Saturday, June 24, 2017

John Carpenter Revisited: ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 (1976)



I grew up in a small Virginia town where there wasn’t much to do.  That probably has something to do with my love of movies—because the one thing by hometown did have was three different video stores.  There was Sandridge A&H, which got most of the mainstream releases.  There was The Record Shop, which had a more eclectic—but also pretty uneven—selection.  And then there was Videos Etc. 

Videos Etc. was the farthest away from my house, but it was worth the trip for a couple of reasons.  First, the store was stocked by someone with a deep, deep love of exploitation movies.   Second, they had 50-cent Mondays.  So every Monday, me and my friend Ben would bike to Videos Etc. and rent seven movies each (seven was the maximum allowed) at 50 cents a pop. The beauty of renting fourteen movies for $7 was that it encouraged us to take chances on titles we might not have checked out otherwise.  If one of our selections was a dud, well, there were still thirteen more possibilities.   I hate to think of all the movies I might NOT have been exposed to during my most impressionable years if it hadn’t been for 50 cent Mondays.  This is a long-winded way of setting up my discovery of ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13.  I couldn’t resist the cover art…


I honestly don’t recall the first time I sat down and watched the film.  What I remember is that I watched it over and over again, until I was intimately familiar with every twist and turn.  To elaborate: I don’t remember being initially shocked by the callous murder of a poor little blonde-haired girl who just wanted a little twist with her vanilla ice cream cone.  (Maybe I should blame that on “desensitization,” which was a popular thing to do in the 90s.)  What I do remember is becoming increasingly aware of how slick and calculated the movie was…. And how supremely confident the filmmaker seemed to be.  Watching it today, I feel the same way.  This John Carpenter on a mission.

What’s the mission?  Any number of critics can tell you that Carpenter’s original plan as to fuse his favorite western film, RIO BRAVO (1959), with George Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968).  In short: It’s a gritty “siege movie.”  That’s as good a setup as any.  The first act of the film establishes the modern-horror-movie world where “there are no heroes anymore,” and then introduces the “zombies”—L.A. gangland marauders who coldly operate as a unified force rather than as individuals.   Next, Carpenter shifts gears and introduces a set of reluctant heroes straight out of a Howard Hawks western. 

  
Austin Stoker plays Ethan Bishop—a cop after John Wayne’s character in THE SEARCHERS, but who has more in common with NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD’s even-tempered hero.  What makes Bishop a hero?  I’d argue it’s the same qualities that define a classic western hero…. which is maybe not what you’re thinking.  It’s not just a matter of courage and morality.  When asked for his definition of a “hero,” Carpenter says, “He is a character with a singleness of purpose.  Whatever his single purpose is, whether it’s dark or light or positive, that’s where your hero is.”  Ethan Bishop has a job to do—serving and protecting the community—and he’s going to do it.  Period.  He never lets little things like prejudice or resentment or fear get in the way. 

Next up is Napoleon Wilson.  If Bishop is the John Wayne hero in this urban western, Wilson is the Clint Eastwood anti-hero.  Like Leone’s spaghetti westerner, he has “something to do with death.”  Wilson is living a cursed life, in a way, but that doesn’t make him in a bad guy.  Regardless of the challenges life throws at him, he remains a simple man: a cynic on the surface perhaps, but a romantic idealist underneath.  He’s not hard to understand.  Dude just wants a cigarette.  Somebody please give him a cigarette. 

Which brings us to Leigh—the prototypical “Hawksian woman,” named for Leigh Brackett, the screenwriter behind several Howard Hawks films (THE BIG SLEEP, HATARI!, RIO BRAVO, EL DORADO and RIO LOBO).  It’s tempting to assign Brackett the credit for the strong female characters in Hawks’ work, but in fact the Hawksian woman existed before THE BIG SLEEP.  Assertive female leads are actually more prominent in the filmmaker’s early comedies (see HIS GIRL FRIDAY and BALL OF FIRE) than they are in his later films written by Brackett.  Hawks himself explained why to interviewer Joseph McBride: “It just happens that kind of a woman is attractive to me.  I merely am doing somebody that I like.  And I’ve seen so many pictures where the hero gets in the moonlight and says silly things to a girl, I’d reverse it and let the girl do the chasing around, you know, and it works out pretty well.” 

