John Carpenter’s inspired urban western is a true buddy innovator
For budding filmmakers looking to break into the industry, George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead was something of a landmark picture. Shot in black and white on a budget of $114,000, the director would use a soon-to-be-demolished setting, a cast of little known actors and a few cleverly calculated narrative quirks that took the film into seminal territory. Recouping a whopping $30,000,000, Romero’s movie became the template for a generation of aspiring filmmakers who realised there was serious money to be made outside of major studios, so much that when those studios inevitably came calling, Romero shunned their advances in favour of a series of indie pictures that bore his inimitable personality.
Ten years later, director John Carpenter would use a similar template for his low-budget classic Halloween, which with a cumulative worldwide gross of $70,000,000 proved even more successful, sparking a whole slew of imitators looking to cash-in on the low-risk phenomenon that would become known as the slasher genre. Carpenter had approached fellow horror director Bob Clark with the idea of making a sequel to Black Christmas, a film that many consider to be the first pure slasher. That particular movie, set in a sorority house, was impacted by Ted Bundy’s final killing spree after his extraordinary escape from prison while facing Death Row, those murders taking place in a similar environment with similar victims.
Clark, looking to distance himself from the genre, declined Carpenter’s offer, but suggested Halloween as a title. Much to Clark’s chagrin I’m sure, Carpenter ran with it in what turned out to be a career-making decision, the film managing a whopping $70,274,000 on a budget of only $300,000, becoming the highest independent film of all time. Halloween‘s success also forged the careers of many more like him. Slashers were cheap to make, relatively simple to shoot, and didn’t require known talent in order to bring in the punters. They were rough and ready productions which catered mainly to the home video market, a burgeoning media that opened yet another commercial avenue for young creatives who, like Carpenter before them, simply set out to make movies.
By 1974, Carpenter already had a feature directing credit under his belt in the Dan O’Bannon penned Dark Star, a low-key, sci-fi comedy that would later receive a re-release following the success of Halloween and another O’Bannon project Alien, but it was Carpenter’s next movie that would put him firmly on the map. Assault On Precinct 13 has all the hallmarks of Romero’s Night of the Living Dead: an isolated setting, a cast of fated characters showing their true colours, both figuratively and literally, in a life and death situation, and an unending siege from a group of nameless agitators whose numbers seem boundless, who stalk their prey with an almost supernatural sense of ubiquity. Shot in a mere 20 days, it also has all the hallmarks of Carpenter: an emblematic figure daubed in the anti-heroic guise of male fantasy, iconic dialogue, a smidgen of social commentary and an uncanny knack for visuals, all of it emboldened by the director’s inimitable synth catalogue, the driving force behind his very best movies.
Romero’s influence on Carpenter’s shoestring salvo may be obvious to any watching horror fan, but Assault on Precinct 13 is more reminiscent of another of Carpenter’s favourite genres. The story of a soon-to-be-relocated police precinct that comes under fire from a street gang hellbent on retribution, this is very much cowboys at dawn, an urban western which blurs the genre’s usual delineations by teaming crooks with cops, men with women, and, in the ultimate nod to Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, black with white. It’s a pure, unaffected exercise in filmmaking in every sense, the product of low-risk enthusiasm and youthful sentiments. “Assault came out very freely in terms of its content,” Carpenter would recall. “It was kind of basically a Rio Bravo type situation in the ghetto in Los Angeles. But it was also other things. It had a touch of Night of the Living Dead. It had little touches of exploitation movies at the time. Much like Halloween it was kind of a free type expression. Back then, I didn’t know yet what I didn’t know. I think later on you find out.”
Why would anybody want to shoot at a police station?Julie
Carpenter was approached by producer J. Stein Kaplan to make a low-budget exploitation movie with the promise that he would have absolute creative control, and he delivers anti-establishment filmmaking that recalls the likes of Charles Bronson’s Death Wish and Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry, the director even going on record as saying that Assault on Precinct 13‘s steady, staccato theme was influenced by Lalo Schifrin’s emblematic ‘Dirty Harry’ score. Carpenter’s compositional talents are key to the film’s effectiveness, something that would become a trend following a series of similarly iconic themes that included Halloween, The Fog and Escape From New York. Even those critics who panned Carpenter’s exploitation vehicle had nothing but praise for his musical contributions, which add a mounting sense of dread and ceaseless tension to proceedings.
