John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) is sold as some kind of sci-fi action hybrid on its DVD cover, yet it feels like anything but. From its dusty yellow Western look to its urban crime setting to its plot borrowed from Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo (1959), the film is as modern as can be for its time.
Following the exploits of Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker), a Los Angeles Police Dept. lieutenant reassigned to the closing Anderson Precinct on its last night in business, the film begins with the mowing down by police of a gang of youths in a stairwell from above – like shooting fish in a barrel. The next morning, Bishop’s radio reports on the shooting, selling it to the public as a gunfight between the (unarmed) gang and the police. From here, an ice cream man paranoidly watches as a youth gang cruises the neighborhood he’s selling ice cream in. A little girl stops with her father while he makes a phone call and one gang member shoots her in the head after killing the ice cream man. Meanwhile, Bishop is already in for a busy night when a prisoner’s illness results in a transfer being delayed at the now defunct Anderson precinct, and legendary criminal Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston) is among the transferees. Meanwhile (this whole film takes place meanwhile), the gang is assaulted by the father of the dead girl, who then catatonically runs into the Anderson precinct, and takes refuge while the gang lays siege to the premises.
Carpenter is an avowed Western fanatic, and huge acolyte of Howard Hawks, so perhaps its no surprise that the film has more in common with Westerns than perhaps any other film he’s made, and certainly than most urban crime dramas. From the dusty yellow cinematography and set design inside Anderson precinct before the siege, to the swinging front doors when the mournful father catatonically charges into the place seeking asylum from the gang (who may or may not have been out to get revenge for the police gunning down their friends at the beginning of the film), the film is a Western through and through.
Further, the film takes on some Hawksian relationships between characters. Although Carpenter does away with Julie (Nancy Loomis), one of the department secretaries who becomes hysterical, quite early on in the proceedings, there is a Hawksian woman in the person of Leigh (Laurie Zimmer), who develops a sharp and playful rapport with both Ethan and Napoleon, and can hold her own with weapons – the very definition of one of Hawks’ tough, brazzy females (although she doesn’t get a nickname in lieu of a real name, as they often did).
Politically, the film has something in common with George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) – a black hero in a fairly racist time and place. Indeed, one wonders if the police uniform is the only reason that Bishop is still alive at the end – although that might go against Carpenter’s personal beliefs (however jaded and cynical they may sometimes come across).
Carpenter’s film is not his best work – though as a film it’s more impressive than the clip we saw of his student feature debut Dark Star (1974). Still, in it you can begin to see some of the things that would envelop his career – from the Panavision 2.35:1 cinematography, to the Western tropes, to the simple narrative devices (such as claustrophic siege scenarios) and antagonistic relationships between characters who are on the same side (which reminded me more here of Robert Rodriguez’s From Dusk Till Dawn than some of Carpenter’s work).