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Matt Helm Film Series

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About These Films
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1. The Silencers (1966)
2. Murderers' Row (1966)
3. The Ambushers (1967)
4. The Wrecking Crew (1968)


I dedicate this feature to my father, Robert Whipple (1948-2006).  He really loved the Matt Helm films and got me started on them.  These films gave my Dad a lot of great memories.

About These Films:  The Matt Helm film series is quite a phenomenon in 1960s pop-culture, and its presence has been felt decades later.  It is very loosely based on the "Matt Helm" book series by Donald Hamilton.  The Matt Helm books are not funny, and they're not camp.  They're straight action.  In the books, Matt Helm was a U.S. Government counter-agent, an assassin, whose job it was to kill or otherwise nullify enemy agents.  He wasn't really a spy or secret agent in the sense that James Bond had been.  Matt Helm appeared in 27 novels during a 33-year period that started in 1960.  The books by Donald Hamilton had a great amount of realism and were very well done.  They even had continuity, which is rare for any series of books about adventure heroes.  It was surprising, then, that Matt Helm was brought to film in such a wildly different way.

    The Matt Helm films were action-comedy.  Probably more comedy than action, but a lot of times there was some pretty straightforward action.  These films are NOT like the Austin Powers films, which are all comedy.  The Matt Helm films, however, are noted for not being very realistic.  They were camp, they were colorful, and they were just fun adventure movies.  There is nothing high-brow about them at all.  The films weren't trying to reach a sophisticated audience.  Basically, the films were made for people who liked seeing cool stuff, lots of hot girls, and Dean Martin being funny.  That's about it.  But the movies are awesome.  People who like those things in a movie won't be disappointed.  These are NOT like the Matt Helm books.

    Incidentally, the Matt Helm movies are far better known than the books.  That's the power of cinema.  Plus, Dean Martin was a major star.  At the time of their original release, the Matt Helm films were very popular with audiences and rivaled the James Bond films of the time.  As far as the books went, James Bond was the top-selling spy series, and Matt Helm was number two.  The movies were a different story.  James Bond HAD been #1, but the Matt Helm films were stealing his thunder.  The Matt Helm character might have eclipsed Bond's popularity if the series had continued.  It didn't.  There were a number of reasons why the Matt Helm series folded in just a few short years.

    The first two Matt Helm films did very well and were liked by most moviegoers.  The third film, "The Ambushers", didn't go over quite as well.  "The Wrecking Crew" was really showing a box office decline for the series.  At the end of the fourth film, a fifth film was announced.  That film, "The Ravagers", never got off the ground.  Dean Martin, himself, was disappointed with the declining box office appeal of the Matt Helm films.  They were starting to operate on lower and lower budgets.  The last film, "The Wrecking Crew", was a bit unusual compared to the previous films and many have blasted it as the worst film in the series.  In "The Wrecking Crew", you can see that things are starting to fall apart.  This is the first and only time we don't see Lovey Kravezit, Helm's beautiful secretary played by Beverly Adams.  This is also the first and only time we don't see James Gregory as MacDonald, Helm's boss, who declined to reprise his role due to the fact that he was going to have to take a paycut.  The reason he was going to have to take a paycut is because they were going to make the movie with a lesser budget.  MacDonald was recast with John Larch.  These were both pretty important supporting characters to dismiss.

    Dean Martin declined to play Matt Helm in "The Ravagers".  Columbia Pictures retaliated by holding onto his share of the profits from the series' second film, "Murderers' Row" (1966).  The project was then completely cancelled.  No fifth Matt Helm movie.  It would have been impossible to recast Dean Martin with as much success because he was so closely tied to the character.  Dean Martin WAS Matt Helm, and vice versa.  At least as far as fans of the film series were concerned.

    It's important to state that the Matt Helm films are not, I repeat NOT, spoofs or parodies of the James Bond movie franchise.  The Matt Helm films are simply spoofs of the spy movie genre.  Helm isn't a copycat of Bond; he's his own thing.  These films are also not wacky, over-the-top spoofs.  They're legitimate spy stories with lots of funny stuff thrown in.  These movies are wildly different from the novels, but they're still somewhat based on the novels, and you'll see a lot of Donald Hamilton's clever, basic ideas put into the movies.

