In February of 1966, audiences got their first look at the finished product that started with the dark, violent Matt Helm novels of Donald Hamilton and ended up in the hands of ill-tempered producer Irving Allen and boozy Rat Packer Dean Martin. Leading up to the release of the first film in the series, The Silencers, there had been a barrage of publicity, most of it focused on the bevy of semi-clad beauties populating the film (Dean Martin himself was busy with other film projects and the launch of his very popular new TV variety show). There was little in the pre-release marketing to inspire hope in fans of Donald Hamilton’s books that this Matt Helm would bear any resemblance at all to the character of the same name in the novels. As the lights went down and the curtains parted (yes, we used to have those in movie theaters), it was time for Irving Allen and Dean Martin to deliver their idea of America’s response to James Bond.
Like many of the Matt Helm novels, The Silencers is a pretty grim and straight-forward affair with surprisingly little jet-setting unless you count Juarez, Mexico across the border from El Paso. And if you’ve been to Juarez, you’ll likely agree that you can go there for a number of reasons, but jet setting isn’t usually one of them. Although it was the first of the movies, The Silencers is the fourth in the series of novels so certain things have already been established in previous stories that would help you understand exactly what is going on. It begins with Matt Helm heading toward El Paso, where he is to retrieve an agent in danger working undercover in a seedy Juarez strip club. Why is it that male operatives always have to go undercover as nerds or journalists or photographers and female operatives always have to go undercover as mistresses, strippers, and prostitutes? Things don’t exactly go according to plan, as they rarely do, and before too long, Matt finds himself traveling north toward the small mountain town of Carrizozo, New Mexico with a mysterious woman he knows hates him and is most likely trying to set him up as he struggles to track down an enemy agent and, along the way, stop the bad guys from hijacking a test missile and redirecting it to blow up a bunch of important scientists and politicians.
In keeping with Matt Helm’s down home stomping ground and behavior, most of the villains he faces are equally low-key. Though there are the occasional megalomaniacs with dreams of conquest, most of the time he’s just facing off against other assassins, thugs, agents, and flunkies. There are no Nehru jacket-wearing masterminds with sprawling secret lairs beneath the ocean. By contrast, the antagonists in The Silencers are camped out in a freezing cold, dilapidated old church outside a small New Mexico town. Likewise Helm’s allies are rarely slick playboys and captains of industry. They are, instead, cab drivers and grumpy fellow agents. He frequently butts heads with Washington not over the classic “your methods are too extreme” argument – they pay him to be extreme, after all – but over the simple and all too real-to-life frustration generated by the fact that there are all these investigative and secret agencies running around and refusing to share information with one another, resulting in lots of on-the-job mishaps and misunderstandings as people on the same side find themselves at odds on the same mission simply because no one told them someone else was out there doing the same thing.
The movie opens with a pointless prologue (the first of many jokes aimed at the Bond franchise) in which four assassins who will never appear in the movie are given four golden bullets etched with the name Matt Helm. These, also, play no role in the movie. We then move on to a colorful burlesque of an opening credit sequence anchored by none less than legendary dancer-actress Cyd Charisse (Ziegfeld Follies, Singin’ in the Rain, and the Eurospy films Maroc 7 and Assassination in Rome) performing rather a risque (by modern movie standards; not by Juarez strip club standards) striptease. So not exactly the book, but it’s not entirely out of left field. However, the movie almost immediately jettisons the plot of The Silencers in favor of Death of a Citizen, the first of the Matt Helm novels. Even then, it’s obvious from the start that Dean Martin’s Matt Helm is more Dean Martin than Matt Helm. Instead of a married man in the Santa Fe suburbs, he is a swingin’ bachelor with a space-age pad that includes a nubile young assistant named Lovey Kravezit (Beverly Adams) and a rotating bed that can slide forward and tilt to dump Helm into his waiting indoor pool/hot tub, complete with a wet bar that drops from the ceiling (he has a similar wet bar in his car).
For a while, the film is content to cruise along with the plot of Death of a Citizen, albeit with all the seriousness abandoned in favor of juvenile sex jokes and Dean Martin cracking wise. The role of Tina is played by Israeli star Daliah Lavi (The Return of Dr. Mabuse and Mario Bava’s The Whip and the Body), already a veteran of film as well as a veteran of the Israeli armed forces, meaning that she was probably capable of soundly thrashing most of her male leads, who saves Matt’s life then recruits him back into the service. After some goofing around, the movie switches back to the plot of The Silencers, only with Phoenix, Arizona standing in for Juarez and the seedy strip club being a swinging supper club at a posh resort. There Helm and Tina meet Gail, who here has been transformed from the spoiled but surprisingly tough and resilient woman of the novel into a Jerry Lewis-esque klutz played by Stella Stevens (Disney’s The Nutty Professor and Elvis’ Girls! Girls! Girls!) who bumbles, stumbles and pratfalls her way into the middle of Helm’s assignment.
