Director-producer Irving Allen has been charitably referred to as a bit gruff, or rough around the edges. Less charitably, a bully. Even less charitably, a complete asshole. Working his way from junior editor up through the ranks, he eventually carved out a pretty successful if low-key career as the producer or director of a number of shorts, including the Academy Award winning Climbing the Matterhorn. Wanting more from his career though, he partnered with another struggling producer, Brit Albert “Cubby” Broccoli, to form Warwick Films. Based out of England so they could take advantage of lucrative tax breaks, Warwick made a number of successful “boy’s own adventure” style films that allowed Allen to indulge his taste for costumed mini-epics and Broccoli a chance to make a name for himself with the help of his mercurial but close friend and partner.
Allen had a well-deserved reputation for being abusive and demanding, both as a producer, a director, and as a businessman. He and Cubby sometimes collaborated on projects, but more times than not they trusted each other to work on independent projects. So it was that Broccoli set up an interview one day with Ian Fleming, author of several successful James Bond adventure novels. Fleming was interested in seeing his character brought to life on screen but had so far been unsuccessful in convincing anyone to make it happen. Other than a cheap adaptation of his first Bond novel, Casino Royale, for the American television series Climax! — in which the character was rechristened Jimmy Bond and had his nationality switched to American — James Bond existed only in the novels. The rights to Casino Royale had been sold, though nothing more came of it, and Fleming had collaborated on an initial script for a movie that eventually became the book Thunderball — which eventually became the movie Thunderball and a big legal nightmare for Fleming, which is also why we also have Never Say Never Again. But Cubby Broccoli was very enthusiastic about getting a Bond film made, so he set up a meeting between him and Fleming.
Tragically, Broccoli’s wife fell extremely ill, and in an effort to secure better treatment for the cancer that had wracked her body, he traveled with her to New York, then stayed by her side through treatment and her eventual final days. In his partner’s absence, Irving Allen handled the meeting with Ian Fleming. There was just one problem: Allen hated the James Bond books. In his typically “candid” way, he stated to Fleming’s face that the books were utter rubbish, not even fit to be adapted for television. Not surprisingly, no deal was struck that day. Broccoli was upset with Allen’s uncouth handling of the meeting and rude dismissal of Fleming. Between that and the stress Broccoli felt over his wife’s passing, the relationship between he and Allen became strained. Independent of Allen, Broccoli sought to patch things up with Ian Fleming while Allen himself pursued a personal passion project — a big, lavish biopic called The Trials of Oscar Wilde. Cubby Broccoli eventually entered into a separate partnership with producer Harry Saltzman, founding Eon Studios for the express purpose of making the first James Bond movie, Dr. No (the rights to Casino Royale were tied up elsewhere, and Dr. No was the most recent of the Bond novels). Allen, meanwhile, met with crushing disappointment over his Oscar Wilde movie. Frank discussion and portrayal of Wilde’s homosexuality did not sit well with censors, and the film flopped at the few box offices in which it played.
By the time Dr. No was released, Warwick Films was dead and Bond mania had been born. Allen went on to produce a few more interesting and generally quite good historical epics, including 1964’s Viking epic The Long Ships starring Richard Widmark, Sidney Poitier, and Russ Tamblyn. The massive failure of another historical epic, Genghis Khan, a year later put Allen in a precarious financial and professional position. In that time, his old junior partner had become quite possibly the most successful film producer in the world, thanks entirely to the the James Bond movies Allen had so obnoxiously chased out his own front door. By the time Genghis Khan flopped, Broccoli has produced four James Bond films: Dr. No, From Russia with Love, Goldfinger, and the same year as Genghis Khan, Thunderball. The entire world was ape for Bond, and most film studios were doing their best to ape Bond’s formula. Allen, always as keen to make a buck as he was to make a picture, shrugged and decided to follow his former partner’s lead. The question was, what would he use as his source material?
Allen knew he didn’t want to start from scratch. While it was unlikely he would develop a juggernaut on the level of James Bond, he still wanted a big success, and the easiest way to do that was to hit the ground with material that already had a built-in audience. Somewhat randomly, Allen was perusing the paperbacks at an airport and picked up one of the Matt Helm novels by Donald Hamilton — Death of a Citizen or The Silencers, “I don’t remember which” he later said, though it’s possible it was both of them given the eventual structure of the movie. Whatever the case, he liked what he read and thought Matt Helm, adventuring around in the American southwest, would make a fantastic counterpoint to British Bond. Hamilton, himself having already sold many stories to be adapted into movies, was more than happy to meet and eventually sign a deal with Allen giving the producer the rights to all of the existing Matt Helm novels, eight at the time. Allen formed a new company to produce the movies and convinced Columbia Pictures — like Allen, they had turned their nose up at Ian Fleming and James Bond and were now looking to play catch-up — to make the movies, though Allen himself had to front a sizable portion of the money.
