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The Deadly Tower

a/k/a The Sniper

     "I don't quite understand what it is that compels me to type this letter. Perhaps it is to leave some vague reason for the actions I have recently performed. I don't really understand myself these days. I am supposed to be an average reasonable and intelligent young man. However, lately (I can't recall when it started) I have been a victim of many unusual and irrational thoughts."

-- An open letter from Charles Whitman      





Movie of the Week




And I believe this officially killed his career at Disney as well ... Goodbye Dexter Riley, hello Snake Plissken.


Watch it!



Sights &
Deadly Tower
 Original Air Date:
  October 18, 1975 (NBC)



the Fallen:

Margaret Whitman

Kathy Whitman

Edna Townsley

Marguerite Lamport

Mark Gabour

Paul Sonntag

Billy Speed

Roy Dell Schmidt

Thomas Eckman

Harry Walchuck

Thomas Ashton

Thomas Karr

Karen Griffith

The Unborn Child of Claire Wilson

The Wounded:

John Scott Allen

Billy Bedford

Roland Ehlke

Ellen Evgenides

Avelino Esparza

F. L. Foster

Robert Frede

Mary Gabour

Michael Gabour

Irma Garcia

Nancy Harvey

Robert Heard

Alex Hernandez

Morris Hohmann

Brenda Littlefield

Dello Martinez

Marina Martinez

David Mattson

Delores Ortega

Janet Paulos

Lana Phillips

Oscar Rovela

Billy Snowden

C. A. Stewart

Claire Wilson

Carla Wheeler


Our film begins in Austin, Texas, where Officer Ramiro Martinez (Richard Yniguez) returns to the police station when his overnight shift comes to an end. Even with the sunrise still hours away the Texas heat is already sweltering, and before he heads back into the soup and home, when Martinez is informed by Lt. Lee (Pernell Roberts) that he's been passed over for promotion -- again, there are less than subtle hints that less than subtle racism is the reason why. Meanwhile, elsewhere in the city, Charles Whitman (Kurt Russell), an ex-Marine sharp-shooter strung out on amphetamines (-- though the movie neglects this aspect), composes a type-written letter about some strange and violent thoughts he's been having lately that he has no explanation for. He also plans to act out on these thoughts. He's already killed his mother and put her to bed. (Whitman bludgeoned her from behind but the script deviates here.) Then, after he ambushes and kills his wife (-- but he really killed her while she slept), Whitman adds an amendment to his letter, confessing to these heinous acts, and promises that this is only the beginning...

On Monday, August 6th, 1966 America, still recovering from the despicable murderous acts of Richard Speck in Chicago the week prior, was walloped again on this fateful day. For on that day, a little before noon, Charles Whitman started shooting from the observation deck of the University Tower in Austin, Texas. Ninety-six minutes later, twelve people were dead and countless others wounded. Also killed prior to the rampage were Whitman's wife and mother. And Whitman was dead, too; dropped in a hail of gunfire and buckshot -- just like he probably wanted. The prick. In an hour and half America was changed forever. These days we make jokes about people going postal, but this was one of the first, and still ranks as one of the worst, cases of mass murder in U.S. history. And it happened during the light of day, out in the open, where we would never feel quite as safe again.

Why did he do it? We'll get to that in a second. For now, we're gonna take a look at the only attempt that I'm aware of to bring the story of that ill-fated day to film: a made for TV movie called The Deadly Tower -- and yes, I'm well aware of Peter Bogdanovich's Targets, an excellent, thinly veiled version of the story that drew its inspiration from this incident, but I'm talking about an actual account of the actual day in question. Seldom seen anymore, this rarity used to be a late night staple on TBS and was also released on VHS video under the alternate title, Sniper. I finally managed to get my hands on a very beat-up copy that was basically unwatchable for the first half-hour, and then "almost" tracked for the remaining hour -- alas, my first negative feedback experience on eBay. I was just gonna let it go but when about ten minutes of the film went missing, taped over with something else, was ultimately the deciding factor.

The production does, forgive me, shoot for accuracy but, being a made for TV movie, was under some restraints. The Deadly Tower does manage to sidestep some of these prickly issues by focusing not only on Whitman but on one of the heroes of that day: Officer Martinez, and used him as a framing device to counterbalance Whitman's activities prior to the shootings, and then focuses on the deadly game of cat and mouse they engage in after the shooting starts.

