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Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) – Carpenter countdown #6

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On to the six undoubted classics. Again, it's been difficult to decide on an order for these.

Concept: 'Let's do a modern adaptation of Rio Bravo!'

Six people with guns are going through an LA alley at night. "Freeze, this is the police," they're told, then they are gunned down by shotguns. As the police commissioner talks about the problem of gangs now having automatic weapons on the next day's radio news, four gang leaders take a blood oath to take revenge. Late in the afternoon, Austin Stoker is about to start his first shift as a police lieutenant. Disappointed that his assignment is to look after a police station that's just been closed, he's told that "There are no heroes any more.. only men who follow orders."

Meanwhile, Charles Cyphers is picking up three prisoners to transfer, including Tony Burton, someone with a cough, and Darwin Joston's Napoleon Wilson who is on his way to death row. The warder knocks Joston out of his chair, "I don't sit in chairs as well as I used to," says Joston before getting his revenge later. The final group of participants are a father and daughter who are driving around looking for the turn off for his mother's house. She suggests asking a policeman for help, and he poo-poos the very idea. Lt Stoker arrives at 'his' police station, looks around at the sunset – neatly establishing that in the middle of the city there are no close neighbours – and we're introduced to Laurie Zimmer and Nancy Loomis as two of the four skeleton staff remaining before the captain goes off duty, leaving Lt Stoker in charge.

Meanwhile the gang leaders are driving around with some of their new toys, and it turns out that they're looking for someone. While her father is on the phone getting directions, the daughter spots an ice cream van, and goes over and buys one just before the gang leaders arrive and start on the seller. She realises she's been given the wrong sort, goes back and is coldly executed. Before dying, the seller tells the father about a gun in the van, and the father chases off after the gang leaders, shooting one of them (as it happens, the one who killed his daughter).

When coughing convict gets worse, the prison bus pulls into the station, and the prisoners are put in the holding cells in order to call a doctor. But it's the father who arrives first, followed by the gang, just as the station's phones are cut off. Then the power goes. The station's sergeant is killed going out to get to a radio, but the police realise they're being attacked too late to save everyone bar Joston and Burton of the prison transfer group who are in the process of leaving in disgust at the lack of facilities. Before long, with just six people on the inside (and one of those a gibbering wreck), police and criminals are forced to work together to survive…

What’s good: The action sequences. The second assault in particular is amongst the best ever filmed, and the look on Joston's face when he realises he's got a shotgun in his hands – and on Stoker's when he realises he's given him one – are priceless.

The script. Repeated lines (Joston gets them here, including "Got a smoke?" and declining to say where he got the name 'Napoleon' from) would become a Carpenter signature, but there's also good moral dilemma moments – Loomis wants to hand the father to the gang – and lots of humour. The two criminals use 'one potato, two potato' (later sampled by PWEI) to decide who goes out to attempt to get to a car. "Gonna wish me luck?" "Good luck." "Look at that, two cops wishing me luck, I'm doomed…"

The casting is inter-racial, on all sides: gang, police and criminals.

The music and editing.

What’s not so good: The $100,000 micro budget shows in a couple of places and Zimmer is a bit static. But both these are forgiveable (she's been shot!)

Music: By Carpenter on a simple synth setup. I first saw this in a late night double bill with Halloween, but famous as the music for that is, it was the Assault main theme that I was humming as I left the cinema. Its 'boom boom ba-a-boom-boooom' bass line has been ripped off endlessly by other people.

The soundtrack was unavailable on disc for over 25 years, and now you can get it, it's a bit too repetitive. A variation is used for the actual assaults, there's another theme on an electric piano for the quiet bits, and lots of sustained synth strings for the tension building. But he did it in a couple of days and, more importantly, in the context of the film it works superbly well.

Miscellany: It's actually Precinct 9, Division 13.

As well as writing, scoring and directing the film, the editor is Carpenter under a pseudonym ('John T Chance' was the name of John Wayne's character in Rio Bravo). Famously, he took out the shooting of the daughter before submitting it to the US ratings board, knowing they'd want it cut for an R-rating, and put it back afterwards.

It did poorly on its US release, but was included in the 1977 London Film Festival, where it was a lot better received. One of the people who saw it was impressed enough to ask Carpenter to make another. That turned out to be Halloween

Script supervisor (and assistant editor) was girlfriend and future producer, Debra Hill.

Overall: Everyone should see this. It always comes as a surprise to me that as many as forty minutes elapse before the assaults start and the whole thing moves along at a great pace. The official remake added a twist – one of the ones on the inside is working for the people on the outside – but is vastly inferior despite having much more money thrown at it. The original is also a lot better than Carpenter's second go, even without Natasha Henstridge. That one used people taken over by ghosts to provide the opposition, but this gang is far more believable and mysterious – the only three lines any of them ever say are during the blood oath ceremony. There's no negotiating with this bunch despite them being human.

To do one of the writing, editing, scoring, and directing as well as this would be an achievement. To do all four proved beyond any doubt that a major talent had arrived. There's another review that points out that virtually all the other 'exploitation' films of its day looked awful and/or had nudity and have since dated horribly. None of those are true here. It is wonderfully framed in widescreen, there's only some mild flirting, and the only way it's really dated is that none of the characters can pull out a mobile to call for help.

TL;DR It has way more than its fair share of moments.

Film: 4.5/5
DVD: 3.5/5

Very good picture and sound, a booklet and the trailer. For once, I have the edition without a commentary…

The one I have, two ones with a commentary (in their US versions at least), Blu-ray, and the soundtrack:

Written by Ian

June 23rd, 2011 at 11:02 am

Posted in Cinema,Countdown,DVDs

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