In the mid-1960s everybody in Hollywood wanted in on the spy game. This was thanks to the runaway success of the Broccoli/Salzman-produced James Bond franchise. Columbia Pictures was no exception with their entry into the genre being the Matt Helm series starring Dean Martin in a spoof of the spy genre of the day.
Dean Martin made four films in all for the Matt Helm series – The Silencers (1966), Murderer’s Row (1966), The Ambushers (1967), and The Wrecking Crew (1968). In this article, we will take a look at each film in the series, including behind-the-scenes details. We’ll also provide short reviews of each film.
Behind the Scenes
In 1964, producer Irving Allen was kicking himself because of missed opportunities. A few years earlier Allen had been Albert “Cubby” Broccoli’s business partner and had thought Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels were terrible with no cinematic value. Allen and Broccoli parted ways with the latter having great success with his adaptations of Fleming’s spy novels. The former was filled with thoughts of regret.
To compensate for and rectify his mistakes, Allen purchased the rights to the Matt Helm spy novels, written by Donald Hamilton. He then struck a deal with Columbia Pictures to make an American spy film series. It would be in a similar vein to the then-Bond films. The fourth book in the series, The Silencers, was chosen to be the first novel adapted.
“We had wanted Paul Newman or one of the good stars, but no one would go up against Sean Connery. Nobody wants to go up against a successful series.”
– Irving Allen
Eventually, the studio shifted gears. This was due to the inability to attract a big-name star by changing the planned tone of the Matt Helm films to a more comedic tone. The idea was suggested by director Phil Karlson. Allen then approached 48-year-old Dean Martin in March of 1965. Martin signed on to play the lead role soon after.
The original script was written by Oscar Saul who had adapted the play A Streetcar Named Desire for the screen. Saul’s version was much more serious than needed for the film. Subsequently, Allen brought in comedy writer Herbert Baker to revise the script. Baker had written several of Martin’s films with Jerry Lewis and was also a writer for The Dean Martin Show.
Stella Stevens was cast as the primary female lead, Gail Hendricks. Two years earlier she had played opposite Martin’s former partner, Jerry Lewis.
“(Irwin Allen) was the cheapest man in the world and he did everything he could at the very cheapest price and that’s why he was called “The Great Producer”.”
– Stella Stevens
Legendary dancer Cyd Charisse was cast in a small role as Sarita. She was a striptease artist and enemy agent working for the villainous organization known as “Big O.” Charisse was 44 years old at the time. Although her character sings in the film, her voice was dubbed by Vikki Carr. This would be one of Charisse’s final film roles.
Legendary Hollywood car customizer George Barris worked extensively on The Silencers. He customized Helm’s vehicle, a 1965 Mercury Colony Park, to include a bar and reclining seats. In addition to customizing Helm’s station wagon, Barris also rigged the two cars that were trying to wreck Matt and Gail, to fall apart when they hit head-on.
Elmer Bernstein composed the score. However, the film also featured a number of Martin’s recordings as well. As a result, two soundtrack albums were released – an RCA Victor album featuring Bernstein’s original score, and a Reprise album by Martin, singing several songs that were featured in the movie.
The world premiere for The Silencerswas held on February 18, 1966, at the Chicago Theater in Chicago, Illinois. The film went on to great success at the box office, earning over $7 million dollars during its theatrical run.
The Silencers (and the other films in the Matt Helm series) are definitely inappropriate by today’s standards. Let’s face it, they were inappropriate back then too. Nevertheless, that doesn’t stop them from being a lot of fun, if you leave your brain and modern sensibilities at the door.
Make no mistake, The Silencers is by no means a good movie. However, it is a lot of fun. “Girls, Gags & Gadgets” proclaims one theatrical poster for this flick. That pretty much sums up the entire viewing experience.
Let’s begin with the first one – girls. A bevy of mid-sixties beauties is prominently featured in The Silencers, starting with the opening credits. This features various strip tease artists doing their thing.
From there we meet Martin’s, Matt Helm. He’s a retired secret agent who snaps pictures for various girly magazines in order to pass the time. His secretary by day/harem girl by night, Lovey Kravezit (Beverly Adams), does whatever it takes to keep Helm satisfied. She’s a regular “Girl Friday.”
