[First published in Admiranda/Restricted: Fury, Contemporary Action Cinema, no. 11-12, 1996. Generously translated for The Vulgar Cinema by Ted Fendt.]
The characters under assault in the Anderson precinct are fighting against a dark, anonymous force, a product of both the urban universe and the psychological world. In 1976, Assault on Precinct 13 exposed the reality of gangs, which Carpenter adapted to structures and situations taken from westerns, his favorite genre after fantasy. But very quickly—and very slowly as well—Carpenter shifts his film into a figurative system where—under the cover of night, revealed to themselves—several characters in Anderson end up seeing their proximity to death affirmed.
The Circulation of Death
The first sequence in the film depicts the massacre by the “forces of order” of an indistinct group who we later identify as the Warlords, members of a gang with the allure of a sect, the other image the film gives of the forces of an order—forces whose only purpose, from a strictly narrative point of view, is to kill. Death is produced once and it circulates through a specific, closed space that contains it while also trying to preserve itself from it.
The murders of the ice cream man and the little girl are equally as gratuitous and premeditated as the inaugural massacre. This time, the murderers and victims have faces. The film opens a passage for emotion and the father throws himself into hunting those who killed his child. He completes his vengeance at nightfall, beating up the murderer—though nothing proves that he has been able to identify him since he didn’t witness the murder and the other offers himself to him more as a sacrifice. Death returns to the Warlords in the image of the blond man’s corpse. Out of this body—frozen in a martyr’s pose—arise the ghostly silhouettes of the forces of a deadly order whose role, from a figurative point of view, is to represent death.
The Transitional Space
Up until the father’s arrival in the precinct, the movement of the bodies remains uniformly slow, even hieratic. The distances to cover in the street, on the sidewalk and in the hallways are covered in the time given to these routes, time that no one wants to see pass too quickly, especially the prisoners being transferred (Napoleon WIlson, sentenced to death, Wells and the sick guy). The space of the precinct—an empty, transitional space, emptied of its functionality and also being transferred (it’s actually a ghost precinct: the displaced characters find themselves in a place that has already been displaced itself)—becomes a space to be reinvested, protected and isolated. Lieutenant Bishop (Austin Stoker) is temporarily in charge of this space which he knew as a child and to which he is returning for the first time after many years. It is his job to protect this shot from its reverse shots.
Death in the Reverse Shot
From the precinct’s main entrance, when the assaulted look outside from the other side of the street, there are three possible reverse shots: the parking lot in front, the row of bushes on the right and the bushes on the left (secondary reverse shots can be added to these three main ones, like the one of the lawn or the manhole—this one is difficult to situate). At first, the points of view are believable, the angles match. Progressively, the continuity breaks down and soon the characters under assault don’t even have to put themselves in the right place (behind the door) to see these reverse shots, they can see them from wherever they are in the precinct. Near the end, before Bishop, Wilson and Leigh go down into the basement to take refuge, a shot of Leigh—her cloudy eyes turned towards the outside—is matched with one of the reverse shots. Point of view is no longer necessary to see death’s approach, it has contaminated the entire space of the film and will soon go through the door of precinct 13.
Breaches in the Frame
Contamination is allowed only by breaches opened by the bodies in the frame. Every body seen in the precinct—embodied by the image of the sick prisoner (a line of dialogue highlights the risk of his contagiousness)—already carries within it this death-in-progress. The film’s temporality constantly reminds us that every passing moment fatally brings the body closer to its own death. The slow, uniform rhythm carries in it a clear, inescapable, unalterable temporality.
Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston) is sentenced to death and is therefore a man “with no future.” Like Snake Plissken in Escape from New York, who everyone takes for dead, he is condemned by life (“You got something to do with death,” a preacher once told him). Wilson tells Wells: “Life just seems to pass us by, doesn’t it” and this passing by is already death, which Wilson is able to fight on his own turf, behind bars. A Warlord’s intrusion into his cell ends with the attacker’s death, or at least his demise (the Warlords don’t die, they disappear). Being behind bars, for Wilson, means not quite being dead yet, it’s his personal space.
The trace left by Bishop on a desk when he was kid (graffiti) attests to his belonging to the place: if he became a police officer—and the film corresponds to this first night on the job—it is solely to return to where he has been awaited. After his arrival, during his interview in the office of the man who he is symbolically replacing, there is a body in front of him, the space of the shot barred by a flare gun.
Leigh (Laurie Zimmer in a Bressonian performance) is as fearless as the Warlords in the beginning: her body and her face stigmatize the aggressor’s cold and impassive violence, reflecting the apparent absence of fear and emotion before they, in the basement battle, free all the hysteria she and the film contain (anguished cries, frantic gestures).
The largest breach is obviously opened by the father of the little girl, the victim of a definitive figurative death, made mute and incapable of autonomous actions and movements, plunged into a cataleptic state for having figured in a shot assigned to death, that of the reverse shot/parking lot during his arrival at the precinct. “None of us know who he is, what happened to him, or what he’s done. He could be anybody or anything,” Leigh says. He is a transitional body in a transitional space, the body through which death circulates before parking in front of their door. The shot of the parking lot, central and recurrent, is the one around which the siege (this “goddamn siege”) is organized, out of the spreading death. Two traffic signs structure this shot: “DO NOT ENTER,” which could be addressed to the people under attack as a warning (do not enter this shot, do not let this shot enter) as well as to the attackers as a prayer (do not enter the reverse shot of this shot). The signs are also more or less lit, more or less red depending on whether the Warlords are or are not in the image, and will never be less lit than when the father carries this shot (by a pan) or more lit than when the Warlords appear in it for the first time, in the reverse shot of the father after he crosses the street. He is, then, the “carrier” and the author of this shot, he is twice at its origin.
The street separating the parking lot from the precinct remains the frontier not to be crossed.
Death of the Reverse Shot
From the reverse shot and the offscreen space come muted blasts of silenced weapons. The attackers are characterized by their silence, interchangeable in their mutual muteness (in a film where the origins of the action are essentially aural: if in Hitchcock’s The Birds, it is the scene of the attack on the school—”the birds are attracted by the children’s singing”1)—here, the ice cream man’s music attracts the killers and causes the girl’s death). The silencers give the impression that the shots come from a lot further than they are actually coming (in fact, we almost never hear them, the sound of the bullets’ impact and the traces they leave remain the tangible proof of their existence), since it is from a space “beyond.” Silence and night cut off the evil in this beyond, they are both a threat and a protection. Not distinguishing the attackers, not hearing them denies them some of their reality, makes them exist less. It creates the possibility of pushing them a little further into their space, deepening the hole that represents another frontier than the one created by the editing. To not see them enter.
This is the meaning of the gun shots directed at the venetian blinds, whose purpose is of course to break up the rhythm imposed by death (acceleration), to push away the assailants (push them away by the sound too, through the blasts of bullets—through a curious chance, the only gun with a silencer, Wells’, ends up being useless because it is full of blanks), but, moreover, especially not to see them. They are hidden by the blinds—protective, horizontal lines—like the stripes painted on the “Support your local police” sign Wilson and Bishop use to protect themselves one last time. Ultimately, the three survivors take refuge in the basement, where there is no opening, suppressing any possibility of a reverse shot. The attackers enter the precinct offscreen, then, and their entrance is only heard.
Wilson, Bishop and Leigh are revealed to death, death is revealed to them, as if to better connect them to each other. The film ends with their ascension, after the bodies that filled the hallway have disappeared, leaving the path clear for an eventual return to the living, access to a reverse shot that has returned from the dead.
Alain Philippon (private letter, 1994 ↩