We’ve all heard of the crime classics: The Godfather, Goodfellas, Chinatown. But what about great crime films that have been overlooked? Crime films that deserve praise? For the month of May, I’ll look at four of these hidden gems. I’ll start in the 70s with John Carpenters 1976 flick, Assault on Precinct 13.
The film begins with a police raid resulting in the death of six gang members. The leaders of the massive gang, Street Thunder, vow revenge. Street Thunder gathers a plethora of guns, and goes on a rampage across the streets of LA. A chance encounter between the gang, a little girl and her father leads to a massive siege on a police station that’s about to close down. It’s up to brand new Lieutenant Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker), the station’s secretary Leigh (Laurie Zimmer), and death row convict Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston), to fend off the onslaught of the murderous gangsters outside their doorstep.
The story is simple and fast paced. The film takes place across one day. The initial shooting takes place late at night, and Street Thunder swears vengeance early in the morning. The tension continues to build throughout the day, until the assault on the precinct takes place and everything erupts into insanity. Carpenter is a master at suspense, and the entire portion of the film that takes place in precinct 13 (it’s actually precinct 9 division 13. I guess Carpenter thought Precinct 13 sounded better) will have you sweating like you’re stuck in an oven.
Assault on Precinct 13 starts with an act of violence, creating a cycle of violence that devolves into an all out frenzy of death and destruction. By the end of the day over thirty people are dead. The tension is similar to the actual situation in LA at the time. The crime rate was up across the US, and LA was especially unstable. Carpenter took the cycle of violence in 1970s LA, depicted it on screen and brought it to a new level. The scene where the little girl gets shot is a perfect example. Carpenter takes some time to establish her character, and then guns her down just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Carpenter spends the first part of the film following many different characters around, but the moment the distraught father of the dead girl enters the precinct bringing Street Thunder with him, Carpenter switches over to the perspective of the people inside. Sticking with the three leads keeps the suspense up. The three protagonists are likeable, and diverse. Bishop is a black rookie cop trying to run the station. He isn’t an action hero; he’s just trying to stay alive and uphold the law. Leigh is quick witted, and cold eyed. She can take care of herself in a fight, and keeps a clearer head than anyone else, even after she gets shot. Wilson is the mysterious badass, but he’s not a good guy. Not much is ever revealed about him, besides he is good with a gun, and embraces his killer instinct. He also has a magnetic personality, and is the funniest character in the movie.
The supporting cast isn’t as good as the leads. The Street Thunder gang is a two dimensional hive mind of mindless killers. The rest of the people fighting in the precinct stick to traditional horror archetypes. Assault on Precinct 13 is similar to George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, except without the zombies. One of the secretaries at the precinct even acts and sounds exactly like Barbara from Night of the Living Dead. John Carpenter is great at mixing genres, and Assault on Precinct 13 is a great blend of horror, crime and action.
Two final things to note about this film are the camera work, and the score. The cinematography is gritty, and reminds me of a documentary. It’s not overly shaky, and it always captures the action, but it feels raw. The score by John Carpenter is amazing. It’s imposing synth music at its best. The opening theme to Assault on Precinct 13 is my favorite composition by Carpenter. Assault on Precinct 13 isn’t as wild or tense as other works by Carpenter, but all the elements are there. It’s a fun ride and deserves more attention than it has gotten. Check it out.
Favorite Scene: The initial assault on the precinct is quite the spectacle to behold, creating lots of on-screen destruction.
Written by Tyler Ducheneaux
Images from Assault on Precinct 13