    The furiously funny "Austin Powers" film series actually borrows more from the Matt Helm movies than it does James Bond, although there are really many films it borrows from.  The Flint movies (with James Coburn) is another reference.  But Austin Powers is more like Matt Helm than any other 60s film spy.  Both of them have cover jobs as fashion photographers.  Both film series have a really wild use of colors.  Both of them are funny and sexist, although Austin Powers is way more "over the top".  I really think Austin Powers kind of picked up where Matt Helm left off and took things in hilarious new places.  I think if Matt Helm HAD to have a successor, Austin Powers is pretty worthy.  Still, both of these characters are separate things.  There really is nothing else quite like the Matt Helm films starring Dean Martin.

    "Matt Helm" was reborn as a television series for the 1975-1976 season on ABC-TV.  It was unsuccessful.  The TV series was entirely different from both the novels and the earlier films.  This series was a very serious, straight action show.  However, Matt Helm was a retired spy that ran a private detective business.  He was a sleuth!  Cast as Matt Helm was another Italian, Tony Franciosa.  It was very obvious that another smooth Italian was cast to emulate Dean Martin's appeal.  Perhaps the show's creators shouldn't have tried so hard to play up to that.  At any rate, the series only lasted 13 episodes.  It's a shame, but I think it flopped because people wanted Matt Helm to be a spy and to have grand, colorful adventures.  A detective show is limited compared to a spy show.

    The Matt Helm movies, however, really came along at the right time.  During the height of the turbulent 1960s, people liked shows that had action, comedy, sex appeal, and a lot of color.  It was escapism at its finest.  Nobody wanted to see real serious stuff.  Life was serious and terrible enough in the late 1960s.  Watching Matt Helm was kind of like going to see your buddy.  The movies were a big party.  In that regard, the Matt Helm movies were successful and continue to be a success for fun-loving movie-watchers everywhere!



1. The Silencers (1966)-

Cast:

Dean Martin as Matt Helm

Alternate Titles:

Fun Facts:



2. Murderers' Row (1966)-

Cast:

Dean Martin as Matt Helm

Alternate Titles:

Fun Facts:



3. The Ambushers (1967)-  I find this movie very colorful and interesting.  It's hard to pull yourself away from it, because it has such an intriguing story.  For a long time, you don't know what the heck is going on or what it all means, but it DOES explain itself.  In the meantime, you have lots of sexy girls and Dean Martin being funny.  I even love the theme song!

    Returning to the series for the last time is Beverly Adams as Matt Helm's secretary, Lovey Kravezit, and James Gregory as Matt Helm's boss, MacDonald.  Lovey Kravezit didn't appear at all in the next film, and James Gregory was recast with John Larch.  This is the end of an era, because both actors were pretty important supporting cast to Matt Helm.  This is also the last time Helm deals with Big-O.

    The premise of this movie is cool.  The U.S. Government has built its own spaceship.  Since all male test pilots died of radiation poisoning, female ace pilot Sheila Sommers (Janice Rule) is chosen to fly it.  The ship is hijacked in mid-flight by a powerful laser beam under control of villain Jose Ortega (Albert Salmi).  Once the ship lands in Mexico, Jose Ortega rapes Sheila and leaves her for dead.  She is found a few months later in a state of shock.  Her hair is all white and her skin is pale.

    Matt Helm once worked with Sheila in the past, where they posed as husband and wife.  Helm is partnered with Sheila once more to retrieve the stolen spaceship in Mexico.  Sheila is "fixed up" to look like her beautiful self once more.  While in Mexico, Helm crosses paths with Francesca Madeiros (Senta Berger), a beautiful operative that works for Big-O (Helm's major nemesis in the film series).  There are also other baddies to deal with, such as Ortega's henchman Quintana (Kurt Kasznar) and Nassim the Arab (David Mauro).

Cast:

Dean Martin as Matt Helm
Janice Rule as Sheila Sommers
Senta Berger as Francesca Madeiros
Albert Salmi as Jose Ortega
Kurt Kasznar as Quintana
David Mauro as Nassim
James Gregory as MacDonald
Beverly Adams as Lovey Kravezit

Director- Henry Levin
Writers- Herbert Baker (screenplay), Donald Hamilton (book).

