1991: Donald Hamilton discusses Matt Helm films

Donald Hamilton

Donald Hamilton

Over on The Spy Command’s Facebook page, reader Bill Groves shared a 1991 letter he received from Matt Helm creator Donald Hamilton.

In the letter, Hamilton commented about the four 1960s Matt Helm movies starring Dean Martin.

The films took Hamilton’s very serious novels and made them into comedies that incorporated bits from Dino’s variety show. The hero supposedly drank heavily (like Dean on his show) and was frequently surrounded by beautiful women. The Ambushers (1967) even had a joke referencing Martin’s birthplace of Stubenville, Ohio.

Poster for The Silencers

Poster for The Silencers

As it turns out, Hamilton wasn’t upset about the changes. Groves gave us permission to do a post about the letter. What follows is a portion of the text. The word is boldface was underlined by Hamilton in the original.

 

Dear Mr. Groves:

With respect to the Helm movies, my philosophy is that I write to entertain and once I’ve done a book or story to my satisfaction, anybody who can use my material entertainingly, and is willing to pay me for the privilege, is welcome, even if he doesn’t stick very closely to my original vision (if I may use a fancy word for it).

From this standpoint, I found the movie of THE SILENCERS enjoyable even though the playboy character played by Dean Martin was pretty far from the grimmer character I’d visualized. So it wasn’t my SILENCERS; it was still a fun movie, and I had no objections. (Of course a writer would always prefer to see his work brought to the screen the way he wrote it, but that happens so seldom, it’s only a dream.) The other Helm movies, unfortunately, were pretty mechanical and I didn’t like them much, not because they treated my ‘vision’ disrespectfully, but simply because they were not very enjoyable as movies.

(snip)

PS: For a much more satisfactory job, from the writer’s standpoint, try to catch a rerun of the movie made by William Wyler from my book THE BIG COUNTRY.

The Silencers, released in 1966, was the first film in the Helm series. It actually took material was from both 1960s’s Death of a Citizen, the first Helm novel, and 1962’s The Silencers, the fourth.

The four movies used varying amounts of Hamilton content from the books. For more details, read this 2000 article, which includes updates from 2006 and 2015.

Meanwhile, for those unfamiliar with it, The Big Country was an epic 1958 film with Gregory Peck, Charlton Heston, Burl Ives and Chuck Connors. Ives won an Oscar as best supporting actor.

Happy 100th, Donald Hamilton

A 1963 re-issue of Death Of a Citizen

A 1963 re-issue of Death Of a Citizen

Today, March 24, is the 100th anniversary of the birth of author Donald Hamilton, creator of Matt Helm.

It has been 23 years since the last Helm novel, The Damagers, was published. It’s common for fans of the series to get out their copies every so often to re-read the adventures of the American “counter-assassin.”

The Helm novels, unlike Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, were written in the first person. The stories are like a cross between Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer novels and the more fantastic elements of Fleming’s 007 stories. Because the reader only discovers things as its hero (or anti-hero) does, you get sucked into the rhythms of the story before realizing just how much fantasy there is in them.

For example, with the sixth novel, The Ambushers, Helm ends up in a machete fight with an ex-Nazi while a missile is ready to be fired. But the journey to that point is pretty grim and gritty. By the time of the machete fight, you’re so caught up in the story you’re not going to stop there.

The first novel of the series, Death of a Citizen, was done as a one-off. Helm, who has been living peacefully for 15 years after World War II, is suddenly drawn back into his former violent life. An editor suggested with a few changes (including the character’s first name, George and killing off Helm’s wife) it could be turned into a series. The character became Matt Helm. Hamilton settled for Mrs. Helm getting a divorce.

The books were turned into comedies with Dean Martin, produced by Irving Allen, the former partner of James Bond producer Albert R. Broccoli. There has been talk for years of a series Helm film but nothing has developed.

Hamilton died in 2006. There is one unpublished Helm novel but the Hamilton family has held onto it in case a new movie develops. For now, fans of the novel have to be satisfied with re-reading Hamilton’s well-told stories.

George Kennedy and the art of scene stealing

George Kennedy's Patroni steals a scene from Burt Lancaster, the star of Airport.

George Kennedy’s Patroni steals a scene from Burt Lancaster, the star of Airport.

We deviate from our normal format to note the passing of character actor George Kennedy, who has died at the age of 91, according to an obituary at  THEWRAP WEBSITE.

Kennedy won an Oscar for Cool Hand Luke. But he also provided a kind of acting lesson in the 1970 film Airport — namely, a practical demonstration of how a supporting player can steal a movie from its stars.

Airport has been copied and parodied over the years. But in 1970, it was a big, prestigious film, starring Burt Lancaster and Dean Martin. It eventually was nominated for Best Picture and the distinguished actress Helen Hayes, who appeared in the film, picked up an Oscar for best supporting actress.

