John Carpenter made his debut as a director in 1976 with Assault on Precinct 13, if we don’t count Dark Star which, despite coming out two years before, was more of a University student project rather than a full feature film.
For Assault on Precinct 13 Carpenter took inspiration from Rio Bravo by Howard Hawks (whom he admired greatly, so much so that in 1982 he honored him by making what is possibly the best remake in the history of cinema, The Thing) as well as George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968). But the film is much more than a tribute to previous works: Carpenter immediately starts developing the themes characterizing his whole cinematography like the sympathy towards minorities and the aversion to authority. And he immediately revealed himself as the rebel he continues to be even at 70 years old by putting in his first movie the cold-blooded murder of a girl, something virtually never seen before back then. As if saying “Hey, I’m new here, my name is John Carpenter, you’ll hear about me”!
What is the plot of Assault on Precinct 13? The police brutally kill six members of the Street Thunder gang. The remaining members swear revenge and in their absurd search for victims they kill an ice cream vendor and a little girl. The father of the girl tries to avenge her but after a shootout takes refuge in a state of shock in a police precinct which is closing down. By chance, he finds there, in addition to a couple of policemen and two secretaries, some prison guards and three inmates, including the mythical Napoleon “got a smoke?” Wilson (Darwin Joston) and Wells (Tony Burton). From then on, the film shows the night siege in which the strange assortment of besieged tries to survive a horde of bloodthirsty criminals without any fear of dying (and here is the link with Rio Bravo and Night of the Living Dead: siege + zombie-like enemies).
Assault on Precinct 13 is pure Carpenterian cinema. There’s an African-American protagonist, lieutenant Ethan Bishop (Austin Stocker) and in Carpenter’s cinematography it is not unusual for the protagonists and co-protagonists to be part of a minority: women (The Fog, Halloween, The Ward), Asians (Big Trouble in Little China, Prince of Darkness) or African-Americans (Assault on Precinct 13, They Live).
There is an antihero, Napoleon Wilson, sentenced to death but who does everything in his power to save the lives of both the lieutenant and the others trapped in the precinct. His character is not too different from Escape from New York’s (and Escape from Los Angeles’) Snake Plissken.
Then the majority of the policemen and the prison guards are wicked and stupid, another characteristic that we find in several films directed by the American director: think of the malice and cynicism of the policemen and politicians in Escape from New York (1981), and of John Trent’s vision in In the Mouth of Madness (1994) in which a policeman who gradually turns into a monstrous creature mercilessly beats a person in a dark alley.
And another of Carpenter’s recurrent themes is the blurred distinction between good and evil. Napoleon Wilson might look like the good guy, but we know that he killed a lot of people and that he’s been sentenced to death! And are the policemen good? If so, why are they shutting down a precinct in a neighborhood where people cannot feel safe even when they go shopping at the supermarket in the middle of the day? And do the members of the Street Thunder gang have at least a shred of justification in their quest for revenge for their comrades killed in cold blood by the police at the beginning of the film?
But this film is not only interesting for the themes developed in it. The use of the camera is incredible, perfectly creating a very intense atmosphere, every shot is perfectly thought out, it’s symmetrical, precise… It was evident already what kind of master of cinema John Carpenter was! And is it wasn’t enough, he is also a musical master: the soundtrack is amazing and it’s impressive to think that Carpenter only had one day to record it in a studio for budgetary reasons!
In short, everything is fantastic in this film. I have seen it at least twenty times, without exaggerating, and I’m sure that I’ll do it again and again! Ciao!
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