Additional women come and go (sometimes fatally) from Matt’s gaze until we meet the two primary female leads. They are Tina (Daliah Lavi), a sexy secret agent pal of his, and Gail Hendricks (Stella Stevens), a klutzy girl that always gets into trouble, and usually loses most of her clothes in the process.
Moving on to the gags part of the film, we get a lot of “If James Bond was Dean Martin” type humor. One of the best examples of this is the fully stocked bar in his station wagon that Matt Helm and Hendrick pound booze from while driving in San Juan (but filmed on location in the Hollywood Hills).
Lastly, we cover the gadgets that Matt Helm uses. This includes the best one, a gun that shoots the person pulling the trigger instead of the intended target. This gag is used several times near the end of the film. It works every single time. Helm’s swinging bachelor pad also features a radio-controlled bed that rolls around the room until it dumps its occupants into a swimming pool-sized jacuzzi.
The overall production of The Silencers isn’t in the same class as the Broccoli/Salzman 007 films given the lack of on-location shooting. However, the production of the sets for the villainous lairs is pretty good. It successfully emulates the work of the James Bond series art director, Ken Adam.
Overall, the film isn’t a bad way to spend an hour and forty minutes. However, a high-quality spy adventure, it’s not. The Silencers also happens to be the most surreal and funniest movie in the Matt Helm series.
Behind the Scenes
After the success of The Silencers, Columbia rushed a sequel, Murderer’s Row, into production. Loosely based on the Donald Hamilton novel of the same name, Allen once again turned to Oscar Saul and Herbert Baker for scripting duties.
With a larger budget, the production planned on shooting the entire film on location, in Europe. However, when Martin refused to go, the idea was scrapped. Instead, a second unit crew traveled to Monte Carlo and the Isle of Wight to shoot footage that would intercut with the footage that was produced in Hollywood.
Henry Levin would take over directorial duties for both this movie as well as the follow-up, The Ambushers (1967). Levin was hired because he had been impressed with the direction of the Dino De Laurentiis spy spoof Kiss the Girls and Make Them Die (1966) for Columbia Pictures.
Due to an improved budget, Allen was able to pursue a couple of bigger names to fill in the lead roles this time around. For the role of Julian Wall, the villainous head of Big O, they landed Academy Award Winning Actor Karl Malden. For the female lead Martin, who was a producer on Murderer’s Row, contacted his friend Ann-Margret. She accepted the role of Suzie.
“Karl Malden rises to new heights as a rotten human being.”
– Dean Martin in the trailer for Murderer’s Row
The film was scored by Lalo Schifrin, who replaced Elmer Berstein. Although Martin recorded the song “I’m Not the Marrying Kind” for the film, it couldn’t be included on the soundtrack album. This was due to contractual rights. Instead, it appeared on Martin’s record, Happiness is Dean Martin.
Murderer’s Row was released on December 20, 1968. The film went on to make over $6.2 million dollars at the box office, making it the eleventh highest-grossing film of the year. It also finished in second place at the 1967 Producer’s Guild of America’s Laurel Awards for Best Action Drama and Best Action Performance for Martin.
Murderer’s Row is a better film than The Silencers overall. However, some things are better in the prior film – like the humor.
Some of the stronger points in the sequel are the structure and feel are much more Bond-like. The film begins with the assassination of spies all over the world. This would be used seven years later as the opening of Live and Let Die (1973). Helm fakes his own death right after this section, which also occurs in You Only Live Twice (1967), which was in production at the same time as Murderer’s Row.
The opening credits for Murderer’s Row are certainly more in the vein of a Bond film from this period as well. Gone are the strippers, which are replaced by still pictures of the various women that populate the film, imposed like a negative onto the frames. It provides a classier experience for sure.
Beyond these elements, Murderer’s Row certainly seems to be the template for the Bond movies of the 1970s, especially Diamonds Are Forever(1971). Apart from a few wisecracks and gags, it is surprising how similar Murderer’s Row is to Connery’s final official outing. Even the climax of these two films is eerily similar, featuring exploding tape machines and gigantic magnets.