But, we're getting ahead of ourselves again as we pick up the action the following morning, where we find Martinez trying and failing to enjoy his day off. Upset about the promotions, he takes it out on his wife, Vinnie (Maria Cordero), who senses his frustrations. But when she tries to help it only results in a bigger argument over whether he should just quit the force altogether. Whitman, meanwhile, is hitting all the local gun shops, buying rifles and a lot of ammunition. You'd think this would send up a red flag but we are talking about Texas. (And yes, that was a cheap shot. It wouldn't raise any red flags around here, either.) When the clerk asks what Whitman's hunting for his answer is simple: "Gonna shoot some pigs." We then cut to Whitman meticulously packing all of these weapons into a footlocker, along with some food, water and a portable radio. Donning a janitor's jumpsuit, he then loads the trunk onto his truck and drives to the UT campus, where he wheels the hidden cache toward the Administration Building and his final destination: the observation deck on the 29th floor of the University Tower. 

The unassuming Whitman easily rolls his deadly cargo right by security and into an elevator. Upon reaching the top floor he's finally stopped by a secretary, who wants to know what he's up to. Caught, Whitman threatens that if she values her life, she'd best leave and escorts her to the elevator. (In reality, Whitman bludgeons her to death, too.) Whitman then hauls the trunk onto the open-air deck that surrounds the building and starts unloading his arsenal ... Down below, the frightened secretary alerts the campus security chief, who dispatches two unarmed guards to investigate. They spy Whitman and all his guns, and after reporting in the chief orders them back down to the lobby to seal off the elevators so no one else can get up there. But they're already too late: another elevator filled with a family of tourists was on its way up as they're heading down. Making their way to the observation deck, Whitman hears them, grabs his shotgun, and then the killing begins in earnest.

Whitman ambushes the group in the stairwell, killing two and critically injuring two more. The others retreat and are pulled into some adjoining offices by others who heard the shots, where they hide, unsure of what's really going on. Returning to the deck, the shooter takes up his rifle and peers through the high-powered scope at the people milling about below ... Slowly he moves, from one person to another, before settling on a target and starts firing. First hit is Claire Wilson, who is shot in the lower abdomen. She was over 8-months pregnant. (Wilson lost her baby but survived.) Her friend, Thomas Eckman, turned to help, but was hit next and died instantly, falling on top of her. (As the shootings contiuned, Whitman would use the wounded and the dead by firing at those trying to help them.) Moving around the tower, shooting in all directions, Whitman's massacre continues. As the campus erupts in panic, people scramble for cover. Incredulous onlookers several blocks away -- an assumed safe distance, are hit, too. It seems no where is safe.

Ramirez hears the initial reports over the radio and, despite his wife's protests, heads to the campus to help, where Captain Ambrose (Clifton James) tries to get a lock on the situation and worries about all the media attention. A command post is quickly set up but there is no real plan on what they should do beyond that. This kind of thing isn't really in the handbook. A Detective Forbes (John Forsythe) asks permission to leave, feeling he can do more good trying to figure out who it is that's up there shooting, and then maybe they can find someone to talk him down. Ambrose gives him the OK, but warns that if they have the opportunity they will shoot first and sort it out later. Beyond that, due to the chaos of the situation -- officers are scattered everywhere, and the phone lines are jammed up -- there is no coordinated plan of attack. Ramirez arrives on scene and runs into Officer Davis (Alan Vint), who brings him up to speed. Their biggest problem is that the sniper can reach them but he is effectively out of their range. But that doesn't stop a lot of locals from arming themselves with their own guns and firing back at the tower. Ambrose is even desperate enough to OK the use of crop-duster, to try and buzz the tower and see if they can get a clear shot at the sniper.

Up above, Whitman takes a breather, turns on his radio and listens to the reports of the mayhem he's caused. He freaks a little when he can't get the scuff marks off his polished boots, so he starts shooting again. And while the bodies keep piling up, Ramirez helps round-up some of the wounded but soon realizes it's a futile gesture if the shooting doesn't stop. With that, he decides to try and make it into the tower -- a daunting task because there is a lot of open ground between him and the entrance. Meanwhile, Officer C.T. Foss (Paul Carr) is also trying to make his way to the Tower and makes it as far as the campus bookstore, where he runs into Allan Crum (Ned Beatty). Foss tells Crum, a civilian, to keep himself and his rifle out of trouble until Crum reveals that he can get them into the tower safely, via some connecting tunnels under the buildings.