By all accounts, the initial plan for the movie was to stick very close to the tone of Hamilton’s books. Allen hired screenwriter Oscar Saul (A Streetcar Named Desire) to pen the script and film noir and western veteran Phil Karlson (Kansas City Confidential, Phenix City Story, Kid Galahad) to direct. Donald Hamilton himself would serve as story consultant. Like Allen and Columbia Pictures, Karlson had his own brush with Bond when he was considered to direct Dr. No until Cubby Broccoli balked at the price tag and went with Terence Young instead. If not all-star, it was never the less an impressive assembly of talent. Both Karlson and Saul were well-respected and had shown the ability to work well in the highly emotional and noirish sort of world Matt Helm inhabited. And while Irving Allen was short-fused and had a number of flops under his belt, he also had a number of successes, and his flops had at least been challenging and ambitious. All that was left was to find the right actor to play the part.
Allen’s first choice was Tony Curtis, but Curtis was involved with his own vanity project and turned the part down. Television actor Hugh O’Brian was next announced to have taken the role, but that didn’t pan out either. Hamilton wanted Richard Boone, star of the hit television show Have Gun, Will Travel, but again, no dice (I’m not even sure he was ever even considered by Allen). Starting to panic a little now as the first day of filming was fast approaching, Allen was throwing the role at the feet of a number of players, including Paul Newman, but no established actor wanted to be the guy who had to compete with Sean Connery as James Bond. Sensing that they would never find the right actor, Allen called in new writers to retool the script. If he couldn’t compete with Bond, Allen reasoned, he’d spoof Bond. And so the Matt Helm project went from a hard-hitting, serious noir take on the Bond style spy movie to a comedy. And once they changed the tone of the film, they changed the tone of the star. After seeing him out on the town one night charming everyone around him, Irving Allen decided he knew who he wanted to play this new version of Matt Helm: comedian and lounge singer Dean Martin.
No one could really believe Allen was serious, least of all Dean Martin himself. The crooner, harboring fears that after the dissolution of his partnership with Jerry Lewis his film career would be over, was still hesitant to commit himself to a potential film series, so he jokingly made a number of outrageous demands, including 10% of the profits on top of his salary, figuring that they would turn him down and he could go on his merry way. When Irving Allen accepted the deal, Martin shrugged and became Matt Helm. It’s possible that Martin could have handled a more serious script. He’d recently proven himself quite capable of a powerful dramatic turn, both as the drunken deputy in Rio Lobo and again alongside Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift in the World War II drama The Young Lions. But everyone, including Dean himself, figured no one wanted to see a dark and violent turn from the popular entertainer. They wanted Ocean’s Eleven Dean Martin. They wanted Rat Pack Dean Martin. They wanted fun, drunk Uncle Dino. And boy did they get him.
The script was further tweaked by some of Martin’s own writing buddies to better incorporate the drunk and witty stage persona Dean had invented for himself after so many years as the straight man to Jerry Lewis’ braying man-child. This included adding a number of musical asides and daydreams for Martin to croon through, and to better reflect James Bond, abandoning the wife and kids and instead making Matt Helm into a swingin’ bachelor. It was a disappointing turn of events for fans of Hamilton’s writing, who had been hoping to see the cruel, violent, unglamorous world of Matt Helm brought to the big screen as a sort of mean, shadowy reflection of the frothy, fantastical Bond movies. Hamilton himself was disappointed and thought going to comedic route to be a bit of a cop-out, but he was also a professional who had sold many stories already, so he knew the drill and doesn’t seem to have taken it too terribly personally, continuing to write new Matt Helm novels in his usual style while, as he stated in an interview taking the money from the Matt Helm movie and crying all the way to the bank.
In 1966, in the wake of Thunderball and alongside another high-profile Bond spoof, Our Man Flint starring James Coburn, Irving Allen, Dean Martin, and The Silencers staggered drunkenly onto American movie screens.