From Donald to Dean
- Death of a Citizen, Birth of an Agent
- Assignment Dean Martin
- Death of a Silencer
- « The Wrecked Crew »
By the time The Silencers was in theaters, producer Irving Allen was already kicking off production on the next Matt Helm film. Originally planned to be The Ambushers, for whatever reason (and not that it mattered, given how thin the connection between books and movies was) Allen moved things around, and Murderers’ Row became the second Matt Helm movie. Although I can’t imagine any fan of Donald Hamilton’s books holding out hope that the movies would be anything like the novels after the drunken hijinks of The Silencers, it still must have given readers pause to hear that Murderers’ Row was the next to get the swingin’ cocktail treatment. The fifth book in the series, published in 1962 immediately after The Silencers, it is among the bleakest and angriest of the Helm stories.
The beginning finds Matt preparing for some long overdue time off, which he intends to spend down in Texas with Gail Hendricks. Of course, no spy in the history of spy stories has been able to take his leave without having it interrupted, cut short, or simply canceled before it even begins. When a top-level scientist disappears, probably kidnapped by or defected to those godless Commie bastards, Helm is given a distasteful mission. A female agent has been working her way into the enemy organization, convincing them that she is a disillusioned agent with a drinking problem, on the verge of a nervous breakdown, ready to spill the beans about her dastardly organization. Her real assignment is to get in, find out if the scientist is dead or alive, and either rescue him or kill him. Matt’s job is to make her cover story seem more plausible, primarily by beating her within an inch of her life in order to make the mysterious opposition believe the US in genuinely concerned that she might be on the verge of betraying them.
Despite careful planning, the female agent dies during the roughing up. Making things even worse, a group of drunken rich college kids out for a midnight swim in the hotel pool witness Matt leaving her room. And to complicate matters even further since this is a spy novel, another agent who happens to be in love with the female agent attacks Matt. Helm, of course, is superior to the novice agent in every way, and leaves him lying with a belly fulla knife, though nothing fatal. The whole affair makes Helm’s superiors wonder if he’s gone over the edge, become so callous and bitter that he can kill his own people without so much as a tinge of guilt. They decide to bring him in, which would be easy if Matt wanted to be brought in. He’s certain of his own sanity though, and goes rogue in order to pick up the trail where the female agent left it.
Matt assumes the idea of a brutish hustler, and he’s immediately picked up by the cops for murder. The drunk people from the pool are on hand, and although one is certain he’s the man they saw leaving the room of the dead woman, a young woman named Teddy also in the party vehemently denies it, thus temporarily taking the heat of Matt. When Helm has a chance to ask her why she lied to the cops, since she obviously knew who he was, he discovers that she wants to hire him to kill someone: Robin Rosten, the woman who identified Matt as the murder. Turns out the missing scientist is the young girl’s father, and she’s convinced that Robin had her father killed as a result of some convoluted tangle of love and affairs. Teddy, assuming Matt is just a thug from up north, hopes he can get a little revenge on her behalf. No sooner is Matt hired to kill Robin than Robin in turn hires him to kill her husband, who in turn hires Matt to kill his wife.
Set among Kennedy-esque aristocratic American society, Murderers’ Row more than any other Helm novel feels like it could have been a Philip Marlowe story. It has that same sense of something foul and oily beneath the veneer of wealth, the same sense of world-weariness, the same sense of anger tinged with sadness. The movie that goes by the same name has Ann-Margaret go-go dancing furiously and Dean Martin tearing around Monaco in a hovercraft. Vague aspects of the book show up in the movie: Helm is briefly undercover as a Chicago thug, and Ann-Margaret is the partying daughter of a kidnapped scientist. Beyond that, there’s not much to tie this movie to the book. Released for Christmas 1966, less than a year after The Silencers was first unleashed upon American movie goers, Murderers’ Row feels less like a Bond spoof and more like a Frankie and Annette beach party movie.
