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.

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…..

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.

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.

E-book on the Matt Helm films now available

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

Dean Martin as Matt Helm in The Silencers.

There’s an new e-book about the four-film Matt Helm series available. Bruce Scivally has written Booze, Bullets & Broads: The Story of Matt Helm, Superspy of the Mad Men Era.

Scivally previously worked on John Cork-directed documentaries of the James Bond films that were part of DVD extras. He and Cork also wrote James Bond: The Legacy, a coffee table book that came out last decade.

Here’s the description from the new e-book’s AMAZON.COM LISTING:

The story of Matt Helm, spy of the Mad Men era. After his creation by Donald Hamilton, Helm went from being a literary rival of James Bond to being a cinematic rival with the production of four movies starring crooner Dean Martin as a woozy, boozy secret agent. Produced by Irving Allen, the former partner of 007 film producer Cubby Broccoli, the Helm movies influenced not only the Bond films but also Austin Powers, and remain a “guilty pleasure” viewing favorite of red-blooded males everywhere.

We’ve written before how the first Helm movie, The Silencers, had THE BIGGEST EFFECT ON THE 007 FILM SERIES from rival movies because Dean Martin got a bigger paycheck than Sean Connery. Allen made Dino a partner in the enterprise. Soon after, Connery began demanding not only more money but to be a partner in the Bond films. 007 producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman resisted the partnership demand, contributing to Connery’s departure after You Only Live Twice.

Also, according to film historian Adrian Turner, some at United Artists were keen on Phil Karlson to direct Dr. No. But Karlson’s asking price was $75,000, which helped Terence Young get the job. Karlson ended up directing The Silencers and The Wrecking Crew, the final Helm movie.

For the Scivally e-book, the price is $2.99. You can download it for free if you’re a Prime Member of Amazon.

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.

The non-Bond film that had the biggest impact on 007

Dean Martin as Matt Helm during a dramatic moment in The Silencers.


With the 50th anniversary of the James Bond film series, we got to thinking about the 007 film competitor that had the biggest impact. It’s really not much of a contest. It’s 1966’s The Silencers.

Now, other spy films had an impact on the style of Bond films. Studio executives told The New York Times (without letting their names be attached) in 2005 that The Bourne Identity and The Bourne Supremacy comprised the model for Daniel Craig’s rebooted 007, beginning with 2006’s Casino Royale and especially with 2008’s Quantum of Solace. Even non-spy films influenced earlier 007 films such as Live And Let Die (Shaft, Super Fly), The Man With the Golden Gun (Bruce Lee kung fu films) and Moonraker (Star Wars).

But The Silencers rocked the Bond franchise in ways other films didn’t. The 1966 movie was the first of four Matt Helm movies produced by Irving Allen, once the partner of Albert R. Broccoli, the co-founder of the 007 film franchise. Allen (dismissed as a “blowhard” by current Eon Productions co-boss Barbara Broccoli) had been skeptical of 007’s film potential and had insulted Ian Fleming.

Allen, presumably realizing the scope of his mistake, got the film rights to the Matt Helm series of paperback novels by Donald Hamilton. To make a Helm film series a reality, Allen needed a star. He got one — Dean Martin. But to get Dino into the fold, Allen made the Rat Packer a partner. For The Silencers, that meant a $1.2 million paycheck, more than twice the money Sean Connery got for doing Thunderball. To top it off, the Helm series found a home at Columbia Pictures. That was the same studio that passed on doing business with 007 producers Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, who ended up taking their project to United Artists.

The Scotsman didn’t like that and tensions accelerated between the star and 007 producers Broccoli and Saltzman. Perhaps Connery would have tired of the role anyway. But the conflict over money — fueled by The Silencers — caused Eon’s relationship with its star to rupture. Broccoli’s relationship with Saltzman was already getting tenuous and making Connery a partner in the enterprise wasn’t going to happen. Broccoli eventually would be proven right in one respect. Once Dean Martin lost interest, the Helm film series went away.

Still, had Allen not brought The Silencers (retooled from Hamilton’s serious novels to almost an extension of Dean Martin’s variety show) to the screen, much could have been different. Perhaps Connery would have stayed longer. Perhaps On Her Majesty’s Secret Service would have been a lot different with Connery, rather than George Lazenby. The point is, things got a lot bumpier for the franchise as The Silencers worsened tensions lurking beneath the surface.

Other films affected Bond films but The Silencers affected the business of Bond. The new Everything Or Nothing documentary references this in an indirect way. But in a way, the impact of The Silencers is part of Bond film history.

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