Elsewhere, while canvassing the gun shops, Detective Forbes begins to piece it all together. He gets Whitman's name from the receipts, which eventually leads him to the discovery of Margaret and Kathy Whitman's bodies and her husband's letter ... Things are starting to close in on our boy on the observation deck as well. The bi-plane is a bust but heavier caliber weapons, mostly civilian, are starting to reach Whitman's perch. Unfortunately, they also prove just as deadly to those innocent victims trying to hide inside the building upper levels. Safely inside below, Foss and Crum watch as Martinez zigzags his way through the open quad, dodging bullets, making it safely out of Whitman's line of fire. Congregating in the lobby with Davis and few others who made it in using a utility tunnel, the officers argue over what to do next. Martinez wants to try and contract Ambrose for orders, and to let them know they made it inside, while the others just want to head on up and end this. In the end they try to contact the command post but the phones are still jammed up -- meaning they're on their own.

Cautiously entering the top floor, the officers first start clearing out the rooms just below the observation deck and escort those found alive and the wounded back down to the lobby. While they search, Crum laments to Martinez that he's proud of his hometown, but now, everyone around the country is going to think they're all a bunch of crazed killers -- and he'll never be able to look at the tower the same way again. Once the top floor is cleared, while the others secure the area, Martinez and Crum make their way up the stairwell to the door of the observation deck. Outside, the shooting has stopped so they don't know where Whitman is. Before they try the door, when Crum asks Martinez to deputize him Martinez laughs. He thought Crum was a cop. Told to raise his right hand, after he does, Martinez says "Consider yourself deputized." With that out of the way, Martinez tries the door but it's jammed shut by Whitman's two-wheeled cart. Forcing it open, the metal dolly clangs on the cement, alerting Whitman to their presence. As they vigilantly make their way outside Whitman is nowhere to be seen. With no clue to where the shooter is, Martinez leaves Crum by the door and starts to creep along the wall toward the first corner. He quietly rounds it and finds nothing. Suddenly, a gun appears in frame behind him, but it's only Foss, whom Ramirez grabs before the people on the ground can shoot him, mistaking him for the sniper. On the other side of the building, Whitman listens. His radio is still playing and a report comes on listing those who've been killed. As the shooter listens, sweating, and shaking, he then let's out a blood-curdling scream.

The killer's position given away, Martinez and Foss quickly round the next corner, where Whitman sits and waits. When Martinez orders him to drop the rifle, he doesn't, and swings it around to fire at them. Foss freezes but Martinez empties his revolver into Whitman, and then takes the shotgun away from Foss to finish the job but Whitman is already dead. When the officers try to approach the body to be sure, their movement draws more fire from below. Waving a white handkerchief, Crum yells at them to stop shooting. It's finally over. Then, all is silent except for the newscaster, who is still listing the wounded. Crum angrily takes the radio and smashes it. 

Down below, Forbes returns too late with the Whitman family priest. Up above, the police photograph and catalogue Whitman's arsenal. Martinez, overcome by the situation, succumbs to shock and is escorted out of the building and into the waiting embrace of his wife, who wandered down because she was worried about him. The film then ends with our good friend, the overly morose narrator, who says an autopsy on Whitman found a malignant brain tumor that some doctors believe was the cause of his homicidal behavior. He also cites that Martinez, Foss, Davis and Crum were all given medals for their actions that day.

The End

I honestly believe, as an art form of entertainment, the Made for TV movie is all but dead. Well, if not dead breathing its last lethargic gasps as a Sci-Fi Channel or Lifetime Original Production. Tragically, all we can do is hearken back to the glorious heydays of this convention in the 1970s, where anything and everything -- sentient homicidal bulldozers, psychic occult detectives, and ancient spirits of evil hijacking airplanes -- wound up as a televised movie of the week on one of the Big-Three broadcasting channel. *sigh*

