There's nothing quite as depressing as a good TV memory proven wrong, is there? You see, I remembered NBC's 1975 telemovie, The Deadly Tower, starring Kurt Russell as infamous University of Texas sniper Charles Whitman, as one of the best made-for-TV movies of the 1970s. Well.... Warner Bros. Archive Collection - fast-becoming one of my favorite releasing arms because of their attention to neglected genres like the made-for-TV movie - has released The Deadly Tower, directed by Jerry Jameson and co-starring Richard Yniguez, Ned Beatty, Clifton James, and John Forsythe, through their direct-buy, mail-order service, and for fans of this cult telemovie, it's nice to have it on disc in an acceptable transfer. But there are problems with this telemovie, ones I admit to not picking up on as a ten-year old in p.j.s when it first aired. When it sticks to action and suspense (which are plentiful here), The Deadly Tower is tense and nerve-wracking, and expertly produced. But invented characters, a fudged historical context, misplaced, preachy messages, and most importantly, a central villain not adequately explored - in other words, a typically compromised telemovie script for a true-life crime - tamp down the film's potential.
The following synopsis covers events as they take place in the film, The Deadly Tower - and not necessarily how they unfolded in real life. August 1, 1966. Police officer Ramiro Martinez (Richard Yniguez) has just pulled a hot, sticky, lonely night shift in his prowl car through the humid streets of Austin, Texas. Returning to headquarters, he's dismayed to discover from his immediate superior, Lieutenant Lee (Pernell Roberts), that his latest bid for promotion to sergeant has been denied; it's implied, although never stated, that Martinez's race may be a factor in this denial. Officially off-duty, Martinez tries to enjoy his day off (barbecue and screaming kids), but a lingering disagreement with his wife, Vinnie (Maria Elena Cordero), over his moribund career with the Austin Police Department, boils over into an argument.
At the same time, on that same fetid, sweltering Austin night, all-American college student and ex-Marine Charles Whitman (Kurt Russell), has just knifed his kindly mother and his sweet school teacher wife with his regulation bayonet. Leaving a suicide note where he mentions "fears and violent impulses, and terrible headaches," Whitman prepares his gear locker with guns and ammo for an assault on the unsuspecting town. Stopping off first at the gun store to obtain some high-powered weaponry, Whitman blithely hauls his deadly cargo up to the floor below the Observation Deck of The University of Texas tower, and tells the secretary manning the deputy registrar's desk in the hallway that if she values her life, she'll get out of there - fast. Taking the elevator downstairs, she warns the campus security captain of what happened, but his sealing off of the elevators comes too late for a visiting group of tourists who suffer the first shots from Whitman's sawed-off shotgun. Barricading himself now on the round, open-air Observation Deck of the tower, Whitman carefully arranges his weapons and begins to open fire on the crowds of students and passers-by below, causing pandemonium. As confused reports of the shooting eventually reach the police and the media, Martinez volunteers to report where he's needed, and Lieutenant Lee orders him to the tower. Thus begins a deadly confrontation that pits sniper against police officer as Martinez, step by harrowing step, gets closer to a final showdown with the psychopathic Whitman.
Just yesterday, in my review for another true-crime telemovie, A Death in California (please click here to read that review), I commented on how for most of these types of telemovies based on actual events, it's best to view them as largely fictional works, because so often events and characters are altered, condensed, or outright fabricated, for dramatic purposes. And as long as the filmmakers are up-front about that dramatizing process, and as long as the true-crime event itself isn't particularly well known to viewers (so they won't be distracted by inventions and omissions they're familiar with), it's a valid process for concocting a dramatic television work. With The Deadly Tower, however, it's difficult to apply that "live and let live" attitude, because critical elements and characters in the story are missing or altered, while the movie itself, outside of its historical inaccuracies, pastes on some questionable messages about gun control and, subliminally, racism, that serve as mere padding for a film already short on real dramatics.
First, anyone expecting an examination of Charles Whitman and what might have driven him to assassinate 14 people and wound 32 others at The University of Texas (not to mention murdering his mother and wife the night before), won't find it in The Deadly Tower. Dramatic scenes outside of Whitman's preparations for, and the actual shooting at the tower, are weighted towards the Martinez character. There's nothing inherently wrong in switching the focus from Whitman to Martinez, but I'm curious as to why the producers decided on that framing device? Surely the story linchpins on Whitman's actions and more specifically, on why he went up into the tower, but the movie nervously skirts any attempts at explanations (at least psychologically speaking, referencing instead the possibility that a malignant brain tumor may have been a factor in his actions), and just records his heinous deeds. Whitman's background offers some fascinating possibilities for dramatic purposes (an abusive, authoritarian father, a highly intelligent child who showed an early fascination with guns, one of the youngest boys to achieve Eagle Scout...but also a strange prankster who was court-martialed by the Marines he hated), but they're utterly ignored here, with Russell asked only to narrate one or two lines from his suicide notes as possible explanations for his actions. Were the network suits afraid of somehow "glamorizing" or excusing Whitman, had they explored what might have made him tick? Was it safer to go with the framing device of Martinez, with the cliched presentation (by TV drama standards) of noble Martinez suffering against a (fictitious) nagging wife and subtle racism at work?
