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The Deadly Tower
Warner Archive Collection

The Deadly Tower
Warner Archive Collection
1975 / Color / 1:33 flat full frame / 92 min. / Street Date January 12, 2010 / available through the Warner Archive Collection / 19.95
Starring Kurt Russell, Richard Yniguez, John Forsythe, Ned Beatty, Pernell Roberts, Clifton James, Maria Elena Cordero, Paul Carr, Alan Vint, Pepe Serna.
Matthew F. Leonetti
Film Editor Tom Stevens
Original Music Don Ellis
Written by William Douglas Lansford
Produced by Antonio Calderón
Directed by Jerry Jameson

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

The rules about what is and what is not fair game for filmic dramatization have loosened to the point that almost any national disaster or heinous crime can be exploited for television or the movies. This may be a good thing for free speech but it has also blurred the distinction between real crime and its representation in the media. Just as the craze for "reality TV" has encouraged hoaxes like last year's story of the boy in the balloon, deranged criminals now seek to star in their suicidal crimes by videotaping themselves, as did the teenage perpetrators of the Columbine High School massacre. Back in the Puritan 1960s grotesque and sordid crime details were often left unreported so as not to encourage copycats, and TV programming guidelines and the film code attempted to downplay antisocial violence.

Unfortunately, extreme crimes are highly watchable, and almost always glamorized when presented in dramatic form. Perhaps the most bizarre offender was a TV movie about accused murderer O.J. Simpson, which aired during his trial. Cashing in on the enormous curiosity generated by the media, the show had nothing of substance to say and opted to portray Simpson in an odd haze of celebrity angst.

The sniper rampage of Charles Whitman killed 13 and wounded 32 on the first of August, 1966. Whitman lugged a small arsenal to the top of a 300-foot tower on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin and simply opened fire in all directions. Bloody panic reigned until the police climbed the tower and gunned him down. The incident followed by only a month Richard Speck's murder of eight student nurses in Chicago, adding fuel to the argument that America had become irredeemably violent and lawless.

Only two years later Peter Bogdanovich chose as his feature debut a movie about a Charles Whitman-like sniper, giving the tale a connection to film horror with the presence of Boris Karloff. Targets cushioned its real-life connection by posing as a movie about the movies' exploitation of violence. Bogdanovich's clean-cut young psychopath remained a cipher, a symbol of a new kind of meaningless, existential horror.

The 1975 NBC TV movie The Deadly Tower found an ideal Charles Whitman in Kurt Russell, an actor best known at the time for innocuous Disney teen comedies. Obviously looking for an image change, Russell succeeded by playing the deranged Whitman with a unnerving calm. The Deadly Tower alters a few details and imposes an Equal Rights theme on the proceedings, but avoids distorting the basic facts. For the most part, it doesn't exploit the morbid thrills to be found in Whitman's gun crazy sniper rampage.  1

The story begins on the night before the shootings, with Charles Whitman murdering both his wife and his mother and typing his suicide note. Nothing is mentioned of Whitman's troubled past in the Marine Corps, his broken family or his disappointing college experience. Whitman's deadly preparations are intercut with the problems of police officer Ramiro Martinez (Richard Yniquez), who is clearly passed over for promotion because of ethnic prejudice. Ramiro's pregnant wife Vinnie (Maria Elena Cordero) wants him to quit the force. Whitman buys two new guns and an enormous quantity of ammunition from a sporting goods store and proceeds directly to the campus tower's observation deck.

The actual sniper onslaught doesn't ask us to identify too much with Whitman, who apparently was a crack shot. After shooting some people in the tower itself, he picks off students on the campus below and then concentrates his fire on an adjacent business street. If anything, the film underplays the resulting panic. Everyone seems immediately aware of the sniper, which definitely was not the case. The show makes it look as if police were hesitant to approach the tower, whereas a lack of coordinated effort simply delayed the assault. Dozens of Texans pull rifles from their trucks and began shooting back at Whitman. The civilian shooters appear to pin him down (a pro-gun statement?), when the truth is that Whitman used rainwater drains at the corners of the observation deck as protected gun ports.

Back at the station, police Captain Fred Ambrose (Clifton James) tries to keep order while Lieutenant Lee (the late Pernell Roberts) circles the tower in a small plane, shooting at Whitman from above. In reality Lee found the airplane too unstable to use his gun, but he and his equally courageous pilot kept circling to distract the sniper. To deliver an anti-gun message, scriptwriter William Douglas Lansford (The Big Cube, Villa Rides!) invents a thoughtful detective lieutenant Elwood Forbes (John Forsythe) to dispense pacifist homilies. Forbes appeals to the Captain to let him find someone close to the sniper to talk him down. Forbes' humanistic concern seems absurdly misplaced. All watching The Deadly Tower will have the same idea: kill the b______ as fast as humanly possible, by any means at hand.

