The Savage Stack - ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 (1976)

John Carpenter's solo feature debut is still a blisteringly hot urban Western.

There’s always going to be – for lack of a better term – a stack of films we’ve been meaning to get to. Whether it’s a pile of DVDs and Blu-rays haphazardly amassed atop our television stands, or a seemingly endless digital queue on our respective streaming accounts, there’s simply more movies than time to watch them. This column is here to make that problem worse. Ostensibly an extension of Everybody’s Into Weirdness (may that series rest in peace), The Savage Stack is a compilation of the odd and magnificent motion pictures you probably should be watching instead of popping in The Avengers for the 2,000th time. Not that there’s anything wrong with filmic “comfort food” (God knows we all have titles we frequently return to when we crave that warm and fuzzy feeling), but if you love movies, you should never stop searching for the next title that’s going to make your “To Watch” list that much more insurmountable. Some will be favorites, others oddities, with esoteric eccentricities thrown in for good measure. All in all, a mountain of movies to conquer.

The fifty-eighth entry into this unbroken backlog is John Carpenter's scorching hot urban Western, Assault on Precinct 13...

Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo ('59) is almost always the first film critics and cinephiles use when analyzing John Carpenter’s brilliant, blistering solo authorial debut Assault On Precinct 13 ('76). Yet to simply describe the film in such reductive, point-of-reference language seems to obfuscate the most triumphant reason to celebrate the minimalist action movie: it was the announcement of a fresh, formalist voice in the world of genre filmmaking. Carpenter may be dealing in ’50s Western tropes, but he’s also leaving calling cards in almost every frame; auteurist fingerprints that we recognize now like crime scene data. Before Halloween ('78) became the “most successful independent film of all time!” there was this gritty ditty, a siege picture that initially introduced the director’s love of synth-scored anamorphic photography and his fear of faceless, invading danger.

Beginning in the claustrophobic corridors of a “Los Angeles ghetto” at 3:10 on a Saturday morning, Carpenter is dabbling more in war picture than he is the Old West. It’s a vibe George A. Romero would borrow - and amplify to near chaotic levels - in his Dario Argento-produced masterpiece, Dawn of the Dead ('78). The streets of American cities are no longer safe for anyone to walk, except for those who've formed militant gangs. These crooks creep in the shadows, wearing berets and ski caps, clutching large caliber weapons. The night is hot, and sweat greases their brown skin. Faceless police cry out from high above, sending the guerillas scrambling until they're mowed down with shotguns, not a single shot fired back in response. It’s an opening simplistic enough to almost feel impressionistic, with Carpenter working in an almost “pure cinema” headspace, setting the tone with five minutes of screen time and zero expositional dialogue.

Where Romero would borrow from Carpenter in order to set the stage for his greatest work of apocalyptic zombie pulp, Carpenter would steal from Romeo’s Night of the Living Dead ('68) in order to balance the racist stereotypes he'd sketched as the antagonists of Precinct 13. Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker) - a fresh-faced, African-American officer not too far removed from Duane Jones' constant survivor - is ordered to babysit the titular closing police depot. He’s a good man: stern, steadfast and heroic. In Carpenter’s bombed out vision of the ghetto, evil and heroism know no color, nor does death discriminate when reaping men and women on either side of the law.

“There are no heroes anymore,” Bishop’s superiors tell him early on, “just men who follow orders.” While Carpenter has always been known more for his visual flair than his wit behind the typewriter, Assault on Precinct 13 is filled with enough “alpha" machismo to make Cormac McCarthy blush. Future death row resident Napoleon Wilson (a stone-mugged Darwin Joston) spits out deadpan witticisms with ease, coming off like a drive-in Lee Marvin. Carpenter regular Charles Cyphers - who was mostly a bit part and recurring TV actor in The Six Million Dollar Man ('74 - '78) up until this point - feels like he’s still getting comfortable in front of a camera, yet manages to deliver sneering cop schtick with an everyman charm. While Carpenter would later make a definitive "man movie" out of another Howard Hawks production (The Thing ['82]), Precinct 13 definitely gives it a run for being the most butch of his bunch.

Carpenter’s widescreen framing of urban desolation and darkness is as deliberate as the film’s pacing - there’s almost thirty dread-filled minutes before the infamous “ice cream scene” even occurs. Precinct 13's shadowy streets and pitch black alleys possess an almost enveloping nature that can both swallow a phone booth and hide a numberless legion of attackers. As far as his characters go, Carpenter keeps them in the center of the frame, almost in a constant tableau of medium-wide High Noon ('52) stand-offs. This tension crafted solely through form helps underline the picture's unsubtle virtuous subtext. When Julie (Nancy Loomis) - the naïve station secretary - realizes that the invading gang is only after a traumatized man who ran into their cop shop, she hastily suggests they toss him to the wolves. “Well don’t give me that civilized look!” she screams when Bishop and Leigh (Laurie Zimmer) stare holes through her in response. In this moment, Carpenter doesn’t even present the three morally warring souls in the same frame, using an edit between one and two shots to represent a divide between supposed allies.

There are few directors who understand build-and-release quite like Carpenter does, and Assault on Precinct 13 sees him establishing this canny cinematic sixth sense. Once the gang’s bullets begin to rain down on the station, silencers keeping their blasts muted, the pressure builds until they let Napoleon loose. His shotgun pumping masculinity is the response to the faceless snipers’ call, as black and white, criminal and cop, are united in a stand to keep their lives. There’s an argument to be made that Napoleon’s release can be seen as undercutting the power Bishop’s badge holds - marking him as a kind of “white anti-hero savior” - but that position ignores the fact that Bishop asks Wilson to walk freely out of the station with him in the end. Simply put: while the Death Row con might be handy with a street sweeper, Bishop still holds the keys to his chains.

Any review of Assault on Precinct 13 would be incomplete if it didn’t touch on the pulsating synth score Carpenter composed for the picture. In truth, Carpenter’s first OST might be his very best. While certainly not as iconic as the theme he wrote for Halloween, Assault's electronic stabs and thick beats drop in at just the right moments, giving the film a relentlessly propulsive feel. And while many composers have tried to replicate his ear for mesmerizingly metallic synths and minimalist ambient tones - see Cliff Martinez as a modern colleague in the latter category - none have gotten Precinct 13′s distinct combination of the two quite right.

Aggressive is probably the best word to try and describe Assault on Precinct 13 to those who've unfortunately never seen the picture. From the opening act of police brutality, to the blood oath and the final, explosive shootout, Carpenter establishes an air of relentless violence. His finite resources - Assault was only made for $100,000 - are stretched to their absolute breaking point, as the auteur knows there's no substitute for pure craft. The rough edges and Old Hollywood influences are certainly present, from John Huston to John Ford to Howard Hawks, but to make the movie stand out, it had to be his very own. So, while Assault on Precinct 13 may call back to classics in terms of story beats, it is 100% pure John Carpenter to the core.

Assault On Precinct 13 is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Shout! Factory. 

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