Fascinated with the idea of enclosure, Carpenter set out to make a western in the Howard Hawks mode, ultimately adapting the basic Rio Bravo scenario for a late-20th century setting. By the late 70s the western, a genre that had dominated cinema for decades, was experiencing a huge downturn in popularity to the point where financiers were unwilling to make them, leading Carpenter to explore increasingly popular, budget-friendly exploitation avenues. With only Dark Star to his name, a movie shot in short bursts in-between funding missions, Assault on Precinct 13, a thirty-day shoot that proved infinitely more stressful, was something of a wake-up call for the young filmmaker, who quickly discovered how tough larger scale affairs were.
Due to the film’s more expansive production, budget was still tight. In order to cut costs, Carpenter would recruit similarly hungry and inexperienced upstarts, such as fellow USC student and cinematographer Douglas Knapp, as he set out on a similarly outlaw production. As future Halloween: Season of the Witch director Tommy Lee Wallace, the film’s rookie art director, would explain, “I hardly knew what the job required, but [Carpenter] believed in me, and, of course my price was right. It was typical of John during those lean days. He made the very best of whatever talent and facilities he had around him.” According to Carpenter’s audio commentary, his philosophy to making the movie was to shoot minimal footage and extend scenes for as long as he could using what he had, a process that he believes can be applied to any low-budget endeavour. For movie’s like Assault on Precinct 13, it proved an inspired approach.
Casting the film was a similarly humble process. Carpenter would add experience while maintaining an authentic and anonymous vibe by casting knowledgeable, yet relatively unknown actors, the film’s central roles going to blaxploitation star Austin Stoker, who had starred alongside Pam Grier in Sheba, Baby a year prior, and the even lesser known Darwin Joston, a TV regular who just happened to be in the right place at the right time (Joston was actually Carpenter’s real-life neighbour). In the tradition of movies such as 1958’s The Defiant Ones and 1967’s In the Heat of the Night, which paired revolutionary black actor Sidney Poitier with Tony Curtis and Rod Steiger, respectively, the two would combine to form one of the earliest, most iconic biracial buddy partnerships in action cinema, long before Hollywood turned black and white into a calculated demographic trope. While The Defiant Ones told the story of two convicts and In the Heat of the Night two cops on different sides of the racial divide, Assault on Precinct 13 landed somewhere in the middle, further muddying convention and raising further ethical questions. Unlike the deluge of like-for-like pairings that would follow, Stoker wasn’t presented as the servile sidekick reduced to second billing. He and Joston were very much on an even keel.
Assault on Precinct 13 essentially has two leads. The first of those, Stoker’s Ethan Bishop, is both conventional and unconventional — conventional in the sense that he is something of a by-the-book lawman and unconventional due to the colour of his skin and the position he holds. Like Night of the Living Dead‘s Ben (Duane Jones), Bishop is a black character leading a white-dominated environment, only this time his rank is official, at least until the precinct comes under attack, plunging the natural order into jeopardy. Carpenter gives us black and white characters on both sides of the law, placing them in a situation where survival is based on cooperation, regardless of society’s superficial preoccupations. In Bishop we’re presented with a character whose very presence demands respect, a man of conviction who has risen to police lieutenant based on merit, who shrugs off the thinly-veiled insubordination of the precinct’s racist desk officer with an impermeable grace and leads with diplomatic confidence.
The second of those characters is more your archetypal antihero, a less animated version of Escape From New York‘s Snake Plissken, and the director’s first truly emblematic lead. Joston’s deadpan portrayal of the ostentatiously mysterious Napoleon Wilson was inspired by Charles Bronson’s Harmonica in Sergio Leoni’s epic Spaghetti Western Once Upon a Time in the West. When confronted about the motives behind their actions, both characters reply, “Only at the point of dyin’.” Wilson also speaks of a preacher who once told him, “Son, there is something strange about you. You got something to do with death,” echoing a line from Leoni’s classic spoken by Jason Robards’ character Cheyenne. Similarly, it gives Joston’s earnest con an almost mystical air.