Directed by Henry Levin (Where the Boys Are, Journey to the Center of the Earth), it’s actually an improvement in almost every way over the previous fun-but-sloppy The Silencers. The jokes are not as cornball, and there are a lot fewer dumb double entendres. The action is more frequent and better filmed. Karl Malden is a better villain. The scenery and sets don’t look as cheap. And there is some serious hovercraft action. Best of all, there’s Ann-Margaret (who would have made an excellent Teddy in a more straight-forward adaptation of the book as well), who brings a ridiculous amount of energy to her role. With her in the mix, the movie doesn’t try to play Dean Martin off as this cool killer. Instead, he’s seen to be somewhat out of step, amused by but unable to hang with these crazy go-go dancing kids (who for some reason have a mural of Frank Sinatra in their dance club). Of course, in the end, it’s up to the Brylcreem-infused elder statesman of the espionage world to save the day (itself a departure from the books, where the kids actually come to Helm’s rescue).
The Monaco location work is also gorgeous — even though most of it wasn’t Monaco. Martin, busy with the rest of his film career and his popular television show, had no interest in going abroad to film (I’m sure movie Matt Helm would claim to have no problem filming a broad). So a second unit crew got the plum job of jetting off to Monaco for exteriors and establishing shots while the bulk of the film was shot in the studio. It’s a much better job of art direction this time around than the cheap looking cave from the last film. Murderers’ Row the movie is a lot of fun where the book is emotionally exhausting (though very good). It was a foregone conclusion that the film would be a success (it was) and that a third film would get produced. For the third go-round, it was The Ambushers turn, and this is where everything started to fall apart.
They’re The Ambushers
The third Matt Helm movie carries over the beach party feel of the last one, complete with go-go dancing bikini girls during the title sequence. The entire movie seems to be built around the single idea of, “What if Dean Martin was trapped in a vat of beer?” And not much effort was put into anything beyond that. Where as Murderers’ Row went abroad but was mostly filmed on sets, The Ambushers saw the entire production go on location in Mexico. Almost nothing went right. Dean Martin was unhappy with being away. While he had always been a drinker on set, it seemed to be worse in Mexico and with crankier results. The group of women hired to be the film’s requisite Slay Girls were also unhappy. It seems many of them had been misinformed as to the nature of their role, so that most of them thought they were going to have a substantial part rather than being extras with no lines. Since most of the women were professional models, they’d left lucrative jobs that paid upwards of $1,000 a week for what turned out to be a couple hundred bucks a week and a few seconds of screen time. One of the young women was even attacked and beaten when her boyfriend surprised her by showing up on set only to discover she was shacked up with a member of the film’s crew.
By hook and by crook, they managed to squeeze a movie out of the troubled production, though it’s a pretty lazy film, especially after the much more professional looking production that was Murderers’ Row. Martin is still sleazily charming as Matt Helm most of the time, but cracks are starting to show. There are times you can see the actor behind the… well… there was no actor behind anything. It was just Dean Martin playing Dean Martin. But you can see the places where he is visibly bored or irritated. He has a good cast around him once again, with the fantastic Senta Berger (The Quiller Memorandum) as the female lead, and a plot custom-made for Dean’s version of Matt Helm, that involves a Mexican beer baron stealing an experimental UFO. Any vestige of reality is tossed out the window once you see Dean Martin sliding ass-first down a mountain railway whilst waving an anti-gravity gun over his head (and if you think he isn’t going to use that gun to levitate a woman’s bra off, you obviously haven’t been paying attention).
As is the pattern, bits and pieces of Donald Hamilton’s original novel from 1963, the sixth in the series, make it into the movie. But the plot pulls the same trick as The Silencers, combining parts of The Ambushers novel with a plot from the most recent Matt Helm novel, 1968′s The Menacers. The idea of Matt Helm being in a refresher course and meeting a damaged young agent named Sheila is from the The Ambushers. The ridiculousness about Mexico and the stolen UFO comes from The Menacers. It’s not quite as silly in the book as it is in the movie, though critics — usually fans of Hamilton’s writing — noted that The Menacers perhaps goes a little too far into the realm of the silly, making it more like the movies than the other Helm books.