Nevertheless, Kennedy in a secondary role actually dominates the scenes he’s in. He plays Joe Patroni, a gruff airliner mechanic. For much of the movie he has a cigar. He also takes great advantage of the structure of the Big Movie.

Tom Mankiewicz, the one-time James Bond screenwriter, in his audio commentary for Live And Let Die describes a type of character such movies can’t do without — Leo The Explainer.

These characters provide expository dialogue, giving the audience information it needs to know. As Mankiewicz told it, stars don’t like providing such explanations. So Leo The Explainer serves that purpose.

The thing is, Kennedy’s Patroni — Airport’s Leo The Explainer — does so in an entertaining fashion that draws attention to himself.

In the movie, a mentally disturbed man (Van Heflin) intends to explode a bomb aboard a flight to Rome so his wife will collect insurance. The authorities have figured this out but the question is how to stop him.

There’s a scene in the office of airport manager Mel Bakersfeld (Lancaster) with a model of a Boeing 707. Patroni talks about what what happens when there’s sudden decompression, giving a semi-graphic explanation. (Patroni says he once witnessed such an incident personally.)

Eventually, the disturbed man sets off the bomb. Later, it’s up to Patroni to get a stranded airliner, stuck in snow, to free up the airport’s main runway so the returning, damaged jet can land safely. With time running out, Patroni declares, “We’re going for broke!” and against all odds moves the stranded plane out of the way.

Universal, the studio that released Airport, decided to release other Airport movies between 1974 and 1979. The one constant: George Kennedy as Patroni. Acting schools teach you about the craft. But Kennedy’s performance in the original Airport is a lesson for aspiring actors about the reality.

Who’s the next spy to be revived? How about Matt Helm?

Matt Helm as he appeared on Fawcett paperbacks, circa 1963

Matt Helm as he appeared on Fawcett paperbacks, circa 1963

The Man From U.N.C.L.E., after a long hibernation, arrives in movie theaters in less that two weeks. If U.N.C.L.E. can stage a comeback, any character can. So who should be the next ’60s spy to be revived from “suspended animation”?

How about Matt Helm, code name Eric?

Strictly speaking, Helm wasn’t a spy. He was a “counter assassin,” taking out various murderous threats to the United States. Created by author Donald Hamilton (1916-2006), Helm was the star of 27 paperback novels, published from 1960 until 1993.

Of course, the general public has, at best, a hazy memory of that. Helm is mostly remembered for four movies starring Dean Martin, which turned Hamilton’s very serious novels into light romps, which resembled a spy version of Dino’s 1965-74 variety show on NBC.

As this blog has noted before, that film series probably affected the 007 films the most. To get Dean Martin involved, he was made a partner in the enterprise. When Dino made more money from The Silencers than Sean Connery got from Thunderball, the Scotsman’s relationship with Bond producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman soured.

In any case, like U.N.C.L.E. (which, after decades in the wilderness, arrives in movie theaters on Aug. 14), Helm has been “in development” in Hollywood for quite some time.

The last word this blog had was in 2012, when The Hollywood Reporter had a story that Helm still was on Paramount’s to-do list. If there’s been Helm news since, The Spy Commander missed it.

Regardless, you won’t find a Matt Helm movie on any list of scheduled movie releases in the near future.

Fans of Hamilton’s novels have long wished for a serious Matt Helm movie. In the jaded 21st century, audiences are more than ready for Helm’s rough stuff.

Still, Hamilton’s novels would be hard to replicate on film. The stories are told in the first person. Hamilton’s prose is so engaging, the reader gets sucked in. When Helm kills somebody, you almost find yourself saying, “Of course. What else was Matt to do?”

The beauty of Hamilton’s novels is they’re told in a gritty way (not unlike Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer novels), but the author could come up with plots as fanciful as anything Ian Fleming devised. It’s a delicate balancing act, but one that many readers enjoyed over more than three decades.

Perhaps the operative with the code name of Eric will never make a screen comeback. Still, if Solo and Kuryakin can return to the screen…..

A cool U.N.C.L.E. publicity still (1965)

Toward the end of the first season of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., David McCallum, playing Illya Kuryakin, posed for a series of publicity stills during production of The Girls of Nazarone Affair, the next-to-last episode of the show’s first season.

In this photo, he’s in a convertible with Sharon Tate, who had a small role in the episode. Tate, in this photograph, shows off her personality that made an impression on casting directors. She soon would soon get larger roles.

Looking at this image, you can understand why Dean Martin wanted Tate to return for a planned fifth Matt Helm movie, The Ravagers. Tate had been his co-star in The Wrecking Crew.

It wasn’t to be. Tragically, she would be murdered in 1969 by the Charles Manson family.