“There are several characters that I have done in movies that are based on the same kind of guy,” Carpenter would say. “Snake Plissken in ‘Escape’, Napoleon Wilson in ‘Assault’, Desolation Williams in Ghosts of Mars. All of these guys have certain basic things in common, and they’re based on a real guy that I knew. I grew up with him in high school, he was my best friend. A combination of this feller and my own alter ego. Parts of my personality. Really not giving a shit about anything… Essentially, depending on the situation, this character is very basic because he has one thing in mind, and that’s survival. He has a singleness of purpose, which is a definition, which I guess goes back to Homer, of a hero. And his heroic quality is to survive. He doesn’t want to hurt you. He doesn’t want to help you. He just wants to move on and survive. [He will do] whatever it takes.”
Wilson is a modern-day urban outlaw shrouded in wild west mystique, a character who is endearingly impervious for a man on death row, accepting his fate with an impermeable sense of cute cynicism. He’s under no illusion as to where his future lies, accepting the consequences of his actions with a wry grin and a degree of casualty that belies the hopelessness of his predicament, one beautifully embellished by his equally futile pursuit of a cigarette, an insistence that will sow the seeds for one of cinema’s most unlikely and rewarding relationships.
Wilson pursues a smoke with mechanical impudence, and each request is met with the same resistance, either from cons who are closed-off from the idea of giving or authority figures who revel in the chance to shoot him down. It may be just a running gag inspired by Hawks, but it possesses a deeper narrative purpose. When Wilson asks the warden for a smoke it is nothing more than a show of insolence. When he later requests one from Bishop having been temporarily holed up in Precinct 13 following the unexpected illness of a fellow inmate, the lieutenant offers a similar reply, but he also offers an apology, and right away Wilson understands the kind of man he’s dealing with.
You’re a cop. You’re either curious about me, or you wanna give me some shit.Wilson
Most cons would immediately take advantage of such decency, exploiting it as weakness, and you have to believe that Wilson’s intelligent hard-ass could have escaped if he so desired, or at the very least stamped his authority over the situation, but a mutual respect develops between two characters who on the surface seem to inhabit opposite ends of the ethical spectrum. When the precinct comes under fire, Bishop is smart enough to realise that he’ll need all the help he can get; not only from Wilson, but from the self-serving, yet ultimately decent Wells (Tony Burton), and on the other side of the law, bad ass female protagonist Leigh (Laurie Zimmer), an ill-fated female employee whose smouldering attraction to a man like Wilson tells you all you need to know about her inner mettle and refusal to bow to convention.
Leigh’s polar opposite comes in the form of the irrational, self-centred Julie (Nancy Kyes). Her immediate solution is to sacrifice the semi-catatonic Lawson (Martin West), whose vengeful act against the brutal murder of his picture perfect daughter led the gang to their precinct in the first place. Julie is quickly killed by a stray bullet for her show of cowardice. Conversely, Leigh gets busy with a firearm of her own, braving the legions of killers piling through the back door to free the temporarily incarcerated prisoners, barely flinching when she takes a bullet in the shoulder. Leigh does for women what Bishop does for African-Americans. The two transcend society’s pigeonholing to become heroes against the odds. They call on a heroic spirit typically reserved for privileged white males as the violent retribution comes thick and fast.
Back in 1976, Assault on Precinct 13 was considered extremely graphic, especially the onscreen murder of a child, which draws comparisons with another groundbreaking Western in Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. Carpenter sketches a very real and relatable scene between Kathy and her father using very little, the casting of adorable Disney star Kim Richards an inspired play two years prior to the casting of sister Kyle as Halloween‘s Lindsey Wallace. The cute-as-a-button Kim is tasked with convincing her grandmother to relocate following the death of her grandfather, something she is eager to do until the urge for an ice cream leads to an explosion of blood that could very well be mistaken for raspberry sauce. Kathy’s insouciant assassination is such a jarringly abrupt and unexpected moment. The whole scene transpires like a brutal fairy tale, dead-eyed in execution but bathed in a white picket fence innocence. The contrast is breathtaking.