Although I think The Ambushers movie is pretty fun, about on par with The Silencers, audiences disagreed. Although it made money and was a nominal hit, it was a step down both in terms of quality and box office from the last film. Released in 1968, with the world amidst incredible social upheaval, with Vietnam on the front page, and with a new era of terrorism ripping through Europe, movie goers just weren’t as forgiving of colorful, the out-of-touch spy fantasy. Cast members started abandoning ship for a number of reasons. Dean Martin was still on board, remarking that as long as they kept making them, he guessed he would keep starring in them, but his personal assistant of three films, Bev Adams’ Lovey Kravezit, departed the series after she met a real-life Matt Helm while on a press junket for The Ambushers. That would be former Israeli commando turned international playboy and world-famous hair stylist Vidal Sassoon. Additionally, James Gregory decided he wouldn’t reprise the role of Helm’s boss anymore. While neither Adams nor Gregory played major roles in the films, it’s not a good sign when series regulars start leaving the cast.
Still, Irving Allen made enough money — and had already committed himself anyway — with The Ambushers that a fourth Matt Helm movie went into production. 1968′s The Wrecking Crew has even less to do with the Donald Hamilton book of the same name than any of the previous movies. It’s one of my favorite Matt Helm novels. It’s also one of the few stories where Matt gets to go to another country and spend at least a little bit of time in a nice hotel. Usually he has to stay at some Econo-Lodge in some Southwestern American backwater. Here he actually gets to go to Stockholm, Sweden, and stay in a nice place up until he’s dragged out into the muddy, frosty Swedish north country to get shot at. But hey — at least he got to have a nice bed for a while and see some sights.
Matt ends up in Sweden — an obvious choice for his first international foray, as it was Donald Hamilton’s place of birth (as well as his home during the final years of his life) — in the hopes of tracking down and killing one of the most elusive espionage masterminds, a man named Caselius whom no one has seen and lived to describe. He’s helped, or more accurately, hindered on his mission by a Swedish agent named Sarah Lundgren. The main problem with her is that she considers Sweden a peaceful, nonviolent nation and wants no part of helping Matt Helm assassinate another man, an act she considers disgusting and barbaric. Matt, surprisingly, is not especially sympathetic to her beliefs, which makes for some interesting philosophical debate, though Sarah herself doesn’t stay in the picture for very long.
The primary woman here is one Louise Taylor. Her husband, a globe-trotting journalist of somewhat questionable professional morals, had recently been gunned down at an East German checkpoint, presumably because he’d learned and revealed too much about Caselius in an article he’d written. The death, however, was suspicious for other reasons. No body was ever identified, and Louise herself disappeared for a long time before turning back up again on the free and righteous side of the Iron Curtain, leading to speculation that her husband faked his death, or Lou was somehow responsible for it since she survived the attack — though not without a scar from where a bullet hit her in the neck. Helm’s cover is as a photographer aiding Lou on her own first job as a journalist writing about the Swedish mining business. He is to find out what she knows about Caselius and, with any luck, find a way for her to lead him to his target.
Both Helm and Donald Hamilton are in fine form. This was the second Helm novel, published in 1960, and fresh off the life-altering events from Death of a Citizen, Matt’s in a particularly bad mood. The ink on his divorce is still drying, and seeing no real alternative, he admits to himself that he’s simply not cut out for a normal life and returns to his old job. Speaking of which, the exact nature of his old job is given a lot of thought here. Although most people, us included, allow Matt Helm to fall under the general banner of “spy,” the point is made here that he’s not a spy at all. He’s an assassin. His job is not to collect information, identify leaks, or anything of that nature. His job is to go in and kill someone. This is the central theme of the book’s major philosophical debate. Helm knows he’s in a nasty business, but he also regards it as a necessary business, and a not altogether honorless business. He ruminates about why people make heroes of men who indiscriminately drop bombs that kill thousands, many of them innocent civilians, yet are repulsed by and vehemently opposed to one man with a knife or a gun being assigned to track down one other man. There is something in that relationship that is too personal, too close, for people to deal with. They prefer their death, apparently, to come in great waves and from a great distance with the push of a button – a chilling thought considering the nature of modern warfare.
