so, he made a Western that was set in modern day 1970s Los Angeles.

The absence of stars in this film contributes to its gritty, realistic feel. Austin Stoker (who passed away last October at the age of 92) leads the cast alongside the late Darwin Joston, who is really the heart of the film. Initially introduced as a (maximum security) prisoner on par with Hannibal Lecter, he’s sardonic yet seems to have a heart that transcends his current station in life. It was Darwin Joston’s greatest performance, and it’s a shame he’s not featured more in film. While appearing in small roles in Carpenter’s underrated The Fog and Lynch’s Eraserhead, he later transitioned into being a full-time teamster on film sets because that work was steadier: an unusual trajectory for a leading man. (He even worked in this capacity on Lynch’s Wild at Heart.) Tragically, he passed away in 1998 without being more showcased, and it’s a loss for film history that he was not.

Laurie Zimmer is also terrific as a classic Hawksian tough lady who even looks a little like Lauren Bacall. She sadly only took a handful of parts in the mid- to late 1970s before walking away from Hollywood completely. Carpenter comments that Halloween’s Nancy Loomis, who takes on the smaller female role here, resembles both actresses from Hawks’ The Big Sleep.

As was Lisa Blount in Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness, released 11 years later, Zimmer is another of Carpenter’s beautiful and interesting but more non-traditional leading ladies. In Prince of Darkness, Blount was a serious-minded physicist-turned-hero, while in Precinct, Zimmer is the tough, direct but subdued Howard Hawkish heroine: good with a gun and always willing to provide a smoke.

The sexual tension in the interplay between Joston’s Napoleon Wilson and Zimmer’s Leigh — done mostly through a series of looks — is also very 1940s. She’s the only person to finally consummate his constant requests for a cigarette, which become a running gag in the film. (The “cigarette gag” is something Carpenter has cited as being another common motif in Hawks’ films.) More importantly, it seems to be a coded symbol for sex — one that would more likely have appeared in an era when such things were more censored and such codes were necessary.

Meanwhile, Stoker’s Lieutenant Ethan Bishop is handsome but more subdued, because the character is not meant to be flashy. Stoker played him that way intentionally, commenting decades later that Bishop is “not really an outgoing person. He had a desk job as a police officer — he wasn’t out on the street fighting with bad guys.” This works nicely with the film’s setup because he’s assigned the throwaway mission of babysitting a dormant police station, when all hell breaks loose and he’s forced to be an unlikely hero.

The cinematography and pacing of this film also lend themselves to another era. Carpenter had Douglas Knapp, his DP and former USC schoolmate, use a slight fog filter and indirect, moody lighting, which gave Precinct 13 the feel of an older film from a bygone era. Admits Carpenter, “In the beginning I always wanted to be a studio director back in the ’30s and ’40s.” He adds later, “I probably saw too many Westerns as a kid.”

Carpenter points out that in a modern film, much more would have happened faster in the plot than what we get in this film. But, says Carpenter, “If you view this as an older film, even perhaps older than the ’70s, it begins to make sense.” Interesting for a modern film (of its day) to try to capture the general sensibility of an era 30 years prior. More often than not, with period pieces today, we think about recreating clothes and cars and production design without remembering to replicate a period’s sensibility. Ironically, a modern perspective is often the one thing in period films that is left intact. Yet Precinct 13, with its modern setting and soul from another decade, seems to be just the opposite.

The only criticism I have of this film is in its Night of the Living Dead (another influence Carpenter has cited) elements: where legions of faceless gang members storm a building, many of them people of color. In reality, Carpenter used a lot of his crew and old school chums as stand-ins for these characters, for example, using his production manager or film editor Joe Woo, owner of Joe Woo’s Chinese Kitchen on Lankershim Blvd., as people who appear onscreen only long enough to get shot while attempting to break into the building.

Carpenter has said that he wanted the motivations of the villain gang in this movie to be mysterious. He wanted them to seem like a relentless yet incomprehensible force (bringing to mind the early work of Spielberg in movies like Duel). He knew the closer he got to mainstream Hollywood, the less they would allow for that sensibility and want everything to be spelled out.

But the army of gang members lunging is similar to the depiction of Native American people who lunge at John Wayne and Walter Brennan at the beginning of Red River, another Hawks film that Carpenter cites as an influence. Native Americans in these types of movies are extremely “otherized”: faceless enemies or half-naked killing machines, whose sides of the story you never hear. It’s something that’s really noticeable through a modern lens when it’s depicted in things like the Coen Brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, another clear homage to old Westerns. But the fact that this type of “otherization” really sticks out in a modern landscape could be seen as progress.

However much was really taken from Hawks’ Rio Bravo — a source that is often cited as being this movie’s primary influence — it certainly served as an inspiration: a lovably oddball cast of characters thrown together in one isolated location, who stand up against darker forces. In Rio Bravo’s case, the “bad guys” want to break out one of their own from prison. In Precinct 13, the faceless bad guys just appear to want revenge.

Carpenter seems to want to loudly signal that movie’s influence on this one, down to the fact that he names John T. Chance (John Wayne’s character in Rio Bravo) as editor of this film instead of himself. He has a tradition of giving himself pseudonyms that name his influences on the films he’s making; he named himself “Martin Quatermass” as the screenwriter in Prince of Darkness for that same reason.

There’s a moment in the film that’s so shocking (we won’t give it away here) that Precinct 13 almost received an X rating from the MPAA. The inclusion of it might still hold shock value today. Without giving too much away, they “un-Disney-fy” an actress who was famous for appearing in popular Disney films of the era.

Whether to do with the inclusion of that scene or something else, Assault on Precinct 13 was not a hit in America upon its release and did not really hit with audiences until it reached England, where it was championed and at last began to gain momentum. Even in the early 2000s, Carpenter was thought of as just a genre filmmaker in the U.S. but as a great artist in France, to which Carpenter laughs, “Neither of them are right.”

The main theme song in this film is so iconic that I had actually been hearing it for years before I saw this film without realizing it. Carpenter — who not only scores his own films but scored this one in three days — claims the song is based on both the “Immigrant Song” by Led Zeppelin and the score for Dirty Harry. Commented Carpenter in 1977 on his reasons for scoring his own work, “I was the cheapest we could get and the fastest and the best for the money.”

The heart of the film seems to be people from opposing sides banding together until they find a mutual respect. As Carpenter has said, “The characters are driven by their admiration for each other, and their admiration for courage.” In peacetime, they would be confined to their roles: of police lieutenant, of prisoner. But extreme circumstances have forced them to forge a bond of trust that inevitably connects them as human beings beyond the roles they’ve been cast in by life, by circumstances, and by their pasts. There is a love and ultimately a respect and dignity that comes forth and surpasses these surface divisions that would be nice to see more of in the movies. (Something similar can be seen in The Breakfast Club: people in opposing social structures in normal peacetime forced to consider each other as human beings when they’re thrown together in isolation for an extended period.) In these extremely divisive times, it would be nice to see more of this human regard not only onscreen but in life

Assault on Precinct 13 screens starting Tuesday, January 17th.
Tuesday, Jan 17 – 5:45pm, 8pm
Wednesday, Jan 18 -5:45pm, 8pm
Thursday, Jan 18 – 5:45pm, 8pm
Tickets

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