As a result, nothing is truly done with the Whitman character, who functions more as an uptight Boogey Man than as a dimensional figure. The early scenes with Russell stalking his family are menacing and quite frighteningly staged by director Jameson, but when we see nothing else is going to be divulged about the forces in his life that shaped Whitman, he just becomes an on-screen killing machine with ultimately very little viewer interest other than having him stopped. Other than the narration we heard earlier, character development is almost nil, rendering his final anguished scream as the radio tolls the names of his dead and as the cops move in, meaningless. What is he screaming at? And why? Is he upset he killed them? Or is he upset he didn't kill more? We don't know, and worse, we don't care. Little character touches such as having Whitman looking for a waste can for his candy wrapper after mowing down some people (a moment reminiscent of the other Whitman-inspired feature, Bogdanovich's excellent Targets), or his growing anxiety at seeing his perfectly shined boots scuffed are good, but think how much more impact those moments would have had, had they been put into some kind of context with a more developed character. Worse, this approach to Whitman spells an utter waste of what could have been a brilliant piece of perverse casting: Disney's main leading man of the early 70s, Kurt Russell, as the all-American psychopath Charles Whitman. Released a few months after Russell had finished his final film in the Dexter Riley trilogy for Disney (The Strongest Man in the World), the image of wholesome Russell sullenly eyeing a scrawny little puppy dog while debating whether to skin it, must have been a shock to TV viewers who had nothing but good feelings for the Disney star (as an absolutely devoted Dexter Riley fanatic, I know that image blew me away when I saw The Deadly Tower as a kid). Although Russell doesn't resemble the tall, beefy, somehow menacing crew-cut Whitman, his boyishly plump, square face, sweating uncomfortably in his tightly-buttoned coveralls, and those mean little black marble eyes approximate that all-American nightmare of the clean-cut, seemingly perfect young man who turns out to be completely crazy (compare Whitman's almost cartoonishly wholesome photos and his resume, with that more easily identifiable - in terms of our own stereotypes - psychotic from 1966, the saturnine, pockmarked, uneducated, itinerant mass murder, Richard Speck, whose crimes preceded Whitman by only a few weeks). Had the screenplay focused more on Whitman, the talented Russell wouldn't have had to wait until John Carpenter's Elvis in 1979 to forever leave behind his Disney persona.
And there's more than enough of that "real" story to make The Deadly Tower both exciting and meaningful, but padding and facile, messagey moments continue to crop up. The John Forsythe character, Lt. Forbes, is the main purveyor of the film's anti-gun message. A white knight who dislikes the other cops reliance on guns (he wears a brilliant white shirt compared to the dark grey uniforms of his co-workers), he wants to talk Whitman down with a relative or friend, and during his investigation into finding out who Whitman is, he guilt-trips the gun store owner who legally sold Whitman his guns and ammo, and tells off a cop who says bleeding hearts are taking away guns from citizens. Of course, The Deadly Tower is weighted in favor of these political stances by eliminating inconvenient facts that counter those arguments. Whitman was known to have seen several doctors connected with The University of Texas, one of whom apparently was told by Whitman that he had uncontrollable, violent thoughts. If the Forsythe character wanted to play the pointless blame game with the gun store owner who serviced an anonymous customer, why not blame the doctor who knew Whitman was a potentially violent head case, too? He can't - because that doctor isn't in the film (a generic priest is substituted, relaying vague talk Whitman had about "stress factors" of bridges he was studying). And to have Forsythe snap back at the cop who comments on gun control (the director makes sure he has a thick Texas accent), saying the same laws that let the civilians shooting at the tower buy guns allowed Whitman to buy some, as well, is to ignore comments the real Martinez made many times: the police were grateful to the civilians who were better armed than the police, and who kept Whitman largely at bay with covering fire, and very probably greatly reducing the final death toll (indeed, the film shows this tactic very clearly...and yet several times the screenplay looks down on these civilians as gun-happy rednecks). When The Deadly Tower starts to preach, it gets even further away from the truth.
What The Deadly Tower does get right - very right - are the action and suspense scenes themselves, and there are a considerable number of them here. Jameson, a director known at one time for some big-and-small-screen disaster efforts (Heatwave!, Superdome, Airport '77, Raise the Titanic!), is unerringly right in setting the atmosphere in the opening scenes of the film. In particular, the murder scenes with Russell are menacingly staged and quite unsettling (there's a beautiful strobe effect created by a spinning ceiling fan when Russell contemplates killing his mother). The cinematography by Matthew F. Leonetti is harsh and evocative, with grainy, oppressive blues and greens, and then sullen, washed out, almost foggy lighting during the shootout, while composer Don Ellis gets some scary effects with those shrill, blaring horns he used so well in The French Connection. Jameson's staging is exemplary, too, particularly during the documentary-like exposition of showing the wordless Russell preparing for the shooting, and ascending the tower (Jameson achieves a scary overhead panning shot showing Whitman's cramped killing ground on the Observation Deck). Jameson's working-out of Martinez's frantic dash across a lot of open ground as Whitman desperately tries to pick him off is technically impressive, while Martinez's final assault on Whitman is terrifically suspenseful. Regardless of their accuracy, these scenes produce a queasy fascination for the viewer that go a long way towards excusing some of The Deadly Tower's script transgressions.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.