Series Retrospective: Matt Helm

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James Bond was a major contender for movie theater dollars in the 1960’s and ushered in a spy craze that would continue for most of the decade. Imitators of all sizes and temperaments popped up on the entertainment landscape in movies, television series, and even children’s cartoons. Thanks to Sean Connery’s portrayal of the suave secret agent, Bond went from a literary character to a pop culture icon almost overnight and no less than five feature films about him were released between 1962 and 1967.

Following the Bond formula, Columbia Pictures acquired the rights to Donald Hamilton’s popular series of Matt Helm novels which included nine installments at the time of the first motion picture. Hamilton’s Helm was one of the darker spy characters of the 60’s and a major departure from James Bond. Originally trained as an assassin in World War II, the Matt Helm of the novels is recruited for a nameless organization in the private sector where his well honed skills can be put to perfect use. This hard edged Helm was a grizzled middle aged protagonist who preferred to carry out his assignments in as efficient a manor as possible and with little trace of humor.

Columbia had planned to jettison much of the heavier material in favor of a more Bond-like flavor but when Dean Martin signed on as both the lead and one of the producers for the series, just about everything else went too. While few people who had read the books at this point could image Martin as the hero of the novels, by the time Matt Helm reached the big screen, titles, a few characters’ names and some sketchy details were all that remained from the books. Revamped as an ultra cool swinger who just happens to have been a secret agent at one time, this Matt Helm had far more in common with star Dean Martin than the character Hamilton created.

This new “Dean Helm” character had his own particular style that amplified many of Bond’s less admirable traits. The movie Helm was a habitual womanizer, literally sleeping with just about any female who wandered into his grasp. Like Martin’s Hollywood persona, he was very fond of alcohol and seldom without a cigarette in his hand. Dean Helm even found time to croon a few ditties throughout the series although these catchy choruses thankfully never developed into full blown musical numbers.

Columbia produced four Matt Helm films in the latter half of the 1960’s but when the decade concluded, so did the movies. While the box office returns were still adequate, Dean Martin had grown tired of the role and felt that the care free character was not representative of the tumultuous times.

The Silencers (1966)

Matt Helm’s feature film debut takes its title from the fourth book in the series, which had been published only four years earlier. Some elements from the first novel, Death of a Citizen, are incorporated into the script to help define the character but in the end, the film is a work all its own. As the movie opens, Helm is out of the spy gaming and living an idyllic life as a photographer. He is coerced into returning to active duty by his old boss at ICE (Intelligence and CounterEspionage), MacDonald (played by the frog-voiced James Gregory), when the evil organization Big O (Brotherhood for International Government and Order) gains access to an atomic bomb. The always enjoyable Victor Buno plays the unconvincingly Asian villain Tung-Tze and Roger Carmel is his main assassin with a major dislike for Matt. The lovely Stella Stevens provides most of the eye candy for this installment but Cyd Charisse is on hand for back up. The Silencers was a box office success and remains a fan favorite even though it is one of the lighter entries in the series.

Murderers’ Row (1966)

Even though it was rushed into production when The Silencers began to look like movie theater gold, the second Matt Helm film deviates considerably in tone from its predecessor. Martin’s character is still the same frivolous playboy but the rest of the production is rooted more firmly in James Bond territory. Straight laced Karl Malden is cast against type as megalomaniac villain Julian Wall. Wall has kidnapped a scientist and plans to use his powerful laser ray to hold entire cities ransom. His chief goon is the very Bond-like Iron Head who has, you guessed it, a steel plate in his skull. Ann Margaret turns in a surprisingly good performance as the captured scientist’s daughter who leads Helm on a chase across the French Riviera. If that wasn’t enough, Murderers’ Row also features a cool hovercraft, the simulated destruction of the White House, and Dino (Martin’s son Dean Paul), Desi & Billy singing If You’re Thinking What I’m Thinking!

The Ambushers (1967)

Matt Helm’s third time out was not the charm it should have been. After an impressive opening sequence set to the excellent title track provided by Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, The Ambushers settles down to an uneasy amalgamation of the previous two installments. When a flying saucer developed by the US government is hijacked by a third world dictator, Matt Helm is teamed with the ship’s pilot to recover it from the jungles of Mexico. While this plot may sound interesting, the script, casting, and just about everything else in the film seems to be made up of rejects from the previous two entries. Albert Salmi and Kurt Kasznar are both fine actors but are given little to do here as villains. Janice Rule makes an excellent counterpart for Helm but her character is over abused and underdeveloped. Even the beautiful Senta Berger fails to add much to the proceedings as an evil agent out to seduce Matt. It becomes immediately obvious that releasing three films in under two years was too much of a strain on the cast and crew and a break was badly needed.

The Wrecking Crew (1969)

Following a two year hiatus, Dean Martin delivers his fourth performance as Matt Helm and the final entry in the film series. The plot, thankfully, leans more towards the serious side like Murderers’ Row and could have been the strongest film in the series if it had not been hampered by a reduced budget, undoubtedly due to the declining box office returns of the previous movie. This time out, Helm is almost blackmailed into returning to duty after a plot to collapse the world economy is uncovered. The producers obviously thought that beautiful women were what was missing from the last film because here we get not only Sharon Tate as a beautiful British secret agent but Elke Sommer, Nancy Kwan, and Tina Louis (who proves she was more than Gilligan’s Ginger) too! Sadly, Nigel Green is only a mediocre villain and the effects, which were never that special to begin with, suffer markedly from the budget restrictions. What could have been a bang of a send off for Dean Martin’s Matt Helm film series is only a minor fizzle. Although announced as the fifth film in the series at the conclusion of The Wrecking Crew, The Ravagers seems to have been quickly forgotten.

The Matt Helm films are available on DVD individually and as part of a four DVD box set under the title The Matt Helm Lounge from Sony Pictures. Sadly, the discs contain only minimal extras, a few trailers, but are a budget priced substitute until definitive editions become available.