At their best, the “ripped from the headlines” TV movies of the ’70s gave viewers vivid re-creations of important events without excessive dramatization. The Deadly Tower is a great example of the genre’s possibilities. The picture depicts the horrific events that took place on the University of Texas at Austin’s campus on August 4, 1966, when troubled youth Charles Whitman (Kurt Russell) took a position atop UT’s tower and shot people until 13 were dead and 34 more were wounded. Police ended the siege by storming the tower and killing Whitman.
With an unvarnished style that’s so much more chilling than the standard melodramatic treatment, The Deadly Tower meticulously tracks the steps of Whitman’s bloody last day, intercut with the progress during the same time period of the Latino cop (Richard Yniguez) who eventually took Whitman down. This ongoing contrast between insanity and normalcy is effective, especially because Russell’s disturbing portrayal of a mentally damaged automaton defines him as a seemingly impossible challenge for the ambitious but understandably terrified policeman.
Russell’s casting was a clever choice, because in the mid-’70s the young actor was known for starring in frothy Disney comedies; his casting amplifies the idea that Charles Whitman was an all-American boy gone terribly wrong. Committing wholeheartedly to the role and yet underplaying in a way that deepens the film’s effect, Russell distinguishes himself so well that it’s a surprise it took him several more years after this project to completely shake his Disney image.
Yniguez provides the movie’s heart as a decent man trying to overcome workplace prejudice in order to provide for his growing family; there’s real tension watching him dart between buildings on the campus as he dodges bullets to make his way into the tower. Ned Beatty adds sweaty Southern flavor as a bystander who inadvertently becomes part of the assault force heading after Whitman, and John Forsythe lends bleeding-heart warmth as a reporter trying to discover Whitman’s motivation before the shooter becomes a victim of his own rampage.
Despite obvious budgetary limitations, everything in the picture comes together well, because it works as a clinical depiction of madness loosed on an unsuspecting public, and as a taut thriller in which the stakes couldn’t be higher. (Available at WarnerArchive.com)
The Deadly Tower: GROOVY