When author Donald Hamilton created the character of Matt Helm, he made him a bitter, edgy assassin full of regret. So how did he get turned into a campy boozer armed with endless boob jokes?
“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.
Like Ian Fleming did for James Bond, Donald Hamilton put a lot of himself into the character of Matt Helm. Hamilton was born in Sweden and immigrated to the United States on the eve of the Great Depression. As a kid he was an avid teller of ghost stories, and as a young man he assumed he would follow in his father’s footsteps and become a doctor. He actually ended up getting a degree in chemistry, and then served as a chemist for the Navy during World War II. It was during the war that Hamilton began writing regularly, and after the war it became something less than a profession for him but certainly more than a hobby. Eventually, he and his family settled in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and his career as a writer took off. From magazines to books, with many of those books being optioned and made into films or television series. Hamilton also grew to be an avid outdoorsman and photographer. His most enduring character, Matt Helm (Hamilton made the jump from western stories to spy novels after the success of Ian Fleming inspired him), incorporates most of these traits. His name is Swedish in its root. He is a World War II veteran, an outdoorsman, a photographer, and in his spare times a writer of western novels.
Despite often being dumped into the big pile of Bond-inspired espionage novels that flooded the 1960s and 70s, Helm and Bond are as different — and as similar — as Hamilton and Fleming, or as the United States and England. They share many of the same background characteristics. Bond was also an avid outdoorsman in his youth, an accomplished skier and mountaineer. Although referred to as spies, both Helm and Bond are actually assassins. Both men are sinister, ruthless when they need to be, and haunted by loss. Hamilton himself has said that he wrote the first Matt Helm book because of Ian Fleming, and while it’s not always fair to compare every espionage character to James Bond, it also still probably has to be done given the long shadow Bond casts in both literature and film. And while Bond and Helm share a number of traits, the worlds they inhabit are very different. Fleming’s Bond is not quite the playboy we know from the movies, but he still lives a pretty jet-set lifestyle. The best champagne, the finest hotels, the most elegant women, and of course always showering with “Pinaud Elixer, that Prince among shampoos.” In contrast, Helm probably has to shampoo with a bottle of Suave from the drug store. When he stays in a hotel, it’s usually some backwater fleapit or anonymous roadside motel. Or it’s just a sleeping bag in the back of what passes for an Aston Martin or Bentley in the world of Matt Helm: a banged-up old pick-up truck.
The first of the Helm novels, 1960’s Death of a Citizen, sets the mood that will be carried throughout the bulk of the series. Helm, a retired secret agent who specialized in assassinating Nazis during the war, has built a new life for himself in Santa Fe, complete with a wife and kids, normal friends, and a new career. That lasts for all of a few pages, at which time a former partner, Tina, corners Matt at the party and through manipulation and blackmail, presses the retired killer back into the cloak and dagger game. Matt and Tina must protect a scientist who has been targeted for assassination, and in doing so, Helm discovers to his chagrin that the old ways he thought behind him were never as far behind him as he had hoped.
Death of a Citizen is a tightly-wound, lean, ruthless thriller. Hamilton’s experience with western stories definitely helps here in fleshing out the setting in which the action plays out. It probably helps that the book was published in 1960, before the film version of Dr. No was released. Most of the spy book that came in Bond’s wake actually aped the movies far more than they did the novels, which featured a much less playful, much more ruthless (and occasionally emotionally unstable) Bond. Coming before that army of post-Connery smirking, wisecracking, playboys means Matt Helm is not really infected by any of the things we often think of as defining the genre. Not that those things are bad — lord knows I love a sleazy, ridiculous Nick Carter adventure from the ’60s or ’70s — but Helm, like the literary Bond and like some other series heroes, such as Aaron Edwards’ Sam Durell, is a breed apart.
The first-person voice allows you much more access to Matt Helm’s inner demons and moral conundrums and really draws you into his psyche. The citizen facing death is ostensibly the scientist, but in reality it’s Helm’s identity as a regular guy that becomes the story’s primary casualty. His home, his wife and children, this entire new life he had so painstakingly constructed for himself proves hopelessly fragile , leaving him bitter, resentful, and faced with the reality that his past will never allow him to have any other future. For Hamilton, Bond may have been the impetus but the real influences on Death of a Citizen and Matt Helm were many of the same ones Fleming had: John Buchan’s Richard Hannay adventures and, primarily, Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. Helm and Marlowe would make good, if depressing, drinking buddies. Both inhabit grimy worlds full of the downtrodden, depressed, and insane. Both spend a lot of time in bright, sunny locales — L.A. for Marlowe; New Mexico for Helm — that are revealed to be teeming with deceit, subterfuge, and betrayal.
It is this grounding in the real world, a world we can recognize and access far more easily than we can the world of James Bond, that makes Helm such a relatable, engaging character and gives Death of a Citizen and subsequent Helm books a much more substantial emotional resonance than one expects from spy thrillers of the time, and not really felt even in the Bond novels until nearer the end of Fleming’s career with On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and You Only Live Twice). For the most part, Bond may be the character about whom we fantasize, but Matt Helm is the character with whom we can empathize. The final scene in Death of a Citizen sees Helm forced to lay bare to his wife that he has been lying to her their entire relationship. And furthermore, to save her, he must demonstrate before her very eyes the gruesome skills and willingness to commit unspeakable acts. In doing so, he saves her life but knows he also turns into a monster in her mind, someone she will never be able to look at, let alone share a life with. It’s a genuinely heart-wrenching scene, not least of all because we are inside Matt’s head and privy to the thought process that is gutting him from the inside.
Death of a Citizen was a big hit, both with critics and readers. It’s success meant that Donald Hamilton was pretty much full-time on Matt Helm books. Each one proved successful, and by 1966 he’d written eight in the series. It was that year that he got a call from a notoriously gruff and unlikable film producer by the name of Irving Allen. Allen was a former partner of Cubby Broccoli, one of the producers of the James Bond movies, and he was looking to salvage a somewhat flailing career by jumping on the James Bond bandwagon he’d famously missed out on the first time he met with Ian Fleming and told him the James Bond books were crap not even fit for a television movie. Having run across one of Hamilton’s Matt Helm books at an airport, Allen was keen on turning Helm into America’s answer to the James Bond movies. Hamilton was happy to see the character brought to the big screen, and happier still to cash the sizable check that came with it.
No one really could have imagined what happened next.
Assignment: Dean Martin
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.
Death of a Silencer
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.
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 rumination 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.
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.