The single best aspect of Murderer’s Row is the costumes by Moss Mabry, especially those worn by Ann-Margret and Camilla Sparv. Although he also did the costumes for The Silencers, Marby really shines here with the use of contrasting colors, coupled with far-out Mod ascetics.
Another thing worth mentioning is what a powerhouse of volatile sexuality Ann-Margret was in the mid-sixties. During this period, she looks like she’s having the time of her life in everything she did. Murderer’s Rowis no exception. One of her strong suits in the film is a frantic, crazed, and psychedelic freak out of a dance number she performs. This rivals anything she did in Viva Las Vegas (1964) or The Swinger (1966).
The biggest criticism that can be placed on Murderer’s Row is it just isn’t as funny as The Silencers. The gadgets, including a gun where the bullet fires ten seconds after the trigger is pulled, aren’t as amusing. Also, Malden’s decision to use a slightly different accent in every scene isn’t nearly as funny as it must’ve seemed on set.
Behind the Scenes
The Ambushers was a film that was rushed into production following the box office hit status of Murderer’s Row. It was loosely based on the Donald Hamilton novel of the same name.
Much of the crew was brought back from the previous film, including screenwriter Herbert Baker as well as director Henry Levin. One notable exception is that the soundtrack was composed by the man who wrote the iconic I Dream of Jeanne theme song, Hugh Montenegro. Baker also contributed to the soundtrack by composing the theme song with Montenegro. Another is the costumes were done by Oleg Cassini instead of Moss Mabry.
The Ambushers was shot on location in Acapulco, Mexico as well as in and around Hollywood, including at Desilu. Since Desilu is where Star Trek was produced, a couple of notable props from the iconic show were used in The Ambushers – the time jumping ship from “The Alternative Factor” as well as the control console from the Romulan ship from “Balance of Terror”.
The film was released on December 22, 1967, and went on to make $10 million at the box office, making it the most successful film in the series from a financial perspective. However, critics were not kind to it and its reputation did not improve over time. In 1978, it was listed as one of The Fifty Worst Films of All Time in the book of the same name by Henry Medved and Randy Dreyfuss.
The Ambushers is the worst entry in the series for a number of reasons. First and foremost, it’s boring. It also doesn’t contain many laughs and the only one that is actually funny is a one-liner delivered by a gay hairdresser in a Paul Lynde style.
The opening credits are nothing like those of the previous two movies. Instead, they are a bizarre montage of Slaygirls (female operatives that work with Helm and other operatives) doing things like riding horses on the beach and wandering around grassy meadows. It’s more akin to what you might see on something like The Monkees television series, than in a major motion picture, especially with the theme song blaring over it.
Speaking of the Slaygirls, although they appear briefly in both of the earlier films, they get a lot of screen time in The Ambushers early on as Helm spends time at a base where they train. Unfortunately, they are given nothing really to do, which is a missed opportunity.
The actual plot of the film, which involves the recovery of a stolen government spacecraft, is as lackluster as the movie’s special effects, which primarily consist of a toy gun that fires sparks that causes levitation. This is visually realized by using visible black wires on objects and people, unironically.
Cassini, one of the new additions to the crew, does a serviceable job on costumes. The costumes worn by Janice Rule, Senta Berger, and all of the Slaygirls are of high quality.
What’s baffling is that even with most of the cast and crew returning, just how off the mark this film really is. It isn’t similar enough to either of the earlier efforts, which is a massive blunder.
The Wrecking Crew
Behind the Scenes
The Wrecking Crew is arguably the most “Hollywood” film in the Matt Helm series for a number of behind-the-scenes reasons. The biggest of these is that the exterior of the Owlwood Estate was used for the home of the villainous Count Contini. At the time this was the home of actor Tony Curtis, who would sell it to Sonny and Cher a few years later.
Another “Hollywood” aspect was who was hired to work on the martial arts aspects of the film. Bruce Lee was brought on as martial arts advisor, specifically to work with Sharon Tate in training in martial arts, as well as to choreograph the fight scenes.