In the same interview, Hawks summed up the “Hawksian woman” and the Hawksian hero with one single line of dialogue each.  The Hawksian woman, he said, exudes frankness and honesty.  “I’m hard to get,” she says sarcastically, “All you have to do is ask me.”  Variations on this line appear in many of the director’s films.  Likewise, the men in his films are constantly repeating the same basic question: “Are you good enough?”  Sometimes, the men and women in a Howard Hawks movie don’t even have to say these lines out loud.  They can convey their message non-verbally, through a simple glance or—famously—through the lighting of a cigarette.

With that in mind, I decided to watch ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 back-to-back with the Howard Hawks movie TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT—because it has a great cigarette-lighting scene between Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.  TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT was the first film of four films that Bogie and Bacall made together, and their onscreen chemistry is sizzling. 



I’ve always loved the behind-the-scenes story about how this partnership came to be.  According to Hollywood legend, Hawks saw a headshot of a young New York actress named Betty Perske, and told his assistant that he’d like to do a screen test.  Soon after, the na├»ve young woman showed up at his office in Hollywood, suitcase in hand.  She didn’t test well—her voice was too high-pitched and she no confidence—but she was determined.  She told Hawks, “Tell me what to do an I’ll do it.”  Hawks sent her away to work with a voice coach for a few weeks.  When she came back, her voice was low and husky.   She had become Lauren Bacall.

Well, almost.  Hawks offered another makeover suggestion.  At a Hollywood party, Bacall confided in the director that she didn’t have much luck with men.  Hawks asked, “How do talk to them?”  The actress said she was as nice as she could be.  Hawks told her that was the problem; she should try talking down to them.  The actress tested the new approach on Clark Gable.  She approached him at the party and asked, “Where’d you get that tie?”  Gable responded, “Why do you want to know?”  Bacall said, “So I can tell my friends not to shop there.” Gable took her home that night… and Hawks got an idea.  In his next film, he wanted to pair Humphrey Bogart, the most insolent man in Hollywood, with a woman who was even more insolent.  The rest is history. 

John Carpenter learned many things from Howard Hawks—one of which was to build his films around character instead of plot.  TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT was actually made on a bet.  Hawks bet Ernest Hemingway that he could make a good film out Hemingway’s worst book.  Hawks won the bet—in large part because he was actually betting on Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall (and let’s not forget Walter Brennan).   ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 is Hawksian in the sense that the story is spare and straightforward, and the characters provide all the nuances.

Howard Hawks once said, “All I’m doing is telling a story.  I don’t analyze it or do a lot of thinking about it.  I work on the fact that if I like somebody and think they’re attractive, I can make them attractive.  If I think a thing’s funny, then people laugh at it.  If I think a thing’s dramatic, the audience does.  I’m very lucky that way.  I don’t stop to analyze it.”  The director’s point of view was equally straightforward.  He said, “I try to tell my story as simply as possible, with the camera at eye level.  I just imagine the way the story should be told, and I do it.” 

Carpenter took these lessons to heart.  In a 1980 interview, he said, “The secret for me is that I get emotionally involved with the characters I’m dealing with.  How I feel about them is how I make them out on the screen, and how I want the audience to feel.”  In a 2001 interview, he said: “As a director, if I’m watching a scene I’m interpreting it through my eyes, so where I will put the camera is wherever I’d like it to be.  It doesn’t mean it’s right, it just means it’s mine. […] Don’t intellectualize that—that’s the death.  Run on your instinct!  Run on your feelings!  Take a chance!”

 
Once Carpenter shot ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13, the film was supposedly pieced together by an editor named John T. Chance.  But Hawks fans (and now Carpenter fans) know that John T. Chance is the name of John Wayne’s character in RIO BRAVO.  Carpenter edited the film himself, and this was his way of acknowledging another debt to his favorite filmmaker.  The action sequences in ASSAULT are truly worthy of any Howard Hawks western, because John Carpenter is, first and foremost, a visual storyteller.  That may seem like an obvious thing to say about a filmmaker, but I’d argue that we can’t take for granted that a filmmaker is a visual storyteller just because he or she happens to work in a visual medium.  Some directors and editors know how to coherently construct action sequences for maximum shock and suspense; some do not.  Carpenter knows because he studied RIO BRAVO (among other films), shot by shot.  Hawks may have also taught him the usefulness of shooting in widescreen format.  More screen space = greater opportunity to establish geography = greater chance of creating suspense.  Since ASSAULT, all of Carpenter’s feature films (with the lone exception of lower-budgeted THE WARD) have been shot in Panavision. 

One final thought: I can’t write about ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 without saying something about the score, which expertly reinforces the filmmaker’s basic storytelling style: simple, straightforward, and relentless.  I read somewhere that the main theme was inspired by Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song.”  Not a bad note to end on.