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Siege Mentality: Rio Bravo and Assault on Precinct 13

  Rio Bravo came about because some of those involved in crafting it had seen High Noon, and to put it mildly were not best pleased. How could a Sheriff, played by Gary Cooper, be reduced to scrabbling around for support in his jurisdiction and have to face the threat to his community more or less alone? What did that say about the state and support of the law in the United States? Although High Noon had come to be regarded as having a liberal outlook, it actually took a cold disdain for the people it portrayed that many, no matter their political outlook, would prefer not to believe was the mindset of their fellow citizens, which was probably why the contrasting Rio Bravo became a favourite Western of many directors who were not as right wing as its star John Wayne, especially by the point the nineteen-seventies had happened along.

Wayne had become as notorious for his reactionary comments in the press as he was for his movies, the epitome of the older generation who propped open the gap between them and the younger folks who did not share his views, meaning if you were a John Wayne fan in that decade you risked losing points for lack of cool with your peers, should you be mixing with college students or non-conservative types around the age of, say, director John Carpenter. Carpenter loved Rio Bravo, it was possibly one of his favourite films of all time, but when he came to pay tribute to it he had just seen his low budget science fiction flick Dark Star released, a counterculture thumbing of the nose at authorities who would shake up the hippies (or whatever they had turned into) and demand they get soul-destroying jobs and lifestyles to endure until it came time to retire. Not the sort of entertainment that got much play Chez Wayne, you would imagine.

So what was it about Rio Bravo that attracted Carpenter, who would just as its director Howard Hawks did influence a whole generation of filmmakers across the globe? Actually, it was not that difficult to pin down: this was the epitome of the sort of diversion that would grow more important as the medium progressed and evolved, as it was one of the first, and most well-realised hang-out movies. A hang-out movie was one where you took pleasure in spending a couple of hours or so with the characters it depicted, since they were such good company; they did not need to be doing very much, all they needed to do was make you laugh, stir feelings of loyalty, look at life from an interesting perspective that appealed to you, and generally make it worth your while for getting to know them for however long it took the film to unfold. Basically, you could imagine the cast of Rio Bravo as being your best friends, the ones you'd stick by through thick and thin.

The plot was simple, but was enough to hang a variety of engaging human interactions on. Local ne'erdowell Joe Burdette (Claude Akins) had killed a man in cold blood in a brief saloon altercation, but perhaps more importantly to how we regard him, he had been bullying an alcoholic known merely as Dude, played by Dean Martin, and as we could tell Dude was a good guy who had hit hard times, Joe was not a man we wanted to see free to roam the streets and victimise, even murder, those he looked down upon. Dude, we learn, has suffered a run of bad luck after the woman he was devoted to ran out on him, so he turned to the bottle and that has been his ruin, but somehow getting his own back on Joe and his ilk can offer a lifeline and have him considering bucking up his ideas and getting back on track. There is a reason he is capable of this, and that is simple friendship, which naturally under these circumstances is more complicated than it looks.

When we first see the Sheriff John T. Chance, he is instantly recognisable as John Wayne, but he has his lip curled in disgust at Dude's debasement: if that's the reaction you generate in The Duke, then you know you have to see about improving your lot. He manages to arrest Joe and get him back to the jail with Dude's assistance, thereby making the drunkard feel useful, which is an important step in getting him to slot into his role as a productive member of society, but even more vitally, it means that as the two men get together at the jail and start to, yes, hang out with each other and Chance's Deputy Stumpy (a limping Walter Brennan), plus Ricky Nelson's babyfaced gunslinger Colorado Ryan, they start to take genuine pleasure in their existences. Their purpose is to keep Joe behind bars until the Marshall can reach the small town, and that will not be easy when his brother Nathan (granite-jawed John Russell) is determined to break him out.

Yet their actual purpose was to demonstrate the worth of socialising and appreciating good company, not like High Noon where it was like pulling teeth trying to get someone to admit they might actually like and support you. As often with Hawks, there was a woman in this mix as well, in this case Feathers played by Angie Dickinson, who showed she deserved to share the movie by being as capable and supportive as the small band of men who were all that was left between the civilians and the outlaws. She was also Chance's love interest, perhaps because Hawks had liked the collaboration closing the age gap between Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not; some have grumbled about this, as they did at the time of the release, but Dickinson was closer in years to the callow Nelson and you cannot envisage those two getting together, whereas Angie was always something of a man's woman in her roles, and while Wayne had misgivings, she makes it believable that Feathers would choose the hero.

So we had our cast, and we could see the benefits of human contact that would bring love to the loveless and a helping hand to the hopeless, but what about the suspense? Over a substantial two hours plus, Hawks allowed us to get to know and like Chance and his cohorts, which made the eventual siege of the jail as Nathan Burdette gathers his resources and pits them against the protagonists all the more gripping since we did not want to lose any of them. What has been a relaxing journey through palling about - they even have the opportunity for a sing-song, which could have been crowbarred in to allow the singers to show off, yet you wouldn't change a frame of it – and now we have to face up to the possibility that we might not be in the company of this lot for much longer. Obviously, once the film ends, that's the case no matter what the characters' fate, but we can always watch it again, which was why Rio Bravo gathered the cult following it did, and indeed why Carpenter's tribute to it in 1976 did exactly the same.