It is probably a foregone conclusion that the fourth in the Matt Helm movie series won’t be long on ruminations about the nature of war and violence. It will, however, be long — very long indeed — on shots of a slumbering Dean Martin dreaming about scantily-clad women while he sing-narrates everything we see on-screen. Both the dream sequences and the singing narration were part of The Silencers, but there they were used in moderation and with some degree of wit. Here, Dean spends a good ten minutes dreaming about models, and the songs have very little in the way of cleverness, rhyming, or structure. Any time Matt enters a new hotel room, we have to watch him sort of wander around aimlessly inspecting the pillows and bar. This, too, goes on for a while. And if you thought his double entendres and goofy sex jokes were getting stretched pretty thin in The Ambushers and often became so nonsensical that they qualified as non-sequiturs more than sex jokes, well apparently so did the people writing (or making up on the fly) this film, because rather than make any lewd comments this time around, any space that calls for one is instead filled by Dean Martin staring bleary-eyed at something off camera for about ten second and then stammering, “Yep.” He spends a while looking at Tina Louise’s butt, then just mutters, “Yep.” Come on, man. We expect better from you.
In fact, roughly 90% of Dean Martin’s dialogue is either some such half-hearted utterance or, more annoyingly, him repeating whatever was just said to him, but in the form of a question. Pretty much every single thing co-star Sharon Tate says is then repeated as a question by Dino. Sometimes, his lines are slurred and mumbled so bad they you couldn’t even understand what he was saying if Sharon hadn’t just said the same thing a couple of seconds earlier. I’d always heard that Dean’s ultra-boozer image was just that, and while he enjoyed a drink as much as the next guy, much of what he did was just a put-on (drinking juice instead of Scotch on stage, for instance). Well, you’d never knowing it watching his performance in The Wrecking Crew, where he seems barely able to spit out even the simplest lines, and he always seems just about ready to fall over every time he lumbers into action.
The first hour of the film moves slowly, with much of it consisting of Dean walking in and out of hotel rooms accompanied by little snippets of himself crooning about whatever is happening to him on screen, sort of like if the classical Greek Chorus had been the Rat Pack. It’s just Dean stating facts in his warm, musical voice. “If your sweetheart…hides a pistol…under her pillow…” Things pick up for the final third of the film, but by then plenty of people will have been lost to the tedium. Of course, even with Dean seemingly oblivious to everything going on around him, and even though he’s looking particularly worn-out and has way too much greasy stuff in his hair (and his skin looks like Arby’s roast beef), he’s still Dino, and charm comes easy to him. He can’t help but be likable, even when he obviously doesn’t give a damn. Maybe because of that. Dean’s “what do I care?” lack of delivery works to his advantage. And there are other things about this film that keep it from ending up in the trash bin alongside truly awful spy fare like my favorite whipping post, Agent for H.A.R.M. – or A View to a Kill, for that matter.
Chief among the film’s assets is the fabulous supporting cast. As his bumbling assistant, Sharon Tate brings the same energy to her role as Ann-Margaret did in Murderers’ Row. She shows a knack for comedy and has pretty good timing despite the fact that Dean sometimes seems to fall asleep in between lines. Of course, when one mentions Sharon Tate, there is the gloomy specter of her death to deal with. Tate was a star on the rise. On August 9, 1969, she was at a party with some friends and taking time off from movies in anticipation of giving birth to her first child when members of the notorious Manson Family murdered her and several other party guests. No one understood why the hell Charlie Manson would want to kill Sharon Tate, or any of these people for that matter. The pieces began to fall into place when it was discovered that the house in which the party was being thrown had, until very recently, been the home of music producer Terry Melcher (Doris Day’s son), who had refused to sign aspiring musician Charles Manson to a recording contract. It’s widely suspected that Melcher and anyone associated with him were the intended targets of the attack, but Manson and his crew were unaware of the fact that he had moved some months prior. That’s what happens when you send a bunch of drugged-out hippies to kill someone over folk music.