If Bond films were the epitome of jet-set cool, then The Silencers aimed to be their leering lounge lizard cousin. Everything is cheaper and cruder, but also much less serious — sometimes even witty. The image of Ursula Andress emerging from the ocean in a white bikini in Dr. No became an iconic image of dangerous, sophisticated sex appeal. By contrast, The Silencers is like a high schooler drawing pictures of naked ladies on the bathroom wall. Similarly, if Sean Connery was the epitome of cruel, manly cool as James Bond, then Dean Martin was the way less menacing, probably more fun uncle who gets drunk at the family Christmas party. As an adaptation of Donald Hamilton’s novels, The Silencers is a failure. But as a spoof of the genre in general and Bond films in particular — well, The Silencers is indeed dumb and juvenile, but it’s also colorful, entertaining, and as charming as its tipsy lead actor. While Dean Martin’s Matt Helm in’t the cold-blooded killer of the books, he is a fan of judo fights and women in lingerie, so there’s that.
It is somehow both cheap and lavish looking at the same time, with lots of great scenery and costumes but also things like the underground lair of movie villains Big O, which looks like someone crinkled up some brown trash bags and called it a cave. The acting is solid. If you forget the Matt Helm of the books, then Dean Martin brings easy charisma to the role, and the supporting cast, including James Gregory as Matt’s superior McDonald and Victor Buono as the foppish, eyeliner-etched criminal mastermind Tung-Tze (rather than being another in a long line of Caucasians poorly imitating Asians, the role seems to be intentionally making fun of the practice), is giving it a professional effort. Most of the jokes are dumb, but a few are genuinely funny, or at least funny enough to inspire a combination groan and chuckle. It manages to be a decent spy spoof and, if it isn’t exactly a thrill a minute, it’s good-natured enough that you don’t mind hanging around with it while it goofs off.
Critics were predictably split on the movie, with some seeing it as the affable spoof I think it is and others seeing it as a lazy, vulgar cash-in on the Bond craze, which it also is. Minus disappointed fans of the Matt Helm novels, audiences were a bit more unified than critics in their support of the film. Irving Allen already had plans to make more Matt Helm movies — the second was already in production — but the smashing success of The Silencers guaranteed another. Thanks to his clever demand for a portion of the film’s box office, Dean Martin suddenly found himself one of the highest-paid actors in Hollywood. Although the profits of The Silencers paled in comparison to those of recent Bond film Thunderball, Dean Martin ended up making substantially more money for the film than Sean Connery.
Connery, looking at Martin’s pay-day, thought that maybe as the iconic star of the most popular movie franchise in the entire world, he should be making something a little closer to the bank made by the drunken star of a jokey Bond knock-off. So James Bond walked into the office of producer Cubby Broccoli, pointed to the high paycheck being cashed by the star of the film made by Broccoli’s old partner, and suggested that maybe ol’ Sean Connery ought to have himself a similar profit-sharing plan. Broccoli laughed at the idea, claiming that it was James Bond, not Sean Connery — who had been basically a nobody body builder from Scotland when he was cast in the lead role — who people wanted to see. The Bond series made Connery, so it could just as easily make another guy. Connery was stung, and he made Broccoli put the claim to the test. In the wake of The Silencers, Sean Connery announced that the next James Bond film — 1967’s You Only Live Twice — would be his last.
If the success of Dean Martin and The Silencers caused waves at Eon Productions even while never remotely challenging the Bond films at the box office, it was nothing but sunshine and roses for Irving Allen, Dean Martin, and Donald Hamilton. Between the movie and his TV show, Martin was one of the most popular and highest paid entertainers in America. Even though the film bore only the scantiest resemblance to Donald Hamilton’s source material, interest in his books spiked. In 1966, he released the tenth book in the series, The Betrayers, and enjoyed a greater level of critical and mass appeal than he’d ever had. Irving Allen announced that the next Matt Helm movie was already in production, with Martin reprising his role and the ante being upped in terms of gorgeous locations, action, and beautiful women. Based on one of the darkest and most violent of Hamilton’s novels, the new movie – Murderers’ Row — promised to be very much the opposite of its source material.