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Posts Tagged ‘Darwin Joston’

John Carpenter’s 1976 movie Assault on Precinct 13 opens with a cosmopolitan group of young Los Angelinos out for a walk one night. As their neighbourhood is perhaps not the swankiest, they have opted to play it safe and are all carrying automatic weapons. Unfortunately, when they bump into a group of police, the officers of the law are likewise not inclined to take any chances and mow them all down with pump-action shotguns, apparently before the youths manage to get a shot off. These days this sequence feels rather provocative, though it was probably never intended to.

The rest of the movie takes place in the course of the next twenty-four hours. The leaders of the street gang whose members were killed meet and swear a blood oath to exact vengeance for the deaths of their friends – quite who is never made entirely clear. Initially it seems to be anyone who crosses their path, particularly ice-cream men, before they settle for ‘anyone sheltering someone we don’t like’. This is a plot device, to be honest, but a very functional one.

Carpenter goes on to introduce the various characters who will populate the story: Lieutenant Bishop (Austin Stoker), a Highway Patrol officer on his first night’s duty – a decent, principled man, keen to make a difference, Bishop isn’t completely delighted to be given a posting supervising a near-derelict police station on the verge of being entirely shut down. All he has to do is answer the phones, redirect anyone who comes in to the new station, and make friends with the secretaries (Laurie Zimmer and Nancy Loomis).

Meanwhile, a group of prisoners is being transferred from one penal institution to another. Amongst them are Wells (Tony Burton), a fairly undistinguished crook, and Napoleon Smith (Darwin Joston), a celebrity multiple-murderer with a bit of an attitude, not to mention an ego. Also going about his business is Mr Lawson (Martin West), a man taking his young daughter to visit his mother. And, of course, the gang warlords are on the prowl, looking for trouble.

Needless to say, all these characters eventually come together at the virtually-abandoned old precinct: Lawson has a shocking run-in with the gang and ends up killing one of them. With the others on his tail he takes refuge in the precinct, where the bus carrying Wells and Smith has made a brief stop. Before anyone realises what’s happening, the building has been surrounded by dozens of heavily armed gang members, all apparently out for Lawson’s blood, and all of them totally psychotic.

The movie basically treats the gang members like something out of a horror movie, which makes the ensuing alliance between Bishop, one of the secretaries named Leigh, and the two convicts more plausible. The quartet have to work together in order to fend off the waves of attacks the gang throw against the precinct, all the while trying to raise the alarm or find a way to escape…

The last time I wrote about a John Carpenter movie, I was unfortunately obliged to be fairly unkind about it, and proposed the standard thesis: that Carpenter is one of those people who for some reason has done his career backwards. It’s perfectly understandable for people’s work to improve over time, as they practise and learn from their mistakes – the fact that this happens is one of the very few benign laws of nature – but there is something a little bit baffling about people who get worse as they progress through their career. Carpenter started with this film, Dark Star, Halloween, The Fog and The Thing, but then unaccountably seemed to go off the boil, and what ensued is essentially – oh, dear, I feel awful for saying this – a long slide into creative irrelevance.

But this movie – oh, boy! If we’re going to go with the ‘backwards career’ notion, it follows that Carpenter’s first proper movie should be amongst his best – and so it is. Halloween is the early Carpenter film that gets all the attention, not least because it was a huge hit and consolidated a new horror subgenre (I hesitate to say it actually invented the slasher movie, because, you know, Psycho). I fully see why Halloween is so acclaimed, but for sheer pleasure and entertainment value, this is the Carpenter movie for me.

Of course, watching it now, you can see that this was a director who would at some point do something noteworthy in the horror genre – the faceless, silent gang members have something of George Romero’s zombies about them, and the precinct-under-siege of course recalls the embattled farmhouse in Night of the Living Dead (Carpenter has acknowledged the debt). But you might also anticipate there would be a proper western somewhere in Carpenter’s future, given Assault kind of resembles a mash-up of a zombie movie and a cowboy film – I’ve heard it described as an ‘urban western’, which strikes me as as good a description as any (always assuming we’re still allowed to use the word urban figuratively, anyway).

What we can learn from a film like this is that sometimes a script doesn’t need a lot of subplots and subtext and character motivation: it sets up the situation and characters with supreme economy, and, once it has brought them together, proceeds to play out virtually in real time, apart from a couple of cutaway sequences. Even then, there is barely a wasted moment or line – virtually all of Darwin Joston’s dialogue in the first part of the film is setting up a pay-off near the end. Carpenter has said the final script was put together in not much more than a week, which only goes to show that an intense creative blitz can sometimes pay dividends.

Having the right neighbours probably helps, too: Carpenter was living in the same building as Darwin Joston at the time, and Joston knew Austin Stoker from other acting work, and this was how the film found its two male leads. It is almost impossible to look at this film now and not wonder why Stoker, Joston and Laurie Zimmer did not go on to much more substantial movie careers – Joston in particular is effortlessly charismatic, but the others aren’t far behind him. The pay-off to the whole movie comes in the final shot, when Bishop and Smith walk out of what’s left of the precinct side by side, and it’s one of those moments which almost lifts you out of your seat.

The rather charged by-play between Joston and Zimmer, not to mention some of their other dialogue, does betray Carpenter’s great fondness for the films of Howard Hawks – Assault also owes a debt to his Rio Bravo – a classic Hollywood touch to what is still clearly a low-budget exploitation movie with some notably graphic violence. There’s still a film-school-punk edge to Carpenter’s work at this point, most obviously in the ice cream scene – the censor insisted Carpenter remove this, or the film would be given an X certificate (Carpenter obliged, but then put the offending moment back in for the film’s wider release). Even the director has since admitted he perhaps goes a little too far at this point.

Well, maybe: but it’s the combination of traditional virtues and restless edginess that gives the film its energy and ability to relentlessly grip and entertain. It occurs to me we are sometimes a bit too hard on John Carpenter, and are too inclined to judge him based on his later films: if you or I happened along and made a film as good as Assault on Precinct 13, then promptly retired, we would still be acclaimed as having made a significant contribution to cinema. Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween, and The Thing go to comprise a very impressive legacy, to say nothing of Carpenter’s other movies. But for me, this is the one at the top of the pile.

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