What's the deal with 1976 and warped Western revisionism, anyway? Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader have openly acknowledged that their masterpiece Taxi Driver was a claustrophobic urban remake of John Ford's seminal The Searchers, but in terms of outright homage, it can't hold a candle to John Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13. Assault was his first film completed after graduating from USC -- while there, he co-wrote, scored and edited an Oscar-winning short as well as directing the sci-fi black comedy Dark Star, which was later retooled by its writer into the script for Alien.
Where Taxi Driver paralleled The Searchers in vague ways, expanding upon Ethan's psychological state to make Travis Bickle, Carpenter flaunts his tributes to another landmark Western, Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo. Like that film, Assault concerns a group of lawmen and captured criminals under siege from vengeful bad guys, and the tough gangs of Los Angeles don't seem that far removed from the rich, corrupt ranchers of the Old West. Even Carpenter's editing pseudonym, John T. Chance, is a nod to Hawks' opus and John Wayne's character.
Assault demonstrates the gift for raising tension that would later inform Halloween, Escape From New York and another Hawks tribute, this time in the form of an outright remake, The Thing (though the latter relies on gore more than suspense). Its setup is as bare-bones as its $100,000 budget will allow: four gang leaders swear a blood oath of revenge on the police for ambushing and murdering six of their comrades. The department they target is in the process of transferring; only two officers, Chaney and Bishop (Austin Stoker), and two secretaries, Julie (Nancy Loomis) and Leigh (Laurie Zimmer), remain to keep things running before the last boxes are moved out.
Meanwhile, a bus bearing death row and maximum security prisoners temporarily stops at the station when one of the passengers falls ill. The two prisoners with the highest profiles are Wells (Tony Burton) and double murderer Wilson (Darwin Joston), who only discusses his crimes in elliptical, evasive terms. Wilson is thus alienated from the other characters: the guards say little and Wells is mildly hostile to him. At last, a man, Lawson (Martin West) watches helplessly as the en-route gang murder his daughter when she witnesses them kill an ice cream vendor. He manages to shoot one of the leaders and flee to the station before lapsing into catatonia.
As these characters converge on the barren station, the Street Thunder gang launches its attack, killing Chaney, all of the bus guards and most of the prisoners. The few survivors spend the rest of the film fending off the onslaught as gang members rush in on suicide missions to fulfill their "Cholo." These fights reflect the other great influence on the film, that of George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead. Barring the gang members who get inside the precinct, they lumber and sprint in the darkness, brief flashes of implacable evil whose numbers never seem to thin no matter how many rush foolishly at the station. Even Lawson's catatonia is strongly reminiscent of Barbara's mental state after watching her brother be eaten by the zombies.
Those quick, dark shots of advancing gangbangers and cars inspire a cold, incessant dread, aided greatly by Carpenter's score. The synthesized and atmospheric score is a trademark of Carpenter's, and it's always been as effective as his steady, barely lit shots in creating tension. Synth-heavy scores became all the rage in the '80s and often they hurt the film (Risky Business, Thief), but they work in these films because there's always a strange element to Carpenter's films that sets them aside from normalcy or even scientific possibility. I think of one of the other great electronic scores, Brad Fiedel's masterful work on The Terminator, and I can't help but wonder how big an influence films like this and Escape From New York had on him.
Despite the practically non-existent plot, the film contains its fair share of character moments. Bishop proves a strong leader, while Leigh is the consummate Howard Hawks leading lady: sultry, concerned, but completely capable woman who know hows to hold her own. Yes, Julie falls to pieces as you might expect a lowly secretary in the '70s, but someone has to panic in this kind of situation, and Lawson is too traumatized to scream. But it's Wilson who lives on as one of the great anti-heroes, a dark and mysterious killer who displays courage and caring (not to mention some sharp wit) when the situation requires them.
Thanks to its budget, Assault on Precinct 13 can't revel in the bloodshed and exhilaration of an open gun battle, but I believe it works better for its reliance on tension. Escape From New York likewise didn't contain a bevy of over-the-top spectacles, and it's rightfully regarded as one of the finest action films ever made. Carpenter's never been a director that would court an Oscar nomination, but the inventiveness and originality of his style even at this early juncture seem destined to enshrine him as one of the great cult directors. Assault on Precinct 13 is rough around the edges, but what do you want from a film with this kind of budget? This is easily one of the finest action films of the '70s, alongside The French Connection and The Warriors (which actually looks a bit like a Carpenter film), and it is the work of a true auteur, albeit one who wonderfully cannot take himself seriously.
Note: Assault so thoroughly entertained me and it's been so long since I've watched a John Carpenter film that I've decided to go through Carpenter's entire filmography in the near future. First, I'll go backwards and check out Dark Star, then I'll get back on track with Halloween and continue from there.