It’s a melancholy ending to a life that was only just starting to get going, but we can at least sit back and enjoy the fact that Sharon turns in a fun and energetic performance in The Wrecking Crew , and like everyone else, seems to enjoy getting paid a lot of money to basically goof off in front of the camera. Her character retains the cover story of Sarah Lungren from the book, as well as some of Sarah’s naivety, but if you were waiting for earnest debates over the nature of espionage and the morality of killing, even for the so-called right reasons, well, need I remind you that it’s Dean Martin up there on the screen? Tina Louise, the bombshell best known for her role as Ginger on Gilligan’s Island, has a brief but memorable role as a female informant who ends up on the wrong end of a an exploding bottle of scotch. There was, incidentally, a trick bottle of scotch in The Devastators, though not an exploding one, meaning that this movie actually might have more in common with that book than with the one from which it draws its name. She’s great for the few minutes she is on screen, especially when she does her wild gypsy dance.
On the evil end of the spectrum are Nancy Kwan and Euro-star Elke Sommer (Deadlier than the Male, Mari Bava’s Lisa and the Devil). Both are hitwomen working for chief villain, Count Massimo Contini, played by Nigel Green. It’s not the first time Green has employed Elke Sommer as a hitwoman. He was in much the same position when the two starred together in the spectacular Deadlier than the Male. She, like him, is in pretty much the same role here as she was there, and she fills it just as nicely as she fills her brassiere. Nancy Kwan, best known for her role in the notorious World of Suzie Wong and less notorious Flower Drum Song, gets to spend this movie in a slinky mini-dress, do kungfu, and spend a lot of time in the back seat of cars chasing Matt Helm — which is the aspect of her character that makes her similar to Madame Ling in The Devastators. She had a fistful of spy thrillers under her belt before coming into this one, including The Peking Medallion and an episode of Hawaii Five-O. Although The World of Suzie Wong continues to this day to draw fire from critics for racial stereotyping that proves especially harmful to Asian women, I personally think the most sordid-sounding film on her long list of credits is a 1975 film about cockfighting entitled Supercock. You’d get pretty weird reactions if you walked into a casting agent and said, “Well, I recently appeared in Supercock.”
Nigel Green is, naturally, as reliable a stuffy criminal mastermind as he always is. He plays the role with such grace and ease that it’s easy to forget how good he is at it. In fact, just about everyone seems to be putting effort into their part, if not seriousness, besides Dean Martin and scriptwriter William McGivern, who up until this point had mostly written for television, though he did have several hard-boiled detective novels and serials to his name. Dean, as I mentioned, is looking worse for the wear, like a formerly smart suit that has simply seen better days and just needs to be retired, which is sort of what he did. The Wrecking Crew was sort of his last hurrah with filmmaking. He appeared in 1970′s all-star disaster pic Airport, and after that worked a schedule as casual and laid-back as his Matt Helm character, with his best work oddly enough being his two appearances alongside Sammy Davis Jr. in the Cannonball Run films. While it’s not exactly an artistic high point on which to start winding down your acting career, The Wrecking Crew is an oddly fitting beginning to the end. It’s not very good, but once you get over the initial portion of the movie that coughs and sputters like someone trying to learn to drive stick for the first time, it manages to be fun and even endearing.
