After making Dark Star at college, Carpenter made his first real movie in 1976 with Assault on Precinct 13. It’s a homage/tribute/rip-off of his favourite movies, in particular Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo and George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, combining the deliberate pace and group ethic of the former with the nightmare menace and explicit violence of the latter. And some dialogue from Leone’s masterpiece Once Upon A Time in the West for good measure.
Assault took 2 years to reach the UK, possibly due to an early unpleasant scene, but became the big success of the 1978 London Film Festival, and then a huge hit on theatrical distribution before anyone in the US had even heard of John Carpenter.
As usual, Carpenter directs, edits (under the pdeudonym of John T. Chance, aka John Wayne’s character in Rio Bravo) and does the music, and this enables him to dictate the mood and pace of his movie. Fortunately he’s on top form in all three departments – the rhythmic buzzing soundtrack is a particular favourite, and was immediately seized upon by the early electronic music pioneers.
The main reason Assault works so well is that Carpenter is confident of his own decision-making, and drags you along ruthlessly. He has the good sense to commit a horrible atrocity early in the movie, convincing the audience that he’s really not very nice, masking the fact that this is really quite a loving and affectionate tribute to earlier times, when men would do their duty and women would back them up whatever it cost. It also establishes a tense atmosphere which helps to get past some of the longeurs – what my old English teacher would regard as ‘character-building’ if Carpenter was not constructing his characters out of cardboard.
Austin Stoker is tasked with keeping a straight face as the hero on his first day in a new job and does it perfectly, while Darwin Joston walks off with every scene as convicted killer and wisecracking anti-hero Napoleon Wilson. Laurie Zimmer also styles her performance on Hawks’ strong women, and Tony Burton overacts madly as Wilson’s fellow convict.
By the end, nerves are frayed and sets are wrecked in a hail of bullets, but the over-riding impression is that this is really a comedy and thriller combined to better effect than ever before, leaving you with a big smile. A perfect movie.
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