Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Assault on Precinct 13 (1976 film)

Written, scored, directed, and edited by John Carpenter, Assault on Precinct 13 is the story of a cop trying to defend his precinct from a gang as he is helped by convicted murderer. The film is a simple showdown movie where a cop and his colleagues go into a war against a brutish gang of thugs. Starring Austin Stoker, Darwin Joster, Laurie Zimmer, Nancy Kyes, and Tony Burton. Assault on Precinct 13 is a chilling yet intense film from John Carpenter.

Set in a precinct that is about to close near the ghettos of Los Angeles, the film is about a police lieutenant whose job is to watch over the precinct on its final night where it is being under siege from a gang where he is helped by a secretary and two convicts including an infamous murderer as they fight off the gang. It’s a film that manages to take a simple premise about a precinct under siege yet it is more about a lieutenant trying to maintain some order and stay alive while having to trust someone who is very likely to kill him. John Carpenter’s screenplay has this very unique structure where it takes place entirely in the span of a day.

The first half of the story takes place following a gang shooting by police as a group of warlords plan to retaliate while Lieutenant Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker) is getting ready to run precinct 13 near the ghetto as a last-minute assignment. Yet, the actions of a gang would cause trouble nearby as a bus carrying a trio of convicts, including the murderer Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joster) during a transfer where a stop at the precinct would later be fatal. The film’s second half would begin when a man (Martin West) comes into the precinct exhausted and in need of help after a confrontation with one of the warlords where all hell breaks loose. The film’s second half sets almost entirely in this precinct where Wilson, Bishop, a secretary named Leigh (Laurie Zimmer), and a convict named Wells (Tony Burton) are forced to take a stand for their own survival with limited amount of ammo while realizing that they’re going up against a gang that refuses to quit.

John Carpenter’s direction is truly riveting not just for the way he builds up the suspense but in how he uses this timeframe of 24 hours to play into the sense of dread that is emerging. The direction starts off in the late-night mornings at a ghetto in Los Angeles where a gang is being gunned down by the police as it would set off a chain of events. Much of Carpenter’s direction involves some close-ups and medium shots as there’s a simplicity to the camera angles but its approach to violence and suspense is quite graphic and confrontational. Most notably an infamous sequence often referred to as “the ice cream scene” which involves an ice cream man and a gun-toting warlord as it is a scene of unexpected violence at its most visceral.

Once the story is set at night at the precinct where sounds of gun silencers come into play, it becomes clear that it becomes a film where anything can happen. Even as the violence is very unpredictable outside of the precinct while the suspense is happening inside where Bishop and Wilson have to trust each other. Under the John T. Chance alias, Carpenter’s approach to editing is quite straightforward but once the battle begins. There is a fluidity to his rhythmic cutting as it plays to the intensity of the violence as Carpenter knows when to cut to showcase the sense of violence that is happening. Also serving as the film’s composer, Carpenter’s electronic-based score is truly hypnotic with its very dark and eerie synthesizer riffs as it plays into the suspense and terror in the film. Especially in the final showdown between the remaining survivors and the gang in a climax that is violent as well as terrifying. Overall, Carpenter creates a very thrilling and mesmerizing film about a group of people under siege by a ruthless gang.

Cinematographer Douglas Knapp does excellent work with the film‘s cinematography to create some unique lighting schemes and textures for the scenes set at night in order to convey the mood of terror during the siege. Art director/sound effects editor Tommy Lee Wallace does amazing work with the look of the precinct that is almost in ruins as it‘s about to be abandoned while the sound effects he creates with sound recorder William Cooper are fantastic to convey the sense of terror as well as the impact of the silencer bullets.

The film’s brilliant cast include some notable small roles from Frank Doubleday as a gun-toting warlord, Peter Bruni as the ice cream man, John J. Fox as a warden who doesn’t like Wilson, Charles Cypher as the prison authority figure Starker who watches over Wilson, Henry Brandon as the precinct’s original top figure Chaney, Nancy Kyes as the very scared secretary Julie, Martin West as the shocked man who confronts a warlord in Lawson, and Kim Richards in a small yet terrific role as Lawson’s daughter. Tony Burton is excellent as the cautious convict Wells who realizes the gang that they’re going up against as he is also the film‘s comic relief.

Laurie Zimmer is fantastic as Leigh as a secretary who had seen a lot at the precinct as she proves to be very handy with a gun while wondering what kind of man Wilson is. Darwin Joston is great as Napoleon Wilson as this convicted murderer who is a charmer as he often asks for cigarettes as he proves to be a formidable ally who is willing to help anyone as he knows he’s an asshole but a reliable one. Finally, there’s Austin Stoker in an incredible performance as Lieutenant Ethan Bishop as this straight-laced cop that used to live in the ghetto as he tries to keep everyone alive from the siege as well as trusting someone like Wilson which he knows is a major risk.

Assault on Precinct 13 is a phenomenal film from John Carpenter. Armed with a great cast, a suspenseful premise, and a fucking cool score, it’s definitely one of Carpenter’s great early triumphs. Even in moments that are just shocking in terms of the presentation of the violence. In the end, Assault on Precinct 13 is a remarkable film from John Carpenter.

John Carpenter Films: Dark Star - Halloween - Someone’s Watching Me! - Elvis - The Fog - Escape from New York - The Thing - Christine - Starman - Big Trouble in Little China - Prince of Darkness - They Live - Memoirs of an Invisible Man - Body Bags - In the Mouth of Madness - Village of the Damned - Escape from L.A. - Vampires - Ghosts of Mars - The Ward

The Auteurs #60: John Carpenter Pt. 1 - Pt. 2

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