Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)

This movie is driven by random violence, chance, and fate.
— John Carpenter

Whatever happened to the B movie? The format evolved during the 1930s, to fill double-bills when Hollywood studios controlled the theater chains. Small companies and fly-by-night operations sprang up in order to meet market demand. Some of these organizations took an interest in the skill and expertise embodied by their material; others could care less, so long as they were paid on time.

Since the focus was on getting a B movie made on schedule, rather than on its content, a kind of window of opportunity existed for those directors and crews with the will to rise above their restrictions. It was possible to take certain risks with material or engage in technical experimentation, so long as you didn’t go over budget or cripple the schedule. As a result, oddities that never would have seen the light of day at the major studios — Edgar G. Ulmer’s downbeat film noir, Detour (1945) comes to mind — had a powerful impact upon those who saw them without drawing attention to themselves. And they made back their investments.

As the blockbuster mentality took over Hollywood in the 1970s, following the success of Jaws (1975) and Star Wars (1977) — each, arguably, a B movie with an inflated budget — the market for low-cost, low-tech work eroded. Films with limited resources went straight to video, and now, DVD. Directors who once could hone their skills on generic, audience-friendly movies have turned to television and music videos to test their talents.

One of the most successful directors to emerge from the B movie system is John Carpenter. Though more esteemed abroad than at home, he has maintained an active career for close to 30 years. He trained at USC’s Film School, and in 1975, co-created his first film, the sci-fi oddity Dark Star, on 16mm, blown up to 35mm for commercial release.

The following year, he wrote, directed, edited, and scored his first solo feature, Assault on Precinct 13, made for $100,000 and on little more than a two week schedule. Arguably, it remains one of his best productions, an instance where limitations bred ingenuity. The film’s success permitted his next release, the low-budget blockbuster Halloween (1979).

Carpenter has stated on more than one occasion that, if he had his druthers, he would have been a contract director during the heyday of the Hollywood studio system. As Carpenter points out, his idol Howard Hawks made the most of that structure, using generic forms — the Western or the detective story — as a framework for his own preoccupations and genius.

Recently released on DVD by Image Entertainment, Assault on Precinct 13 is an unabashed homage to Hawks’ 1959 Western Rio Bravo (some, Carpenter included, might say it’s a copy of that film). In both, a group of lawmen are holed up with their prisoner in a jail, surrounded by the bad guy’s cohorts. Carpenter changes up the dynamic to address issues important to him: in Assault, a black policeman, a secretary, and a condemned prisoner are surrounded by a small army of hostile, armed street thugs.

Carpenter had little time or money to meander off the point, so it possesses an expositional leanness that would not stand the loss or a single scene. Still, and as Carpenter observes more than once on this DVD’s commentary track, the film’s pace is slow; he takes almost a third of its 90 minute running time to set up his main characters and their relationships. Then, though he lets all hell break loose for the remainder of the picture, the action sequences maintain a deliberate, provocative spareness. For instance, the gang members use silencers on their weapons, and the repetitious thuds of their gunfire is more unnerving than the customary loud cracks of rapid fire weapons.

Much like Hawks, Carpenter focuses on details of behavior to sketch characters economically, delineating his three protagonists with a few sharp strokes. The policeman, Lt. Bishop (Austin Stoker), exhibits a particularly understated self-possession. The film doesn’t dwell on the fact of his race or class status, though Bishop relates anecdotally that he pulled himself out of the “ghetto” by sheer force of will.

The cocky, expert shooter Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Justin), may be a convicted killer, but he does not lack for humanity or the desire to help others in peril. His repeated request for a cigarette appears to be his own way of assessing how fairly another person will treat him. And Leigh (Laurie Zimmer), the secretary, reminds one of the kind of unconscious insouciance that Hawks’ women possessed, for she takes care of her own needs even as she looks out for others, combining a sense of independence without losing of the needs of the group.

Much as Carpenter puts across his characters without wasting time upon unnecessary exposition, Assault on Precinct 13 possess the speed and bluntness of all low-budget cinema. It is a narrative designed to grab the audience’s attention by the short hairs and hold it for 90 minutes. As Carpenter states in his commentary, both time and the needs of the story did not permit him to deviate from the immediate demands of the narrative, yet that very single-mindedness allows the film to manipulate the audience’s emotions without demeaning their intelligence.

While Carpenter did recognize that the audience for low-budget cinema values aggressive action above all else, he made an effort not to allow violence to occur without a clear cause. While the plot contains a disturbing execution that sets out how amoral the protagonists’ assailants are, Carpenter rarely otherwise chooses to overplay savagery. Even if the three central characters take up arms out of necessity, not ideology or sadism, Carpenter refuses to reduce their violence to a sideshow of blood squibs or special effects pyrotechnics.

The Image Entertainment DVD of Assault on Precinct 13 includes the aforementioned commentary by Carpenter, as well as an occasionally out-of-focus taping of his appearance, along with Stoker, at L.A.’s American Cinematheque and a elaborate record of the film’s production that incorporates photographs as well as pre-production sketches and portions of the script. Carpenter’s comments are, unfortunately, fairly rudimentary and repetitious. He makes the Hawks comparison countless times, apologizes with equal frequency for the film’s pace, and laments that he could not release the same film under present circumstances because of its deliberate interest in character and one or two scenes of extreme violence.

Despite these criticisms, the DVD incorporates a well-preserved letterbox version of the film, and allows one to isolate Carpenter’s minimalist and insidiously effective score. The five-note theme that starts the film has been sampled and otherwise reproduced by numerous musicians, including hiphop’s founding icon Afrika Bambaata. Its overtly simple but finely crafted melody has a way of getting inside one’s head. Likewise, even though the film uses the familiar, even shopworn, dynamics of the popular action narrative, through careful direction of his actions, sensitive use of the camera’s frame and a recognition that violence can be used to define character, Carpenter creates an experience that holds your attention until the last two characters leave the decimated precinct house.