To call John Carpenter’s sophomore effort lean and effective is both too much praise and not enough, and the film’s long history of being viewed through the frame of Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo (1959) is equally as complicated. The basic setup is there — a facility of the law is under siege and a small, outnumbered group must defend themselves — as is the importance of working together in an ever shifting group-hero dynamic. Both Assault on Precinct 13 and Rio Bravo are films of interiors, surfaces, and camaraderie, not to mention a classical aversion to angles (almost every shot in both films is on sticks, eye level). But the fundamental difference between the two, I believe, is the sense of what’s being worked with: for Hawks it’s a matter of restraint, of doing less with more, whereas for Carpenter it’s a matter of doing more with less. These are compliments, by the way.
Further linking the two, aside from Carpenter’s well documented obsession with Hawks, is the lack of self-seriousness, or rather, playfulness, that could easily be heralded as the distinctive trait of both directors, neither of which would ever identify as being “an artist”. I’m thinking of the dialogue in both films, which tends to take on a self-referential mode, almost mocking itself at times. In Assault, when Julie asks “Why would anybody want to shoot at a police station?” you get the feeling that she’s insulting the film’s improbable setup, as is the case of Wells calling his own demise when he says, “Look at that, two cops wishing me luck. I’m doomed.” Similar in Rio Bravo is Chance’s quip of “Who’ll turn up next?” amidst the gunfire finale, or when Wheeler asks, “A game-legged old man and a drunk. That’s all you’ve got?” to which Chance replies, “That’s WHAT I got.” During my recent viewing of Assault, I imagined someone asking a similar question to Lt. Bishop: “A serial killer and a secretary. That’s all you’ve got?” Sure, that’s WHAT he’s got, he might say, in additional to some explosives and this totally amazing, pulsating synthesizer score.
[Note — Seven Seconds or Less will be an ongoing series at Sculpting in Dimes, which is meant to serve a dual purpose as not only a viewing log but a place to put down some thoughts, hopefully somewhat brief and concise, hence the title. This has little to do with PHX Suns basketball.]