Made eleven years after Whitman's reign of terror, The Deadly Tower was shot at the state capitol building in Baton Rouge, Louisiana because Austin really didn't want any part of it -- or needed any reminder of their unlucky role in this infamous piece of American history. Directed by Jerry Jameson, he also helmed several other MFTV-movies including a couple of pretty good disaster tubers, with Heatwave and A Fire in the Sky. He also had a hand in the feature film disasters, Airport '77 and Raise the Titanic. William Douglas Lansford provided the teleplay but is probably more famous for another MFTV-movie he wrote called Sweet Hostage. That's the one where Martin Sheen plays the escaped mental patient who kidnaps young Linda Blair, who eventually fall in love, thanks to some really bad poetry. And like all MFTV-movies from the '70s, The Deadly Tower was populated by a ton of B-level character clout with the likes of Roberts, Forsythe, Beatty, and the wonderfully acerbic Clifton James. And I'm guessing Russell really wanted to break away from his Dexter Riley character -- from all those goofy teenage Disney movies he made -- because he went from The Strongest Man in the World to this. (And Used Cars after that, and then John Carpenter got a hold of him for Elvis and the rest is cinematic history...) And to his credit, his portrayal of Whitman as a meticulous cipher really does elevate the production a couple of notches.

Like I pointed out, numerous times, the production wasn't completely accurate, but it does do a good job of translating the chaos and confusion during the rampage. The camerawork -- especially the handheld stuff -- is fantastic, so kudos to cinematographer Matthew Leonetti. The most glaring and unforgivable mistake the film makes is the complete exclusion of Officer Houston McCoy (-- the Foss character substitutes for him). McCoy was the other officer with Martinez and Crum who made it into the tower and took Whitman out. In fact, there is much debate as to who really shot Whitman -- a source of bitter contention between the two men. Martinez claims that he emptied his revolver into Whitman, and then took the shotgun away from McCoy and used it to shoot Whitman again, who was allegedly still moving. McCoy, meanwhile, claims he fired the shotgun twice before Ramirez took it away, and he was the one who really killed Whitman. Regardless, they did get him before he could do even more damage. For the record: Martinez and McCoy both sued the production for all these inaccuracies. Martinez settled out of court, but McCoy lost his case.

Of course by focusing more on the good guys, the film never really gets to the most important factor: Why did Whitman do it? There is some mention of the small tumor found during the autopsy, but no on can agree if it had any affect on his behavior or not. Researchers and biographers try to point to one thing that caused it: To either get back at his abusive father -- and that's why he killed his wife and mother, so only the father would answer for his son's crime; he was strung out on amphetamines; or overwhelming feelings of failure and inadequacy, or perhaps some deep-seeded narcissistic tendencies, drove him to do something so drastic that everyone would know and remember who he was. 

I vote for all of the above. 

I'm always baffled as to why people -- especially the morons in the media -- want to boil the cause of these tragedies down to just one thing. One thing? That's over simplifying and, like I said, a moronic way of thinking. Sometimes the answers are so simple we just can't see them for their obviousness, or refuse to see them. Other times it's a little more complicated. But who wants complicated when we can just blame it all on [insert your own favorite scapegoat here]. And as always, these debates rage only after the tragedy has occurred, then return to a slow slimmer until the next whack-job pops off. And also, as usual, those of us not directly affected by the attack only remember Whitman. The prick. To help rectify that I've also listed the names of the victims over to the left in the sidebar; the the true characters in all of this.

With plenty of scenery chewing, enough melodrama to choke a moose, one really bad attempt at comedy relief at the end, and more than a few historical inaccuracies, The Deadly Tower is a rather fine example of the 1970's Made for TV-docudrama. And thankfully, it didn't make the critical mistake of trying to make Whitman into some kind of victim or ersatz folk hero. He was -- despite whatever rationale caused him to pull the trigger, or how many guns he had -- a very ruthless and methodical killer whose victims didn't know what hit them. That's it. And no amount of psychoanalysis, or Harry Chapin ballads, or any kind of Nietzchien justification bullshit is gonna change that fact.

Rot in hell, Chuckles.

The Deadly Tower (1975) MGM Television :: National Broadcasting Company (NBC) / EP: Richard Caffey / P: Antonio Calderón / D: Jerry Jameson / W: Antonio Calderón, William Douglas Lansford / C: Matthew F. Leonetti / E: Tom Stevens / M: Don Ellis / S: Kurt Russell, Richard Yniguez, Pernell Roberts, Clifton James, John Forsythe, Paul Carr, Alan Vint, Maria Elena Cordero, Ned Beatty

Originally Posted: 02/14/02 :: Rehashed: 03/16/10

Knuckled-out by Chad Plambeck: misspeller of words, butcher of all things grammatical, and king of the run on sentence. Copy and paste at your own legal risk. Questions? Comments? Shoot us an e-mail.
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