Jimmy Sangster is known to most as the writer of a brace of seminal Hammer gothic horror films. From his pen came the scripts for The Curse of Frankenstein, Dracula/Horror of Dracula (plus their immediate sequels) and The Mummy, not to mention the likes of Jack the Ripper and Blood of the Vampire for rival producers. Sangster’s place in the history of cinema is assured, but what’s not quite so well known is he didn’t have any particular interest in period horrors. Sangster got into screenwriting largely out of necessity, to supplement his meagre salary as a production manager at Hammer Films. His first script for the studio was a short subject, A Man on the Beach, made in 1955. This mini-film was directed by Joseph Losey and starred English theatre ogre Sir Donald Motherfucking Wolfit and Hammer regular Michael Ripper. Even at this early stage in Sangster’s career, Beach featured elements that would come to be recognised as his trademarks, including a honking great twist at the end.
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.
When Ian Fleming passed away in August of 1964 after suffering a heart attack, his reported final words — said to the crew of the ambulance that was rushing him to the hospital — were “I am sorry to trouble you chaps. I don’t know how you get along so fast with the traffic on the roads these days.” His untimely passing left in doubt the future of his most enduring creation: James Bond. While the movies had taken on a life of their own, the novels were very much of Ian Fleming, and without him, it didn’t seem like there was any way they would continue. His final book in the series, The Man with the Golden Gun, was published posthumously and against Fleming’s desire. He had just finished the first draft before his death, and he felt the entire thing was rather a mess and wanted to redo it. His publisher, perhaps feeling that any Bond was bankable Bond, insisted that the book was perfectly fine.
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.
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.
“I was taking a martini across the room…”
If that line, the first sentence in the first Matt Helm novel by Donald Hamilton, had been the only sentence in the book, then there would have been very little stylistic conflict between the Matt Helm of the books and the incarnation of the character that eventually fond its way onto movie screens. Of course, a single sentence doesn’t exactly make for a great novel, and we soon learn that Matt Helm is taking the martini across the room to his wife during a dull suburban cocktail party. From there, things get a lot darker and more violent.
A bit of a unique Frolic Afield this round, as I post an update about something I wrote for a different site and mention that I will now also be writing regularly for that same site. Many of you already know The Cultural Gutter (if you don’t, you should). I have written for them as a guest once before, and Gutter editor Carol is also a contributor to Teleport City. I am humbled and overjoyed (and nervous) that I have become their new Science Fiction editor. I am taking up the mantle in the wake of the departure of the last Sci-fi editor, James Schellenberg, and he has set a mighty high bar in terms of thoughtfulness, quality, and a diversity of topics. I intend to turn my corner into a freaky space cocktail lounge.
My first official article is up now: At Play On the Planet of Men, about science fiction author Lois McMaster Bujold, her novel Ethan of Athos, and the way science fiction deals (poorly, often) with female, LGBT, and minority characters, creators, and fans. Give it a read, and I’ll see you over at the Gutter.
I can’t remember exactly how it was I stumbled across the first in Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series. It was most likely a title dropped in passing by Veronica Belmont on the Sword and Laser podcast, coupled with the book then appearing on a Goodreads list of the best steampunk books. So I guess I take that first sentence back. Apparently, I remember exactly how I first heard of the book. Let’s move on, shall we? Anyway, it was a book well worth stumbling onto, and since finishing it, I’ve become a huge fan of the series and its author. The blend of supernatural shenanigans, romance, adventure, steampunk, and dandy vampires all wrapped up in a Victorian comedy of manners style tale was exactly the sort of breezy — but not unsubstantial — book for which I’d been hoping. Needless to say but here I am about to say it anyway, I was pretty excited to move on to the second book.
I read a lot, but that reading happens only in a few specific genres. Predictable ones if you’ve read anything on Teleport City — science fiction mostly, with a tiny smattering of fantasy, and a healthy dose of non-fiction ranging from military history, travelogues, and anything where Teddy Roosevelt punches out a rhinoceros and gets malaria while exploring some remote niche of the globe. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, given my fondness for horror films, is that I read almost no horror fiction at all. I don’t know why this has traditionally been the case. What I read in the past just didn’t click with me. I mean, there was some Clive Barker, sure. Everyone in the eighties read Clive Barker. But the Barker I liked skewed much more toward the fantastic than actual horror — Weaveworld, The Great and Secret Show, Everville, and Imajica.
Dune was one among many books/series I read in high school or college and remember almost nothing about. At this point, most of what I remember about Frank Herbert’s genre classic probably comes from the David Lynch film that me and ten other people in the world actually like. And as for the subsequent books — I don’t know. There was something about some kids, right? And Duncan Idaho with metal eyeballs? Yep, that’s about the limit of my memory, which I think sufficiently qualifies me as having not read Dune even though I’ve read Dune. So I decided that it was time to revisit the series, especially since, regardless of my recollection or lack of, I never finished the series. But, of course, I figured that if I was going to read/re-read Dune, I was going to reread all of it. And that meant starting at the narrative’s chronological beginning — in other words, starting with the books written by Frank’s son, Brian, and his partner-in-crime, Kevin Anderson.