David McC, Sharon Tate

Evolution of the spy turtleneck

David McCallum's main titles credit in the final season

David McCallum’s main titles credit in the final season

The unveiling of SPECTRE’s teaser caused a bit of stir when it was released on social media on Tuesday.

Star Daniel Craig, instead of the traditional Bond tuxedo or business suit, wore a black turtleneck as well as a shoulder holster while holding a gun. While a different look for the current 007, turtlenecks and spies have gone together for a half century. Here’s a quick look.

David McCallum, The Man From U.N.C.L.E.: U.N.C.L.E. agent Illya Kuryakin had an iconic look with his black turtleneck. Ironically, he actually didn’t wear it that often in the show but it’s an image that many people remember.

As we noted IN THIS POST, Jon Heitland’s Man From U.N.C.L.E. book includes a photo of McCallum making an appearance in a parade accompanied by Boy Scout “bodyguards” wearing turtlenecks and carrying toy U.N.C.L.E. Special guns. The actor, though, was wearing a suit and tie.

Occasionally, Kuryakin might vary his wardrobe by wearing a gray turtleneck or, in a second-season episode, a white one with a red jacket when he was going undercover as a musician. Armie Hammer, who has the Kuryakin role in this year’s movie version of the series, has worn dark turtlenecks.

Dean Martin as Matt Helm with Stella Stevens in The Silencers.

Dean Martin and Stella Stevens in The Silencers.

Dean Martin, Matt Helm movies: Matt sometimes wore suits but he often favored light-colored turtlenecks, including tan and yellow ones. In the final film of the series, The Wrecking Crew, Helm donned a black turtleneck with white jacket and pants.

Sy Devore designed Dean Martin’s clothes for the 1966-68 film series. For whatever reason, turtlenecks (as well as dress cowboy boots) were a big part of the Matt Helm look. Devore had other celebrity customers, which is noted ON THE HOME PAGE of the store that bears his name.

Another moment of 007 clothing splendor

Another moment of 007 clothing splendor

Sean Connery, Diamonds Are Forever: Some fans make fun of the pink power tie that Sean Connery wore as 007 in his sixth Bond film for Eon Productions.

Yet, he had another outfit that sometimes draws comments: a brown turtleneck with a plaid sport jacket. Anthony Sinclair, it wasn’t. It’s only seen during a brief sequence where Bond accompanies Willard Whyte (Jimmy Dean) to find out what Blofeld (Charles Gray) has been doing with Whyte’s business empire. Bond is back in a three-piece suit for the climax aboard an oil rig.

Roger Moore in Live And Let Die

Roger Moore in Live And Let Die

Roger Moore, Live And Let Die: Many Bond fans reacted to the SPECTRE teaser by saying it was an homage to Roger Moore in his initial 007 film in 1973. The actor donned black turtleneck and pants along with a shoulder holster to sneak around San Monique prior to rescuing Solitaire (Jane Seymour) and taking down Dr. Kananga (Yaphet Kotto). The outfit was also similar to an outfit Steve McQueen wore in Bullitt, which came out five years earlier.

UPDATE (March 18): Feedback here (see Orange Wetsuit’s comment below) and on social media call for mentions of:

–Jonny Quest and his trademark black turtleneck. He wasn’t a spy, of course, but Race Bannon was.

–The Saint (Roger Moore), who, while not a spy, did wear turtlenecks as part of “sneaking around” outfits.

–Derek Flint (James Coburn), who wore a white turtleneck as part of a white outfit in In Like Flint.

–The Archer spy cartoon series.

Evolution of a meme: Helm to 007 to Kingsman

The Year of the Spy (in the United States, anyway) shifts into another gear this month with the debut of Kingsman: The Secret Service.

The movie, directed by Matthew Vaughn, strives for a return of the escapist spy film in a century known mostly for the grim and gritty, first popularized by Jason Bourne and then by a rebooted James Bond franchise with Daniel Craig.

Kingsman’s emphasis on escapism even extends to the movie’s ad campaign, which involves a meme that’s been around for decades.

In the ads, members of the Kingsman’s cast, including star Colin Firth, are depicted striding toward a woman with prosthetic feet (a character in the film) who’s holding a drink and a rifle.

A poster for Kingsman: The Secret Service

A poster for Kingsman: The Secret Service

The image evokes the 1981 James Bond film For Your Eyes Only, in which Roger Moore’s Bond is standing before a swimsuit-wearing Melina, holding a crossbow.

FYEO U.S. Insert

But 007 wasn’t the first spy character to use such an image.

Fifteen years earlier, The Silencers — produced by Irving Allen, former partner of co-founding 007 producer Albert R. Broccoli — had an illustration of a woman in a similar pose. Matt Helm (Dean Martin) isn’t standing in front of her but his presence is noted regardless.

silencers ad

In any case, Kingsman already is out in Europe. The R-rated movies arrives in U.S. theaters on Feb. 13.