Carpenter’s graphic splurge failed to escape the censoring exploits of the MPAA, who threatened to shackle the filmmaker’s rebel vision with the infamous “X” rating if the movie was edited with that particular scene still intact. The onscreen murder of a child was rare, and remains so today, but the impact of such an image and its importance to such a thinly-sketched, low-budget endeavour cannot be underestimated. The precinct’s invaders may be nameless and for the most part faceless, but such an act lends them an aura that transcends typical villainy. It raises the stakes, increases the sense of jeopardy and allows us to delineate between the old fashioned cons holed up inside Precinct 13, the kind who possess a degree of traditional moral values, and the amoral, almost otherworldly threat pursuing from all corners. Like the death of Janet Leigh in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, it also throws the audience into disarray. If a child can die, and in such an explicit fashion, then no one is out of bounds.
The MPAA’s demands proved something of a quandary for a filmmaker of Carpenter’s persuasion, but these were different times, and loopholes were there to be exploited. Carpenter’s quick-fix response wasn’t so much a loophole as it was an act of sheer, bald-faced audacity. On the advice of distributor CKK, the director would present the MPAA with a cut version in order to qualify for an “R” rating before simply distributing the uncut version, an insolent stand against executive meddling that we can all be thankful for. I’ve always considered Carpenter something of a renegade filmmaker, an outlaw concerned only with the art of cinema, and this particular incident only serves to strengthen that notion.
[to Wilson prior to his re-arrest] It would be a privilege if you’d walk outside with me.Lt. Ethan Bishop
Despite Assault on Precinct 13‘s once-bloodthirsty reputation, the violence is ultimately peripheral. There may be an abundance of bodies lining up for the slaughter as the titular assault continues to grow, but the movie is very much character-driven, or, more precisely, driven by the various relationships and against-type paradigms contained within the sitting duck precinct that would prove the setting for one of Carpenter’s finest achievements. Just like Night of the Living Dead, the threat is internal as well as external, the lives of our cast threatened as much by inner dissolution as they are outside forces. Wherever you look danger lurks. There’s hardly a moment to rest.
The relationship between Bishop and Wilson is the movie’s centrepiece, one that overcomes the instinct for self-preservation against seemingly improbable odds. Stripped of all entitlement, Wilson doesn’t see a black man or even a cop when he looks at Bishop, he sees a fair man bound to the laws of common decency who will never jeopardise his integrity, the kind of person who’s been absent from his life for as long as he can recall. He follows him not out of duty or rank, but on the basis of intelligence and character in a difficult situation, motivated by the fact that he would have handled things in much the same way had their roles been reversed.
Similarly, Bishop doesn’t see a man undeserving of basic human rights, he sees a person capable of aiding their predicament, and because of their growing allegiance and the trust Bishop shows, his faith is repaid, as is Wilson’s, who for the first time in a long time is treated as an equal, something a man of Bishop’s racial persuasion can fully appreciate. By the end of the movie, the two have developed a kinship that transcends all notions of common law, and we as an audience want nothing more than to see Wilson go free. Deep down, it seems that Bishop wants that too, a decision that is beyond his powers and beneath his integrity, but the two exit the precinct together as equals, the mauling cop rabble who attempt to handcuff Wilson shot down by their black superior in a dismissive manner usually exclusive to the warden, a sentiment that allows Wilson to walk with the dignity of a free man one last time.
Like all of Carpenter’s finest works, Assault On Precinct 13, a film which triggered one of the greatest single runs from an indie director, is a sparse production stripped of every last morsel of fat, a movie that drips with social commentary and archetypal cool. It’s incredible how well it holds up after all these years. Setting the template for Carpenter classics Halloween, The Fog and Escape From New York, it is simple yet devastatingly effective, underfunded yet astonishingly resourceful, and though the screenplay and characters are steeped in convention, what we end up with is a movie that proves unorthodox on a number of levels, one that frames society through a rebel’s lens that is infinitely rewarding in the realms of cult cinema and beyond.