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.

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…..

Matt Helm audio books coming in August

Matt Helm cover image that debuted with 1963's The Ambushers novel

Matt Helm cover image that debuted with 1963’s The Ambushers novel

Audio book versions of Donald Hamilton’s first five Matt Helm novels are coming starting in August.

Death of a Citizen, The Wrecking Crew, The Removers, The Silencers and Murderers’ Row will make their audio book debut, You can CLICK HERE for ordering information. UPDATE Sept. 8: See comment below which has updated pricing information.  

The five novels were published 1960 to 1962. They were part of a 27-book series, with the last published in 1993. Titan Books returned the Helm series to print in 2011.

For a detailed description of the first five novels, you can check out The Matt Helm Dossier’s descriptions of Death of a Citizen, The Wrecking Crew, The Removers, The Silencers and Murderers’ Row.

You can CLICK HERE for the website’s list of all of the Helm books.

Red 2 utilizes a familiar meme

Luciana Paluzzi and Sean Connery during the filming of Thunderball

Luciana Paluzzi and Sean Connery on the set of Thunderball

This weekend’s release of Red 2 includes one of the most dependable memes of spy fiction: the hero and the femme fatale who have been more than friendly.

In the new movie, Catherine Zeta-Jones’s Katja is described as “Kryptonite” for Bruce Willis’s Frank Moses. Often the femme fatales are enemies but at times reach an uneasy alliance with the hero — at least until she starts trying to kill him again.

James Bond-Fiona Volpe (Thunderball): In Goldfinger, Sean Connery’s James Bond “recruited” Honor Blackman’s Pussy Galore to the side of right. In Thunderball, Connery’s Bond tries it again, albeit unsuccessfully, with Fiona Volpe (Luciana Volpe), the chief executioner for SPECTRE. “What a blow it must have been — you having a failure,” Fiona says. “Well, you can’t win them all,” Bond replies.

Fiona doesn’t survive long after that. But Paluzzi made such an impact that in the next 007 film, You Only Live Twice, Karin Dor’s Helga seems to be a knockoff of Fiona.

Napoleon Solo/Angela-Angelique-Serena Luciana Paluzzi had a dry run before her Thunderball role. When The Man From U.N.C.L.E. pilot was in production, producer Norman Felton had additional footage shot for a movie version for international audiences. Paluzzi’s Angela lures an U.N.C.L.E. agent to his death and tries to do the same with Robert Vaughn’s Napoleon Solo. The extra footage for the movie version as used, yet again, in a first-season episode of the series called The Four-Steps Affair.

Other Thrush femme fatale operatives showed up in Man’s first season, Serena (Senta Berger) and Angelique (Janine Gray). Solo has had a history with both but the viewer isn’t provided many details. Serena helps abduct Solo for a double can take his place. But at the story’s climax (the TV version was called The Double Affair, the movie version The Spy With My Face), Serena ends up shooting the double.

Matt Helm/Vadya: In the third Matt Helm novel by Donald Hamilton, The Removers, Helm goes to the “recognition room” to review dossiers of Soviet-bloc assassins. One of the dossiers concerns the mysterious “Vadya.” Helm readers don’t meet Vadya until Hamilton’s sixth Helm novel, The Ambushers. The encounter ends in a draw. Helm meets Vadya twice more in the novels The Devastators and The Menacers. She’s killed off early in The Menacers, but her death is a key part of the novel’s plot.

Meanwhile, the 1967 adaption of The Ambushers, starring Dean Martin, includes Vadya (Senta Berger again), except the character has been renamed. The character is killed before the end of the movie.

HMSS’s favorite character actors: Victor Buono

Victor Buono's character meets his demise in the pilot to The Wild, Wild West

Victor Buono’s character meets his demise in the pilot to The Wild, Wild West

One in an occasional series

Victor Buono was hard to miss. Heavy-set and 6-foot-3, and often delivering his lines in a very theatrical way, Buono made an impression on viewers of television and movies.

Buono was screenwriter Richard Maibaum’s choice for the title role in Goldfinger. “He’s been called a combination of Charles Laughton and Laird Cregar,” Maibaum wrote in a detailed letter to producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman about how to turn the Ian Fleming novel into the film. (The letter was quoted in the 1998 book Adrian Turner on Goldfinger.)

Buono didn’t get that part, which went to Gert Frobe. But as the 1960s spy entertainment boom took hold, he got plenty of work in the genre.

Victor Buono and Bill Cosby in an I Spy episode

Victor Buono and Bill Cosby in an I Spy episode

Producer Irving Allen, Broccoli’s ex-partner, hired Buono as the lead villain in the first Dean Martin Matt Helm movie, The Silencers. Buono was made up to be the Asian head of BIGO, a group not found in Donald Hamilton’s serious novels. It was the Helm equivalent of SPECTRE. Buono’s Tung-Tze didn’t survive his encounter with Dino’s Helm.

Buono also appeared as the main villain in the pilot episode of The Wild, Wild West, though that wasn’t revealed until the last act. Buono’s character was a Mexican made up to look Chinese as part of a plot to start a revolution in the 1870s southwestern United States. Buono later came back in two more episodes of the series as Count Manzeppi, intended to be a second recurring villain in addition to Dr. Loveless. The actor also made one-shot appearances in I Spy, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and The Girl From U.N.C.L.E.

During this same general period, he also became part of the Rogues Gallery of Villains as King Tut on the 1966-68 Batman television series. Buono’s IMDB.com bio page uses a still of him in that role.

Even as the spy boom faded, Buono’s career didn’t as he continued to get cast in other roles. The actor even appeared in the 1980 television movie More Wild, Wild West as a pompous U.S. government official modeled on Henry Kissinger. He died, of a heart attack, on Jan. 1, 1982, at the age of 43.

Matt Helm prequel available

A 1963 re-issue of Death Of a Citizen

Death Of a Citizen, the original Matt Helm novel.

A prequel novel to Donald Hamilton’s Matt Helm series of novels is out.

Matt Helm: the War Years is AVAILABLE ON KINDLE. The author, Keith Wease, says he has permission of the Hamilton family. Here’s how he described it on Amazon.com:

Although a cold-blooded killer, Matt Helm has a superb sense of humor, a sharp opinion on just about everything, and is quite capable of falling in love (or lust) during his missions. This book is about his WWII experiences, from his initial recruitment into the agency, his training, and his missions during the war. Matt Helm fans will know the ending, but it would be a “spoiler” to mention it here.

I have been a Donald Hamilton fan since the 1960s and, when he died, decided to write the prequel. Having read the Matt Helm series several times, I researched everything Donald Hamilton wrote about Matt Helm’s wartime experiences and his pre-war life. Incorporating direct quotes from the books, and my own imagination, I filled in many of his mission details (including, of course, the one featuring Tina, who shows up in the first Matt Helm novel, Death of a Citizen) and added several of my own, trying to keep the narrative authentic to Donald Hamilton’s style.

The book was approved by Donald Hamilton’s son (who is CEO of the company holding the rights), who told me that I had “captured Don’s voice quite successfully” and that it was “All in all, a quite good read!”

Hamilton wrote 27 Helm novels, starting with 1960’s Death Of a Citizen, through 1993. Hamilton also wrote an unpublished 28th novel that the family is holding onto in case a new Matt Helm movie develops. Hamilton died in 2006.

Titan Books has also republished the first four Helm novels: Death Of a Citzen, The Wrecking Crew, The Removers and The Silencers.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 256 other followers