The seventies are generally regarded as a high water mark in American cinema, but the truth is that while there was a lot of challenging and expansive work being done, it was also the heydey of cheapie exploitation cinema. Assault on Precinct 13 is not quite as auteurist as other genre slash art films like The French Connection or the Godfather, but it is also not quite as down and dirty as Super Fly or Across 110th Street, but it is interesting for the way that it kind of merges both strains in a bid to be the ultimate 70’s movie.
It’s all here: the post-Watergate bitterness about the effectiveness of the law, an unsparing focus on urban decay, an emphatically fearful tone, unspoken racial tensions, a grittiness that aims at realism but overshoots to cynicism, all layered on top of a cops and robbers movie. The look of the movie could basically be a time capsule, from the sort of things that have become visual jokes now, like the hair choices, to the more specific details, like the grimy texture of the walls of the police station, a look which will be familiar to anyone who watches this era of crime movies.
This film is often left out of the conversation about 70’s films because your Coppolas and your Scorseses aimed higher, but honestly, this strikes me as being more representative of what was actually on people’s screens at the time than Taxi Driver does. It has a genre feeling that really represents the period, but Carpenter has a technical skill with camera work and a knack for character that pushes this movie beyond other low aiming thrillers. It isn’t a perfect movie, but it is a movie that perfectly reflects it’s time for better and for worse.