Of all the spy-oriented movies series of the 1960s, arguably the Matt Helm series released by Columbia Pictures was the most successful. Four movies were produced, with a fifth announced before star Dean Martin decided he’d had enough.
Yet, the Helm movies aren’t very well remembered today, even among Gen Xers who celebrate the exploits of the ’60s Rat Pack of Sinatra, Martin, et. al. “Dean Martin was in a spy series?” is a common reaction. Even less remembered are the hard-boiled paperback novels, a sort of cross between Mickey Spillane and Ian Fleming, that the films were (loosely) based on.
However, reportedly, Warner Bros. has been talking about reviving Helm for a movie. Few details are known at this point, but this is a good a time as any to break out the old martini glasses and re-examine the original movies.
Origins: Matt Helm was the creation of Donald Hamilton (b. 1916). Until Helm, Hamilton was known mostly for Western novels. But in 1960, Fawcett published “Death of a Citizen,” in which we are introduced to Helm, living peaceably in New Mexico as a photographer and free-lance journalist.
Helm, it turned out, served in an agency in World War II that made the OSS look like choir boys. But Helm, married, with three children, hadn’t thought of those days until an operative from the old days, code named Tina, shows up at a cocktail party in Sante Fe. Suddenly the memories of a much more violent time come flooding back. However, there are twists aplenty before Helm thinks he had gotten himself back to the safe life. Then, it turns out that Tina, who went over to the Soviets after the war, kidnaps one of Helm’s children. Helm eventually corners her and uses some very rough — and fatal — interrogation techniques. By the second novel, “The Wrecking Crew,” Helm is divorced and again working for the unnamed agency.
By the mid 1960s, nine Helm novels were out. Meanwhile, James Bond was big business and movie producers were looking for any espionage-oriented property they could find. Producer Irving Allen (1905-1982) had a special reason for looking. He and his former partner, Albert R. Broccoli, severed their ties because Broccoli wanted desperately to bring Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels to the screen while Allen thought the books were atrocious. Allen, with egg on his face, apparently wanted to show he could do spy movies also.
However, Allen decided against straight adaptations of the sometimes grim Hamilton books. And, once Dean Martin came on board, Hamilton’s Helm virtually disappeared. In effect, Helm became “The Dean Martin Show” on the screen — complete with Dino’s lovable lush act and singing. Getting Dino had a big price. Martin’s Claude Productions became a partner in the enterprise. In any event, the first Helm movie went into production in 1965, in time for a 1966 release.
The Silencers (1966)
Screenplay: Oscar Saul Director: Phil Karlson
Music: Elmer Bernstein Songs: Bernstein and Mack David.
Plot: MacDonald, head of U.S. Intelligence and Counter Espionage (ICE), is trying to figure out what BIGO (prounounced “big-o”), a mysterious criminal organization, is doing in the American Southwest. He sends agent Tina to fetch Matt Helm out of a “semi-permanent leave.” Helm is a rather successful photographer, owning a plush house with a round, automated bed that goes across the bedroom and deposits him in a pool that serves as a giant-sized bubble bath. After BIGO tries to kill him, Helm relunctantly agrees to come back to help ICE. Meanwhile, BIGO has a doozy of a plot. It has arranged it so there will be a simultaneous U.S. missile test on the day of an underground atomic bomb test. BIGO will make it so the missile plows into the bomb test site.
Review: You’re not supposed to take this seriously. When Matt Helm is supposed to be thinking, we hear Dean Martin singing (“Off to BIGO, instead of the Big Ole”). The lead villain is played by Victor Buono with Asian makeup. He’s his usual scene-chewing self. Stella Stevens is the wacky Gail Hendricks (who was a tough, unsentimental broad in Hamilton’s originals) and she has a good comic touch. There’s actually more plot here than would be seen in the later movies. Some set pieces from Hamilton are used, but the locations are made more glamourous. A shady strip club becomes the upscale Slaygirl Club.
Miscellaneous: The film was actually based on two Hamilton books — “Death of a Citizen,” the original novel, and “The Silencers,” the fourth Helm adventure. Matt’s boss is called MacDonald because, in “The Silencers” novel, he appears in the field and uses that name. But the first person narrative informs us that is phony (the real name wouldn’t be revealed until Hamilton’s 14th Helm book in 1972 — he was only referred to as Mac until then). Apparently the script got rewritten. Herbert Baker, who had written some of the Martin & Lewis film comedies of the 1950s, has a “parodies by” credit in small type. The title sequence utilizes strippers, an apparent attempt to go Maurice Binder’s Bond titles one better.
