When I was a little boy, I used to love the Matt Helm films. Of all the sub-Bond spy movie imitators of the Sixties, I liked the Matt Helm series the most. They were flashy, colorful, cartoony and simple enough for a five-year old to understand. That’s how old I was when I discovered them. I thought Dean Martin was Matt Helm, agent of I.C.E. (Intelligence and Counter Espionage), first, and a singer second. “Matt Helm sings, too?” was kinda where my kid’s brain took it, it was even more confusing for me when “Matt” would listen to Dino’s records in the films.
The Matt Helm movies were fairly frequent “Movie of the Week” fare on network TV in the early Seventies. I’d watch them over and over again. I even read some of Donald Hamilton’s Matt Helm novels which you could always find at garage sales for a dime. They were much more serious than the Matt Helm films’ decidedly light-hearted approach.
Dean Martin, as he always did in nearly all his movies, played a fictionalized version of himself—see Kiss Me, Stupid for the best example— but in this case he was a jovial charming rogue of an alcoholic playboy super spy and not a jovial, charming rogue of an alcoholic playboy cowboy or a nightclub singer or airplane pilot, etc, etc. He was Dean Martin in James Bond drag, basically. And it worked. The Matt Helm films were some of the top grossing films of the Sixties. Even if they do seem dated and somewhat slow moving now, they were really popular in their day.
The ladies of the Matt Helm films were truly impressive, let’s not forget about them. Some of the finest grade-A Sixties pulchritude on the planet—Ann Margaret, Stella Stevens, Cyd Charisse (who was a very va va voomish 45-year old when she made The Silencers), Sharon Tate, Tina Louise, Elke Sommer (how I adored her!) and Nancy Kwan (ditto!)—were all on Dean’s list. You could certainly make the case that the Helm films rivaled the Bond films as eye candy for the male members of the audience. The ladies had Dino to look at, natch.
It’s interesting to note that although the Matt Helm series obviously grew out of a desire to copy the success of the Bond films with a home-grown Hollywood version, the Bond franchise took on a decidedly Matt Helm-esque flavor during the Roger Moore years.
There’s been a rumor for some time that Steven Spielberg wants to revive the series. I kinda hope that doesn’t happen. What’s the point after Austin Powers?
Below are the FAB opening credits to Murderer’s Row, with a typically great score by spy-fi maestro, Lalo Schifrin and a trailer for the film that is typical of the whimsical attitude of the Matt Helm films: