The Deadly Tower (1975) – A Review
|Kurt Russell as Charles Whitman in The Deadly Tower|
A 1975 television movie about the true story of Charles Whitman and the tragic shooting rampage on the University of Texas campus.
It’s August 1, 1966 after killing his wife and mother a mentally disturbed Whitman (Kurt Russell) walks up to the top of the twenty-eight story tower laying in the center of the University and well armed begins shooting down at students, by-standers, police officers and anyone else he can get within his sights.
For the next ninety minutes confusion and panic grip the city of Austin as police try to formulate a plan, the growing number of victims are tended to and everyone tries to make sense as to how something like this could ever happen. Whitman kills fourteen people and wounds thirty-two, before a courageous police officer and civilian make their way up to the top the top of the tower to kill the sniper.
In 1975 Russell was starting to leave behind his wonderful world of Disney career and was attempting to transition to more adult dramatic roles. It’s strange to think that same year Russell was playing Whitman he was the lead in Disney’s The Strongest Man in the World. It would still be a few more years before he would become John Carpenter’s muse and move onto the next stage in his career. The Deadly Tower was him just getting his feet wet.
The role of Whitman isn’t as complex as it could have been. The film doesn’t try to delve too much into his psyche and other than some closing narration doesn’t try very hard to explain his actions.
But while the role isn’t completely fleshed out Russell is quite effective in it. He’s very cold and creepy in this. He’s almost robotic. That’s not a diss on him at all. He manages to play a very disturbed individual that is emotionally unreachable by anyone. He barely has any dialogue so it’s mainly his face that he gets to use. And it works. As soon as he comes onscreen it looks like he’s a guy ready to explode. It’s the unemotional way he plays the part that really sticks with me.
There’s a quiet meticulous buildup to Whitman making preparations and making his way to the tower. When the shooting starts the silence is shattered. There’s panic, people running around scared. There’s a lot of handheld camera work to add to the panic that was happening. The film does a great job at dramatizing it.
One thing the film really manages to convey is how vast a killing range Whitman set up for himself from that observation deck and how helpless the police were to get to him. The height of the tower and his vantage point is startling. Blocks and blocks away he’s able to target unsuspecting people. Even far off the campus people are being shot. There’s the relentless firing he does, just over and over again. It’s absolute craziness!
John Forsythe and Clifton James are familiar faces playing the head cops who are in command and are trying to make sense of this sniper and how to stop him. It’s really Richard Yniguez as Officer Martiniz navigating around the campus who is the individual we focus on. He’s made into the main hero of the film. He’s the everyman thrust into this situation and the one whose eyes we see through as this siege unfolds.
There’s a great tracking shot of Martiniz arriving on the scene and the camera follows him while officers and civilians are lined up behind a low wall wildly shooting back at the tower. It’s such madness and confusion.
Ned Beatty arrives on the scene to offer assistance as Allan Crum an armed civilian. While victims are trying to be gotten to safety and attempts of stopping Whitman fail, it will be up to Martiniz and Crum to make a tense way up the tower and confront the shooter.
There’s a few sloppy little moments mainly at the beginning with some instances where abrupt cuts of Whitman and the eerie music during the scene just cuts to a different scene with Martiniz. They just seem somewhat jarring and clunky the way they’re put together. In the beginning the movie does parallel editing between Whitman’s story and Martiniz’s building things up before the shooting takes place.
Those cuts are not awful, but it’s just a technique that probably didn’t stick out as much when watching a TV movie in 1975 as it does watching it today. It might not be all that noticeable to a casual viewer and it’s just me. It’s just not very smooth transitions like it would be done if this movie was made today. Admittedly this is a very, very minor nitpick. For the first thirty minutes of the movie it’s completely compelling as Whitman prepares and makes his way to the tower.
There are fleeting scenes with Forsythe expressing opinions on gun control, like right in the middle of the shooting. The film might have wanted to touch on it, but they seemed like they were forced in at somewhat awkward moments. Some of Martiniz’s concerned wife scenes don’t feel needed. But none of that distract from the movie itself. Longtime TV director Jerry Jameson (who apparently continues to work up to today) keeps the tension coiled for most of the duration of the movie. I think this movie really holds up as an account of the Whitman shooting.
I first caught this like twenty years ago late at night, I think on TNT, and always remembered it. I don’t think The Deadly Tower gets aired very often. I believe for the longest time it wasn’t even available on DVD.
From what I read the producers were sued by some of the real life individuals over some of the liberties the movie took and the portrayals of some. Martiniz was one who was unhappy with the film and some of its artistic license.
Despite changes that have been made regarding the events and participants the movie packs a real punch. It’s a very raw telling of the story. As a docudrama it is a very disturbing movie, which does capture the shock, terror and tragedy of the event. It’s really worthwhile.