Officer Martinez was one of several policemen that climbed the tower to take down Whitman face to face, but the movie elevates his role in the assault to star status. Richard Yniguez plays the part well, vaulting through hedges and bursting out on the platform with gun drawn; he seems the first cop to take a positive initiative. The best actor in the ensemble is Ned Beatty, playing the real-life role of Allan Crum, a civilian who joined the shooting party. If the Wikipedia entry on the Whitman shootings is correct, the action atop the tower was messier than is depicted in the show. The final exchange of pistol and shotgun fire started because Allan Crum's gun went off unexpectedly. Officer Yniguez's reported behavior immediately after the shooting contrasts with the film's version as well.

The network censors may have cleansed The Deadly Tower of disturbing details like these. They also mandated a series of content advisories and disclaimers that originally aired throughout the program. Despite PC constraints, prolific (and still working) director Jerry Jameson somehow maintains a basic integrity. Some of his actors appear to be local non-professionals, a problem that mars a few scenes. But the inspired casting of Kurt Russell compensates fully. Seeing the hero of The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes going mad-dog crazy seems 100% correct. America is under assault by its own squeaky-clean -- but psychotic -- young men.

The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of The Deadly Tower is a fascinating show but the copy preserved on disc is no winner. It appears to be sourced from an older videotape transfer that's iffy in all departments: pale color, washed out contrast and weak definition. What's more, some dialogue scenes seem to move at too fast a clip. The fast-talking John Forsythe sounds chirpy, as if the transfer were a PAL conversion. Films for the PAL format are transferred at 25 frames per second, a 4% speed-up.

In the movie's defense, I can't be certain that this is a PAL conversion, even though the disc's posted running time (92 minutes) is shorter than the running time posted on the IMDB (100 minutes). That longer original duration could have been padded with s-l-o-w text disclaimers, which I remember intruding at every commercial interruption. It felt like a high school principal, accompanied by 20 nervous network lawyers, had stepped into the TV to give me a harsh warning.

It's also unfair to harshly criticize the appearance of some TV movies made around this time. Many of these films were rushed to broadcast so quickly that a single telecine copy was made by hot-splicing timed daily reprints, and in a few cases the original negative wasn't even conformed to match. The Deadly Tower could be one of these. Just the same, the present transfer is not going to make most purchasers happy.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Deadly Tower rates:
Movie: Good +
Video: Fair +
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: none
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 5, 2010


1. This is a tough filmic problem, as watching a determined man killing people from a tall tower reduces a taboo act to the level of a shooting gallery, or (now) a video game. Think of our varied reactions to the actual shootings in movies with similar scenes -- we approve of some but not of others: Man Hunt, Sergeant York, The Sniper, Suddenly, The Manchurian Candidate, From Russia With Love, The Naked Runner, Targets, Two-Minute Warning, Enemy at the Gates. The only movie I know to really examine this cinematically seductive circumstance is Quentin Tarantino's remarkable Inglourious Basterds.

1. A note from correspondent Marco DuBose, with a welcome correction:

Glenn, a nice review of The Deadly Tower. I have one issue that only a nitpicker who went to UT would complain about!

"After shooting some people in the tower itself, he picks off students on the campus below and then concentrates his fire on a business street more than three blocks away."

Actually, the business street Guadalupe (also know as "The Drag") is not that far from the tower, perhaps 100 yards. Whitman was still a good shot but not superhuman (although he was 27 stories up). I remember the movie from when it aired and recall it being a pretty straightforward telling of the story. Whitman had become part of the Texas mythos and a perennial subject of teenage boys' discussions.

Here are a few fun facts about the University of Texas. The man who donated the original land for the school was a diehard confederate and left a few quirks in the deed. Every building on campus has its major entrance facing south. All statues face south. Radiating from the Tower are a south, east and west mall but no north mall. Of course, the malls are main traffic arteries for students and became shooting galleries for Whitman. If I recall, the movie made a lot of use of the south mall, most likely because it is a more cinematic grassy strip lined with oak trees. When I went to UT the observation deck of the tower was closed but not because of Charles Whitman. It had become a popular suicide spot. The deck is now open to the public and it is said you can still see the damage from the bullets fired up at Whitman.

Thanks, Marco DuBose, Sr. Editor, South Coast Film & Video.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2010 Glenn Erickson

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