Lee enlisted friends of his to work on the film behind and in front of the camera. Chuck Norris was given his first on-screen appearance in The Wrecking Crew. At this time, both Lee and Norris were two of the most sought-after martial arts instructors in Hollywood circles. Their clients included Steve McQueen and James Coburn, who enlisted their instruction. Kwan actually approached Lee about him being her instructor after the film wrapped, but he told her she couldn’t afford him.
Dean Martin, however, was not one of their clients. When Lee attempted to work with Martin on his performance for the fight scene choreography, he was not impressed, thinking he was old and lazy. Because of this, martial arts expert Mike Stone was hired as Dean Martin’s fight double. Stone was Priscilla Presley’s boyfriend after she left Elvis.
Additionally, much of the crew changed, including the director and screenwriter. Writer Herbert Baker left as he was selected by Irving Allen to write his serious spy movie, Hammerhead (1968). The director of the last two Helm films, Henry Levin, passed on The Wrecking Crew due to marital problems. Because of this, The Silencers director Phil Karlson returned to the series with this entry.
The Wrecking Crew was released on Christmas Day 1968 in Canada and February 5, 1969, in the United States. The film’s box office was extremely poor when compared to the other films in the Matt Helm series. It earned only $2.4 million during its theatrical run.
Although there was an announced fifth installment (The Ravagers) during The Wrecking Crew’send credits, one was never produced. Besides the poor box-office performance of the fourth film, there were other circumstances working against another entry.
The primary circumstance was the murder of Sharon Tate. Martin had enjoyed working with her so much, she was expected to return for the next installment. The story goes that Martin refused to work on another film after Tate’s death. As a result of this, Columbia held up Martin’s share of the profits for the other movies in the series.
In 2019, The Wrecking Crew was featured in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood. Clips from the film are shown during a screening at the Fox Bruin Theater. The poster is also featured prominently in Tarantino’s film.
The Wrecking Crewis certainly the coolest movie in the Matt Helm series. The film provides a well-rounded, fun, and humorous experience. Speaking of humor, The Wrecking Crew is by far the funniest since The Silencers, even though the comedy in this film is more slapstick and less of a spy spoof.
The majority of the laughs come via Sharon Tate’s, Freya Carlson. She plays Helm’s klutzy sidekick, who is on the road to being an old maid due to her dorky and stern personality. Eventually, it’s revealed that her persona is a ruse and that she’s actually an English spy. However, aside from being sexier, nothing about her changes. Not even her American accent. Tate steals every scene that she’s in, making Martin’s Helm feel like a second banana in his own movie.
Tate’s comic timing is impeccable, especially in a scene where she nonchalantly pushes femme fatale Linka Karensky (Elke Sommer) into a swimming pool. Another great example of her sensational performance is the seductive dance she performs in Helm’s hotel room as he looks on in astonishment.
In addition to Sommer and Tate, two other ladies fill out the cast with notable roles. First and foremost is Tina Louise. This was her first major role since Gilligan’s Island wrapped up. Louise’s part is fairly short on screen time. However, she makes the most of it, portraying a gypsy striptease artist. Rounding out the cast is Helen Kwan’s, Yu-Wrang. The highlight of her performance is a short but sweet fight scene against Tate’s Carlson.
The film’s plot, which involves the robbery of a train filled with gold bars in Holland (but shot on location in Southern California) is so minimal it almost seems an afterthought to the rest of the proceedings. It also has more in common with the Bond adventure Goldfinger (1964) than anything in the novel on which The Wrecking Crew is based.
A final thing worth mentioning about The Wrecking Crew is how the cinematography varies from that of the previous Helm films. They have much more of a sixties Technicolor look to them. This film, however, has a more gritty, muted look. This is more akin to the cinema of the seventies rather than the decade it was released.
The Matt Helm series featuring Dean Martin is a strange and fun-filled romp through the second half of the 1960s. You can see the evolution of Hollywood production and cultural styles in each film. Further, you can also see the influence this film series had on the James Bond franchise which lifted scenes and plot elements, nearly exactly, from the Helm movies that were a send-up of Ian Fleming’s famous spy.
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