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 quite frankly, they were simple enough for a bright five-year old to more or less understand them. That’s how old I would have been when I discovered them. I thought Dean Martin was an actor who played Matt Helm, agent of I.C.E. (Intelligence and Counter Espionage), first, and a singer second. “He 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 television in the early Seventies. I’d watch them each time they aired. 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. There were a LOT of them, here are some of the titles:
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?
Dean Martin, as he pretty much did in nearly all of his movies, played a fictionalized version of himself—see Billy Wilder’s jaw-dropping Kiss Me, Stupid for the best (and most lurid) 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 motion pictures of the Sixties. Even if they do seem dated, politically incorrect and sexist, 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 to be found on the planet—Ann-Margret, Stella Stevens, the ultimate MILF Cyd Charisse (who was a very va 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 the, uh, 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…
These pages are scanned in from Matt Helm promotional calendars from 1968 and 1969.
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 (producer Irving Allen had fumbled the ball on Bond, having insulted Ian Fleming about his books potential as television projects), the James Bond franchise took on a decidedly Matt Helm-esque flavor during the Roger Moore years.
To get Dean Martin to star as Matt Helm, Allen was obliged to make him a partner in the film franchise. Martin ended up making more on The Silencers than Sean Connery made for playing James Bond in Thunderball. Soon after hearing of this, Connery renegotiated his deal.
Japanese Murderer’s Row poster
Below, Murderer’s Row with Ann-Margret and Karl Malden. Dig the FAB opening credits with a typically great score by spy-fi maestro, Lalo Schifrin.
Here’s a trailer for the film that is typical of the whimsical attitude of the Matt Helm films. Clearly the man don’t give a fuck!
Previously on Dangerous Minds:
‘The time I met Dean Martin…’: A True Story