Most of the rest of the cast are hired goons, many of them karate and judo experts, including a young Chuck Norris in a “blink and you’ll miss him” part as a karate-kicking guard who gets beat up by Dean Martin a couple of times. In real life, Bruce Lee had been a fight instructor and/or friend to a lot of people who ended up making spy movies, including Steve McQueen and James Coburn. He worked on this film as a fight advisor and, one would assume, choreographer. He would have been, at the time, extremely green when it came to such a job, plus Dean was really getting on in years as opposed to someone like Coburn who was still quite fit in the late 1960s. So most of the fights wouldn’t wow a modern martial arts fans, but it’s cool to see so many of them in an American film of this vintage, and with Bruce trucking in so many other fighting masters, it means that there is still some good action to be had, even when it’s obviously being performed by someone in a cheap Dean Martin wig.
That’s All, Folks
Even by my standards, The Wrecking Crew is a pretty shoddy movie. It’s just fun enough without actually being that much fun. Even measured against the low standards of the Matt Helm films, The Wrecking Crew is an obviously half-assed affair. Behind the scenes, everything was coming apart. Dean Martin’s mother was sick, and he wanted to be with her. Sharon Tate impressed both Martin and Irving Allen, and the intention was to have her return for the next film. The murder cast a ghastly darkness over everything. Allen himself, perhaps picking up on some subconscious warning, was starting to concentrate on other projects. When The Wrecking Crew proved unimpressive at the box office, the writing was on the wall. Amid the Tate-LaBianca murders, Vietnam, the assassination of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. — well, there just wasn’t room for dumb, harmless little fantasies like the Helm movies. The world had suddenly started looking much more like that of the Matt Helm novels.
In short order, the series was scrapped. Dean Martin began his retreat from the public eye. Irving Allen became obsessed with his new Cromwell movie. Allen, still holding the rights to the series, tried to revive Matt Helm in the 1970s. By then, though, the spy film had changed a lot. James Bond was still hanging around, but the order of the day was less Dean Martin, more Three Days of the Condor and The Spook Who Sat by the Door. Serious, paranoid, anti-authoritarian takes on the espionage genre. In the end, Irving Allen ended up bringing Matt Helm to television, in an extremely short-lived series starring Tony Franciosa (Fathom with Raquel Welch, Dario Argento’s Tenebre). Franciosa would have made a pretty good Matt Helm as written by Donald Hamilton, but once again the formula was tweaked by Allen, rewriting Matt Helm into a private eye and sticking pretty close to the cop show trend. The show did not last very long.
Donald Hamilton continued writing Matt Helm novels into the 1990s, and they remained popular, though never at quite the level they had been before and during the movies. When his health began to fail, he and his wife moved back to Sweden. Late in life, he began work on a new Matt Helm book. Although he finished it before his death in 2006, it remains as yet unpublished. The rest of the books lapsed out of print until 2013, when Titan Books began reissuing them. As of the writing of this article, the first seven of Donald Hamilton’s Matt Helm novels are back in print, with the other following soon. As for Matt Helm on screen, a number of stars, producers, and directors have expressed interested in reviving the franchise. The initial talk seemed to point to more of a revival of the Dean Martin movies than the books, but others — especially after the success of the Jason Bourne movies — have said they want to bring a faithful version of Donald Hamilton’s world-weary secret agent to the screen. Names associated with the role of Helm have included Johnny Depp (apparently a huge Donald Hamilton fan), George Clooney, and Mad Men‘s John Hamm (please please let that happen, universe!). The rights, as best I can tell, are currently with Steven Spielberg, who initially acquired them with the notion of producing a Matt Helm film. He later switched gears and said he would really want to direct it himself. Still, despite these big guns expressing interest (Spielberg shelved the project in order to work on Lincoln), Matt Helm continues to elude the silver screen.
The Dean Martin movies, released as a set on DVD and making the rounds on Turner Classic Movies from time to time, have found a new generation of fans that appreciate the pop art sensibilities, the boozy satire, and Dean Martin’s greasy charm. With any luck, the books will find a new audience as well. The journey from Donald Hamilton to Dean Martin was a strange one indeed, and it doesn’t look like it’s entirely over just yet. As a fan of both, I’m happy to see the films embraced and the books poised for a revival. If Matt Helm’s future is still murky, his past at least is high enjoyable and there for the taking.