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
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
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!
Dean Martin as Matt Helm
2. Murderers' Row (1966)-
Dean Martin as Matt Helm
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
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
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).
Alena Johnston as Slaygirl [uncredited]
The theme song, "The Ambushers", was performed by
Boyce & Hart. They are best known as primary songwriters for
The Monkees, as well as Chubby Checker, Jay & the Americans, The
Leaves, and Paul Revere & the Raiders.
This film was released on December 22, 1967.
Alena Johnston has a great part near the
beginning of the film where she plays masseuse to Matt Helm. She
was the female lead in the sexploitation movie, "War Goddess"
(1973). I think she's an awesome, buxom blonde that didn't do
anything near as much as she should have in film.
4. The Wrecking Crew (1968)-
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
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.
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
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.
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
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?
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]
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.