Dino’s Matt Helm movies to be shown Sept. 26 on TCM

Dean Martin and Stella Stevens in The Silencers.

Movie channel TCM will present all four of Dean Martin’s Matt Helm films on Sept. 26. It’s part of a month-long salute to Dino, with Martin movies being shown on Wednesdays.

The Helm movies were produced by Irving Allen, former partner of Albert R. Broccoli. That partnership ended, in part, because Broccoli wanted to make movies based on Ian Fleming’s 007 novels. Allen wasn’t enthusiastic about the idea.

After the early Bond films, produced by Broccoli and his new partner, Harry Saltzman, had become a success, Allen searched for his own spy property to pursue.

He ended up with Donald Hamilton’s Matt Helm series of serious spy novels. But Allen got Dean Martin to participate as a partner. So the movie adaptations took a much lighter tone and, in effect, were spy versions of Martin’s variety show.

The Silencers will be shown at 8 p.m. ET, followed by Murderers’ Row at 10, The Ambushers at midnight and The Wrecking Crew at 2 a.m., Sept. 27.

For more about the Helm film series, read MATT HELM, AMERICA’S LOADED WEAPON.

h/t to reader Mark Henderson, who flagged this on The Spy Command’s Facebook page.

Happy 100th birthday, Dino

Dean Martin (1917-1995), a lover not a fighter

Dean Martin (1917-1995), a lover not a fighter in The Ambushers (1967).

Today, June 7, is the 100th anniversary of the birthday of Dean Martin. Dino, in his day, was the epitome of cool and charm. For many, he still is.

His contribution to spy entertainment was starring in the four-film Matt Helm series produced by Irving Allen, former partner of Eon Productions co-founder Albert R. Broccoli.

To entice Dino, Allen made the actor his partner. As a result, Martin enjoyed a bigger pay day for the first Helm film, The Silencers, than Sean Connery got for Thunderball. Connery noticed and wanted to be a partner in the Bond franchise..

The Helm series doesn’t get respect in the 21st century. Many who like the movies refer to their affection as a “guilty pleasure.”

The Helm movies, rather than doing straight adaptations of Donald Hamilton’s serious novels, incorporated Dino’s “lovable lush” act.

One of the movies, Murderers’ Row, even had a plot point where Matt gives his boss Mac (James Gregory) a clue by deliberately misstating his alcohol preference. (“Matt Helm never drank a glass of bourbon in his life!” Mac says as he tries to figure out the traitor in his organization.)

For the record, this blog would greatly appreciate a new Helm movie that faithfully adapted the Hamilton novels. At the same time, the Spy Commander discovered the novels *because* of the Dean Martin films. Speaking strictly for myself, I’m very fond of both, despite the flaws of the movies.

Regardless, today is a day of celebration. Bottoms up, Dino.

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.

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.

Bruce Lee working on The Wrecking Crew

There’s really not much to be said here. During production of The Wrecking Crew, the fourth and final Matt Helm movie, Bruce Lee was credited as “karate adviser.” In reality, he was the fight arranger.

This photo popped up Facebook. Here, Lee (1940-1973) works with Sharon Tate (1943-1969) and Nancy Kwan (b. 1939) on a fight sequence toward the end of The Wrecking Crew.

Even though Lee didn’t appear on camera, his stunt work/fight arranging made The Wrecking Crew a unique entry in the four-film series starring Dean Martin and produced by Irving Allen, Albert R. Broccoli’s former producing partner.

Bruce Lee supervises Sharon Tate (left) and Nancy Kwan

Bruce Lee supervises Sharon Tate (left) and Nancy Kwan

Our modest proposal for a James Bond-related movie

Ian Fleming, Harry Saltzman and Albert R. Broccoli

Ian Fleming, Harry Saltzman and Albert R. Broccoli

This weekend in the U.S., Saving Mr. Banks, a telling of the behind-the-scenes turmoil during the making of 1964’s Mary Poppins, is out. Generally, movie makers love to make movies about their industry. So why not a movie based on how James Bond made it to the screen?

