John Carpenter’s early oater, disguised as an urban action-thriller, is still one of the most palpably unnerving things to come out of the American cinema of the ’70s, but it has a lot less to do with violence itself than with the threat of it. Though usually tagged exploitation I find little of this to be exploitative in the sense of dwelling on lurid details or exaggerative violence. It’s about a gangland siege after all. Of course there’s going to be a body count. It’s also a story of vigilante justice and how apparently outdated codes clash with modern sensibilities.
Typical of Carpenter’s style, the music is simple and charged with menace. The opening credits are enough to elicit a defiant fist pump in the air from me. One can hear the genesis of his theme for Halloween a few years later, though Carpenter said that theme was inspired by Goblin’s title theme for Suspiria and Mike Oldfield’s cut-up of “Tubular Bells” for The Exorcist. That seems obvious, but Carpenter’s music in Assault as elsewhere is far less baroque and very much more to the point than those influences. The refrainless theme pokes up again every time the Anderson gang appears cruising the streets, armed to the teeth and looking like they’d do anything, as Herschell Gordon Lewis might’ve put it, just for the hell of it, which makes for some sphincter-puckering tension—Carpenter takes us inside the scope of a high-powered, silenced rifle as the crosshairs contemplate an old lady returning home with groceries and a homeless man having a swill in the midday sun.
The impotence of both the common man and the law in a world of wanton cruelty is a pronounced theme for John Carpenter. It’s a Western theme. While Westerns invariably proffered a hero to deal with cruelty in kind, this is 1970s Los Angeles and, as Lt. Ethan Bishop’s superior reminds him (and prepares us), “there are no heroes anymore. Only men who follow orders”. And men who don’t. A world where men like the members of the Anderson gang run amok is one without saviors, either from the community or from the police who supposedly protect it. The father of the little girl seeks revenge, not because, we sense, there’s some kind of catharsis in it, but because he doesn’t trust the police—he knows that if these hoods get away now, they’ll never pay the piper for their crimes. The police after all are a clean-up proposition. They can’t prevent crime. Sure, they can arrest suspicious characters, they can investigate the scene of the crime after the fact, but they are no help from hoods acting on impulse. They will not save you.
Meanwhile, one Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston) is on the bus to death row with two other prisoners, one sick. Wilson’s a smart-ass, unrepentant about killing some folks. En route, the sick guy loses it and they have to stop at the nearest precinct, which happens to be the one that Lt. Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker) is assigned to. Only problem is, the station is moving in less than 24 hours and Bishop is only there to babysit until the place is dismantled for good. He’s assisted by two attractive young policewomen (Laurie Zimmer and Nancy Kyes), or rather station nannies as neither packs heat. The Anderson gang shows up the same time as the inmate bus and takes everybody out except Wilson and Wells (Tony Burton), who are promptly thrown in lock-up by Bishop. The siege has begun and they don’t even know it yet.
Carpenter takes a simultaneously dim and conformist view. The siege where most of the film’s violence takes place is triggered when a man decides to take the law into his own hands. His anarchic compulsion results from a spasm of anger and pain and it results in events beyond anyone’s control; his assertion of will shapes events of martial law where chaos reigns and the walls between cop and criminal crumble in united struggle. If only he had called the police in the first place, Carpenter seems to be saying. But then again, hasn’t someone got to confront these terrorizers? It seems to go without saying that there’s little the long arm of the law can do about it in the grand scheme of things. When it’s all said and done, that father’s selfish act brought the wolves out of their den and probably saved a great many innocent lives in the long run.
There’s been much ado over Assault’s structural similarity to Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo, spurred on by Carpenter himself (his pseudonym as editor was John T. Chance, John Wayne’s role), and both films do feature a prison under siege. However, the most compelling link to that film is Bishop. Like Wayne and Martin’s lawmen, he refuses to give up the man who got them in the whole mess in the first place, his reasoning being that the guy came to the police station for help and the only thing to do is help him. He has a duty as a police officer. Plain and simple. Though in Rio Bravo that man is a prisoner and the brother of the villain who’s laying the siege. Assault’s inmates are actually the good guys, enlisted only when the shit really hits the fan. As a result, Hawks’ film is primarily one of camaraderie, duty and quiet professionalism, an answer to the growing liberalism and diminishing machismo of the Western cinema of the late ’50s (High Noon for example). Carpenter is more concerned with blurring distinctions: between the good/bad guy archetype as well as the line between state law enforcement and vigilantism.
Carpenter builds all this up so well, introducing pertinent motifs, lengthening the always lingering threat of violence and introducing with a sense of simultaneity characters that will eventually collide. So well that it’s a full half-hour in before the little girl (Kim Richards of Witch Mountain fame) is infamously blown away in broad daylight and the events of the title are triggered. It’s another fifteen minutes perhaps before the siege actually begins, but you wouldn’t notice because of the deft cutting of events to achieve maximum danger for our cast of characters, the gang taking care to isolate the police station, estimate its strength and cover their tracks.
It would be easy to laud Carpenter for his restraint. Everything that follows the initial silent barrage of bullets that necessitates freeing Wells and Wilson feels like a countdown. Clearly Carpenter, even this young in his career, is more concerned with a motif of doom than a visceral slug-out with his audience. You can also see a very tidy director going through the motions for the first time. The gang’s removal of their dead, more than just a clever script ploy, affords Carpenter greater shot continuity as he’s never forced to take his camera out of the station. Screen economy is important for a filmmaker who at this point is dumping all of his minuscule budget into post-production treatment.
You can also see a director who steps on his own toes with this kind of approach, and will just about make a career of it. The combined defense of the station with little ammunition is exciting, but it makes no sense for the gang members to just climb through the windows one-by-one to be picked off like so many zombies out of Night of the Living Dead, throwing caution to the wind after they’ve so carefully planned the siege in the first place. And there are clearly a few repeated shots, at least of Darwin Joston as he sprays shotgun shells into an office window and probably of Stoker too. There’s no attempt to board up the front entrance to the station either, and coincidentally the gang doesn’t try there. Try to make sense of the gang member who hides in the sedan to thwart Wells’ escape. Much of the action of this third of the film lacks logic, though Carpenter, as usual, somehow cuts it into something compelling.
Having perhaps less to do with editing, this section also becomes heavy with Wilson’s laconic one-liners, straight out of a Hawks or Curtiz movie: “It’s an old story with me. I was born out of time”. Wilson may believably say things like this, but under the circumstances of a siege it’s quite a stretch. I don’t buy Laurie Zimmer’s stone-cold portrayal either. Carpenter has it set up to be terribly frightening, yet most of his characters aren’t very frightened, aside from the catatonic father. The conclusion is pretty satisfactory in spite of its romanticism. The good guys won, the father is still alive, the cops have nothing to take credit for when they do finally show up and Bishop and Wilson have forged a bond. We’re left wondering whether or not Wilson’s heroic defense of the station will figure as a mitigating factor on his death row sentence1. My suspicion is yes.
1 Further consolation, this film took place at the tail end of the national moratorium on capital punishment meaning Wilson would’ve been resentenced a year or two later. And besides, the state of California is notoriously reluctant to actually proceed with execution.