By Derek Malcolm
Truffaut, Wertmuller, and John Carpenter, to say nothing of Russ Meyer and Peter Watkins, are odd bedfellows in a film review that doesn't come from a festival. But films by each of them hit London this week, and it's not perversity that makes me lead off with the little-known Carpenter's ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13. I just happened to enjoy it the best.
ASSAULT is what is generally known as an American exploitation movie - no stars, lots of action, made on the cheap, etc. etc. Carpenter made it after hanging about trying to get a piece of the Hollywood action when his even more frugal DARK STAR, virtually a student film but now raised almost to the status of a cult object, came and went with little notice on the American scene. At first, it didn't do him much good. If they noticed it at all, American critics plundered it and bad distribution did the rest.
Then the Edinburgh Festival, indefatigable pursuers of the genre, picked it up and the London Festival followed suit. And at both places ASSAULT proved a major audience and critical success. The British Film Institute even gave it a prize, one of its main supporters on the selection committee extolling its virtues with reference to the late, great Howard Hawks. Well, I wouldn't go as far as that. But the film at least has the same sort of zestful narrative drive every Hawks movie could be relied upon to produce.
The plot boils down to the efforts of a policeman, guarding a group of tough cons in an otherwise deserted precinct station, to stop a vengeful street gang breaking in and murdering the lot of them. First he has to get the cons on his side and then to organize the building's crumbling defences. When he's done that, he has to make sure, if and when he's successful, his charges give the guns back.
The film is rather like every pot-boiling Hollywood crime melodrama you ever saw, and Carpenter recognizes that fact by keeping his tongue firmly in his cheek throughout. Usually, of course, when a director takes the mickey out of himself, he also takes the excitement out of the movie. But not this time. Even with toally one-dimensional characters - and one or two really nasty moments Hawks would never have permitted for a moment - ASSAULT works on both levels at once. Deafening applause from a capacity house at the London Festival testified to that.
But I don't feel like going on and on about the movie, partly because I think it is in grave danger of being oversold anyway, and partly because it isn't much more to me than tremendous fun, a very lively example of a young director transcending his material with super-efficient energy. I hear it is going to be re-released in America after all the fuss made about it here - and I sincerely hope that Carpenter (whose DARK STAR is still about, by the way) will soon be recognized in his home country as the lively and proficient film-maker he certainly is.