Murderers’ Row (1966)
Screenplay: Herbert Baker Director: Henry Levin
Music: Lalo Schifrin
Songs: Schifrin & Howard Greenfield; Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart
Plot: BIGO had abducted Dr. Norman Solaris, inventor of the “Helio Beam.” Once BIGO leader Julian Wall (Karl Malden) gets enough of a special ore, he’s going to blast Washington, D.C. After a failed attempt on Matt’s life, the boozy one is sent to Monte Carlo to try and stop the plot.
Review: The series already is starting to show signs of running thin on material. A percentage of jokes worked in “The Silencers” but that batting average is going down in the second movie. Ann-Margaret would later be acclaimed as a dynamite actress. But, as Solaris’ daughter, we see little of that. Malden is quite hammy but he at least looks like he’s enjoying himself. And James Gregory as Matt’s boss MacDonald is way too friendly. The Mac of the books would cringe.
Miscellaneous: Based on the fifth Helm novel of the same title. The guts of the plot — a missing scientist — is present. (He was called Michaelis in the novel.) The book took place in and around Chesapeake Bay, so the producers shifted to Monte Carlo. But Dino didn’t want to travel abroad. So a second unit filmed in and around Cannes, with a lot of rear-projection shots for Dean Martin.
The Ambushers (1967)
Screenplay: Herbert Baker Director: Henry Levin
Music: Hugo Montenegro Title Song: Montenegro and Herbert Baker
Plot: The U.S. launches its first flying saucer, which is promptly hijacked by people operating a giant magnet. Matt goes to Mexico to find it.
Review: Herbert Baker was really running out of material by this time. A lot of bad jokes and Dean Martin really looks bored. Senta Berger, as a sultry villainess, is a plus, but she can’t pull it off by herself. Janice Rule, as a fellow ICE agent, is basically wasted. The movie seems really pointless, especially when the saucer gets destroyed at the end of the movie.
Miscellaneous: Based on Hamilton’s sixth Helm book of the same title. The book concerned a missing missile that falls into the hands of revoluntionaries and somehow gets transported to Mexico. The movie was once named one of the 50 Worst Movies of All Time by Michael Medved. Boyce and Hart perform the title song, but show they were better songwriters than singers.
The Wrecking Crew (1969)
Screenplay: William McGivern Director: Phil Karlson
Music: Hugo Montenegro Songs: Mack David and Frank DeVol
Plot: A count (Nigel Green) hijacks $1 billion in U.S. gold to upset world money markets and profit by it. Matt is sent by MacDonald (John Larch this time) to be aided by a clumsy British agent (Sharon Tate).
Review: Evidently producer Irving Allen felt some retooling was in order. Herbert Baker is gone replaced by William McGivern. Phil Karlson was brought back as director and seems to restore some life to the proceedings. Dean Martin, at least, seems to be animated once again after practically being embalmed in “The Ambushers.” Perhaps the most interesting change was bringing in Bruce Lee as “karate advisor.” The fight scenes are much more animated than any in the series, with Dino a kickin’ fool. Nancy Kwan, as a secondary villain, and Tate get into the act as well. Still, the goings are pretty light.
Miscellaneous: The movie takes the title of Hamilton’s second book, but contains even fewer Hamilton elements than the first three movies. This was Sharon Tate’s last movie and Chuck Norris’s first. He’s a thug who gets one line but is recognizable in some of the fight sequences.
The end: Columbia intended to make a fifth Helm film, “The Ravagers.” But Dean Martin (who was 51 during the filming of “The Wrecking Crew”) said enough was enough. Irving Allen revived Helm in 1975 in a serious, made-for-TV movie with Tony Franciosa that served as the pilot for a short-lived TV series.
Donald Hamilton kept writing Helm novels for quite some time. He brought a new out every year through 1977. After a five-year hiatus, Helm was back in 1982, though new books didn’t come out as regularly. The most recent came out in 1993. The World War II connection in the books was long forgotten. And little has been heard from Helm since.
Although no obituary was published, I’ve just learned this week (April 5, 2007) that Donald Hamilton, the creator of Matt Helm, died November 20, 2006. His son confirmed the passing in an e-mail to a Matt Helm listserv. (The listserv is devoted to the serious novels, not the boozy Dino movies.)
2015 Update: Donald Hamilton wrote one more, but unpublished, Matt Helm novel before he died. The Hamilton family has held onto it in case a new Matt Helm movie is made. A more serious Helm film project has been kicking around for several years. When there was last word (and it wasn’t recently), Paramount controlled Matt Helm’s fate. But the agent with the code name of Eric has yet to be heard from.
Copyright ©2000, 2007, 2015 by William Koenig