Special Mention:
Alena Johnston as Slaygirl [uncredited]

Alternate Titles:

Fun Facts:



4. The Wrecking Crew (1968)-  One billion dollars in gold is stolen from a train while in transit by Count Massimo Contini.  This massive gold theft threatens to ruin the world economy.  Matt Helm is on the case and time is of the essence, although you'd never know it by the incredibly slow pace of this movie.  One of the many criticisms of this movie is that the plot is a lot like the James Bond film, "Goldfinger".  It's really only like "Goldfinger" in the way that a bunch of gold is stolen.  That's about it.  "Goldfinger" shoots this movie right out of the water.

    No matter how you look at it, this is the worst of the Matt Helm films.  I can see why Dean Martin quit the series after this entry.  Don't get me wrong, this isn't a terrible movie.  After all, it's still Matt Helm.  But there are so many things that just don't ring true of a "Matt Helm" movie.  I had to break down the good and the bad of this film.

Cool Things:

1. There are only two notable spectacles in this film, and they don't happen until near the end.  The first is the helicopter stored in the trunk of Helm's car, but even this is a ripoff of the "Little Nellie" device from the James Bond movie, "You Only Live Twice" (1967).  The second neat thing is Contini's train, with its trap door and folding bed.

2. The women make this movie.  It would have been nothing without them.  All of them looked great and had great roles.

3. I liked Sharon Tate in this movie.  Her character of Freya Carlson was a clutzy pain in the a**, but her goofiness is about the only thing that kept the movie going at its mostly "nowhere" pace.

4. Tina Louise as Lola Medina is undoubtedly the sexiest woman in this film.  Lola gets blown up, just as she starts to become important to the story.  That sucks!  I wish that they hadn't killed off her character.  At least not so early in the movie.

Annoyances:

1. The movie moves too slow, and it tries to make up for things with too much dialogue.  Dialogue can be fine, but in this movie the dialogue is lazy and stupid.  "The Wrecking Crew" doesn't have the wit we've come to expect of a Matt Helm movie.

2. Bad music throughout the entire movie.  The previous Matt Helm movies tried to give us then-modern, popular sounds at least some of the time.  This movie starts off with a terrible theme song, "The House of 7 Joys", canned jazz music throughout, and too many little bits of Dean Martin's singing thrown in for absolutely no reason.

3. The fight scenes are all pretty fake.  Why?  Of all things, Bruce Lee was a martial arts advisor on the film.  He's a true master, but I don't think anybody in this film learned much from him.  About the worst fighting scene is when Matt Helm attacks the thugs at Contini's mansion for the first time.

4. John Larch was NOT a good replacement for James Gregory as MacDonald, especially since MacDonald had such a large part in this movie.  I have nothing against the actor.  I've seen Larch in other shows and he's good, but James Gregory established the character in this film series, and Larch didn't play it like Gregory.  Dean Martin and James Gregory seemed to have an onscreen chemistry that Martin and Larch did not.

5. Nigel Green as Count Massimo Contini is annoying.  I can't stand to look at him.  He's a geek, and he overuses the word "schedule", pronounced as "shed-u-ul".  His character's name would hint at him being Italian; guess not.  Contini is real English.

6. I like Sharon Tate in this movie, but it was not wise to call her Danish or British when she can't do accents.  Why didn't they just say she was an American agent?  When we first see her, she's supposed to work for the Danish Tourism Bureau, and later on she's supposed to be with British Intelligence.

7. The whole movie, Matt Helm can't stand Freya Carlson, not even a little bit.  Then at the very end of the movie they're "getting busy"?  What kind of sense does that make?

Cast:

Dean Martin as Matt Helm
Sharon Tate as Freya Carlson
John Larch as MacDonald
Nigel Green as Count Massimo Contini
Elke Sommer as Linka Karensky
Nancy Kwan as Wen Yu-Rang
Tina Louise as Lola Medina
Chuck Norris as Thug in House of 7 Joys [uncredited]

Alternate Titles:

Fun Facts:


Chuck Norris has a very small part as one of Yu-Rang's thugs in her restaurant, The House of 7 Joys.  He has no mustache or beard in this appearance.

Gallery:

The Wrecking Crew Gallery Page 1
The Wrecking Crew Gallery Page 2
The Wrecking Crew Gallery Page 3
The Wrecking Crew Gallery Page 4

For more picture fun from "The Wrecking Crew", check out the features of the following performers:
Tina Louise
Dean Martin
Elke Sommer
Sharon Tate