‘The Deadly Tower’ (1975): Questionable—but suspenseful—re-telling of real-life Texas killings

In a post-holiday mood for something light, I happened upon an older Warner Bros. Archive Collection disc of The Deadly Tower, NBC’s 1975 made-for-TV movie with Disney alumnus Kurt Russell starring as infamous University of Texas sniper, Charles Whitman.

By Paul Mavis

Directed by pro Jerry Jameson and co-starring Richard Yniguez, Ned Beatty, Clifton James, Pernell Roberts, and John Forsythe, The Deadly Tower tweaks my more enthusiastic adolescent memories when I now see the invented characters, a fudged historical context, misplaced, preachy messages, and most importantly, a central villain not adequately explored. In other words: a typically compromised 1970s telemovie script for a true-life crime. However, when it sticks to action and suspense (both of which are plentiful here), overall, The Deadly Tower is tense and nerve-wracking, and expertly produced.

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The following synopsis covers events as they take place in The Deadly Tower…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 (backyard 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.

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In my previous reviews of true-crime telemovies, I usually mention 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. Now, as long as the moviemakers 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 movie already short on real dramatics.

First, anyone expecting an examination of Charles Whitman and what might have driven him to assassinate 16 people and wound 31 others at The University of Texas, 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 it seems curious that 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 Deadly Tower 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 offered 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 (according to some reports, NBC president Robert Howard was talked into focusing on the Martinez character by The Deadly Tower producer Antonino Calderon, who headed an organization dedicated to putting more positive Mexican-American characters on television).

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 with a bayonet), 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 he doesn’t resemble the tall, beefy, somehow menacing crew-cut Whitman, Russell’s boyishly plump, square face, sweating uncomfortably in his tightly-buttoned coveralls, and those mean little 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.

As for the Martinez character, it’s difficult to judge it because we’re never sure what is real about it, and what isn’t, because The Deadly Tower plays fast and loose with the facts. The telemovie is up front about declaring what aspects of Martinez’s wife have been fictionalized—a title card at the beginning states this—but apparently that wasn’t enough for Martinez, who sued the filmmakers some years later for defamation of character (he settled out of court, according to what I read). Since all of the future scenes with Martinez’s wife are called into question before they even play out, the viewer is immediately distanced from them, viewing them as padding…and familiar-sounding padding, at that. The police headquarters scene is intriguing at first, but when we see that issues of race won’t have any bearing on the story at hand, we start to wonder why they’re so stealthily alluded to? The Deadly Tower doesn’t have the guts to come right out and say it’s referencing racism against Martinez, so…why is that element included here? How does that element have any bearing on what Martinez accomplished when he went up to the tower to confront Whitman?

As for the controversial depiction of the killing of Whitman, and Martinez’s role in the shooting, The Deadly Tower‘s screenplay at the very least lies about the mechanics of the shooting, while transforming a real participant at the scene, into a coward. Officer Houston McCoy is credited by all authorities, a police inquiry, and the coroner with having actually killed Whitman. He accompanied Martinez up to the tower, and while Martinez shot at Whitman, McCoy delivered two fatal blows with a shotgun. Accounts are fuzzy at this point, but apparently Martinez then grabbed McCoy’s shotgun, shot Whitman in the arm, and screamed over and over again, “I got him! I got him!” before inexplicably leaving the scene. McCoy remained on the job, but Martinez got the credit with the press for the kill.

McCoy apparently refused to have his name associated with this telemovie, so the screenwriter fashioned a fictional substitute, Officer C.T. Foss (Paul Carr), who freezes when it comes time to kill Whitman. Granted, McCoy denied the moviemakers the right to use his name, but for them to then turn around and slander this brave officer by fictionalizing him into a coward in the line of duty, was inexcusable. Was he made a coward to make the Martinez character look even more noble in the face of subtle persecution on the job? Perhaps (more probably, it was pay-back by someone for McCoy’s refusal to cooperate with the production), but knowing the facts of Whitman’s death makes The Deadly Tower‘s version undeniably exciting, but unworthy of the real story (McCoy, whose career and personal life suffered as a result of the tower incident, also sued the producers of the film, but his suit was thrown out of court).

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 telemovie’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 movie (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 this cop 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 movie 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 movie. 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.

Director 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. With Jameson’s documentary-like depiction of Whitman’s preparations for the assault, and Officer Martinez’s slow, torturous, dangerous journey to the top of the tower, The Deadly Tower‘s suspense is equal to anything found on TV in the 1970s.

PAUL MAVIS IS AN INTERNATIONALLY PUBLISHED MOVIE AND TELEVISION HISTORIAN, A MEMBER OF THE ONLINE FILM CRITICS SOCIETY, AND THE AUTHOR OF THE ESPIONAGE FILMOGRAPHY. Click to order.

Read more of Paul’s TV reviews here. Read Paul’s film reviews at our sister website, Movies & Drinks.

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