For Carpenter, Hawks' career was an ideal to aspire to, and after Dark Star had been enough of a midnight movie hit to give him carte blanche on his next project, he paid tribute to the Hollywood veteran in a way that many of Carpenter's own disciples would come the twenty-first century; it’s all connected. Already by this stage his trademarks were there, working in genre fiction, under the influence of past Westerns, science fiction and horror that he grew up with, and to the fore from the opening titles of Assault on Precinct 13, his deft way with a simple, compulsive electronic melody. That theme has been referenced time and again, whether in sample or invoked otherwise across pop culture: there was a point where you could not move for Italian flicks which aped the score of this, though they never bettered its elegant menace and clean synth notes that offered the perfect curtain raiser as the credits played out as red text on a black background.

Again, simplicity, that was what the best work of this director had, a premise that could be summed up in a single sentence, here "street gangs attack a Los Angeles police station", which could be taken on any journey Carpenter chose. They start their siege for reasons the character stuck in the building have barely any idea about, all they know is that a struggle for survival has started and they have to endure or perish, with no middle ground possible. As the opening scenes illustrate, four Los Angeles gangs have united to take revenge on the cops for their massacre of a group of their members in an urban shootout, which was rather like shooting fish in a barrel if the depiction we see is correct, so the leaders (or "Warlords", according to the cast list at the end) stage a blood rite known as a cholo to devote themselves to murdering as many police as they can, though if the reports we hear are true they have been bumping off civilians across their territories to boot.

We do see the main quartet of Warlords committing such a crime, as for the hell of it they stalk an ice cream van to commence their night of terror, which culminates in one of the grimmest scenes of violence in Carpenter's canon, never mind American cinema of the seventies which even by 1976 had been pushing envelopes as if there were no tomorrow. If nothing else, it establishes that all bets are off and these killers will stop at nothing, no morality or no rules and regulations, their essential unknowable quality as well as their numbers what gives them their strength: there's just no negotiating with these men. As you may have noticed, this was starting to sound a lot like another cult movie from the close of the previous decade, George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead, and there were similarities Carpenter lifted for his story, mostly the faceless, implacable enemy but more importantly the African-American hero, here an officer named Bishop played by the Trinidadian actor Austin Stoker, whose highest profile role previous to this had been in a Planet of the Apes sequel.

Stoker exuded the sort of confidence that Hawks would have aspired to in casting his leading roles, he was essentially the Wayne role, underlined by the way that Carpenter used the pseudonym John T. Chance for his editing credit, just putting it straight out there that we were in Western territory, only with a seventies urban twist. There were Westerns being made with black leads by this stage, Fred Williamson in particular was very keen on the form, but the genre was adapting itself into what would be known as the action movie as the eighties began to dawn, taking the typical themes and, of course, violence out of the historical Old West context and bringing them bang up to date. With that in mind you could perceive Assault on Precinct 13 as one of the benchmarks of action, setting up the template that would be returned to time and again, even down to the use of humour to offset the potential for depressing incidents: we were dealing with a style of plot that had people dying as a matter of course, just try and name an action flick that nobody expires in.

While Stoker had a few one-liners that fleshed out his character, the lion's share of the jokes went to Darwin Joston, one of the great never-weres of thrillers. He played Napoleon Wilson, a death row convict being transferred to another prison who by a twist of fate winds up at the going out of business police station Bishop has been assigned to oversee the last night of, just as the gangs mass outside and start unleashing their hails of bullets. Wilson even had his own catchphrase ("Got a smoke?") and Joston, who was Carpenter's next door neighbour, nailed the laconic but edgy persona that humour played a major part of delivering, just as Rio Bravo deepened its bonds between the characters when they managed to make each other and the audience laugh. He doesn't make Lauren Bacall-alike Laurie Zimmer giggle, as the secretary landed in this muddle, but she was evidently instructed to play it ice cool and she makes an intriguing distinction in relation to Joston's laid back yet concerned approach, though she's not for everyone and indeed personally hated her performance.

You would come away from the film remembering some tense, well-portrayed action scenes on a budget, and on returning to it as so many did surprised at how effective the quips were, that indomitability in the face of possibly deadly adversity that rendered the heroics easy to admire, just as in Rio Bravo. Assault on Precinct 13 was notably a tougher watch when it came to its presentation of the trials and tribulations its characters went through, but they both demonstrated the worth of sticking together under fire, be that literally or otherwise. With that rewatchability and the film's wealth of background facts and anecdotes in mind, Second Sight have released a 40th Anniversary Blu-ray and DVD limited edition of Assault on Precinct 13 with every possible extra feature available to them:

· Newly restored from High Definition 1080p transfer
· DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and Uncompressed PCM original mono audio options
· Return to Precinct 13: A new Interview with Austin Stoker
· Producing Precinct 13: A new interview with Joseph Kaufman
· Filmmaking with John: A new interview with Tommy Lee Wallace
· Captain Voyeur, John Carpenter student short (Blu-ray exclusive): one of the earliest Carpenter works, merely a black and white sketch with a very sixties sense of humour that makes light of a Peeping Tom when a more sinister approach would be better employed, and indeed that was the direction he took as his career established itself.
· Do You Remember Laurie Zimmer documentary film (Blu-ray exclusive): this is a French documentary of around an hour long where the director of one of Zimmer's unfinished films tries to track her down in 2002, twenty-five years after they lost touch. It's a meandering detective story with meditations on the transient nature of the present, and not to say how it ends, but it is both satisfying and a little frustrating.
· Interview with John Carpenter and Austin Stoker
· The Sassy One with Nancy Loomis
· Audio Commentary with John Carpenter
· Audio Commentary with Tommy Lee Wallace
· Trailer
· Radio Spots
· 5 Art Cards (Limited Edition box set exclusive)
· Bonus CD soundtrack disc (Limited Edition box set exclusive)
· English subtitles for the hard of hearing
Author: Graeme Clark

 

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Last Updated: 18 March, 2006