There certainly were moments of drama that occurred before 007 made it to the screen in 1962’s Dr. No. The meeting where Irving Allen, then the partner of Albert R. Broccoli, ridicules the Bond novels to Ian Fleming’s face. The ticking clock as Harry Saltzman strained to make a deal with a studio before his six-month option on the bulk of the 007 novels expired. How the producers and United Artists wrangled about who to cast to play Fleming’s gentleman agent with a license to kill.

Such a project likely would face complications. It’d be easiest for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in partnership with Sony. Saving Mr. Banks was released by Walt Disney Co., which meant it was no problem to use clips from Mary Poppins in a sequence about the movie’s world premier. However, an MGM-Sony combo would need to proceed cautiously, not wanting to alienate Eon Productions, which actually produces the 007 movies.

One possible vehicle to do a “being the scenes of 007” movie would be to acquire the screen rights of one-time United Artists executive David V. Picker’s memoir, which includes a chapter on the Bond movies and how they came to be. One possible scenario for a movie would be show how things came to be through Picker’s eyes.

Don’t hold your breath for such a movie (or even TV movie). But it would have the potential to be an entertaining film.

RE-POST: From Russia With Love’s 50th: legacy

Sean Connery in a From Russia With Love publicity still

Sean Connery in a From Russia With Love publicity still

Originally published Sept. 18, the last of a four-part series. Reprinted today, the actual anniversary.

From Russia With Love, the second James Bond film, remains different from any 007 adventure since.

It’s the closest the Bond series had to a straight espionage thriller. The “McGuffin” is a decoding machine. That’s important in the world of spying but the stakes would be much larger in future 007 adventures: the fate of the U.S. gold supply, recovering two atomic bombs, preventing nuclear war, etc.

From Russia With Love includes memorable set pieces such as the gypsy camp fight between Bulgarians working for the Soviets and the gypsies working for MI6’s Kerim Bey as well as Bond dodging a helicopter. But they’re not the same scope compared with what would be seen in future 007 films. No underwater fights. No giant magnets snatching cars from a highway. No death-dealing satellites. Even when Bond movies such as For Your Eyes Only and The Living Daylights tried to have From Russia With Love-like moments, they still had larger action sequences.

From Russia With Love is by no means a small, “indie” film. It’s just different compared with what producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, and their successors, would offer in future 007 installments. Perhaps that’s why some fans keep coming back to view From Russia With Love again and again.

From Russia With Love also introduced stylistic changes to the Bond series, particularly with the beginning of the 007 pre-credits sequence. It also had an actual title song, unlike Dr. No. However, the main titles used an instrumental version (plus an arrangement of the James Bond Theme). The vocal, performed by Matt Monro, is briefly heard during the film and isn’t played in its entirety until the end titles. Finally, the movie was the first time Eon Productions revealed the title of the next 007 adventure in the end titles.

From Russia With Love also demonstrated that Dr. No wasn’t a fluke. If Sean Connery as Bond had been a diamond in the rough in Dr. No, he was now fully polished in his second turn as Bond. At the box office, From Russia With Love was an even bigger hit with audiences than Dr. No.

The 1963 007 outing proved once and for all the judgment of Broccoli and Saltzman — the odd couple forced by circumstances to join forces — that Bond had major commercial potential. The likes of Irving Allen (Broccoli’s former partner who hated Ian Fleming’s novels) and Columbia Pictures (which had the chance to finance Dr. No only to see United Artists do the deal) had egg on their faces.

Nearly a half-century later, From Russia With Love is often in the conversation among fans (particularly older ones) as among the best of the Bond films. It also ensured the series would continue — though nobody realized how big things would get.

THE END…NOT QUITE THE END…JAMES BOND will return in the next Ian Fleming thriller “GOLDFINGER.”