Thursday, September 11, 2008
The Silencers was the first film in the Matt Helm spy franchise, which starred Dean Martin and was released in 1966. The film was based on The Silencers by Donald Hamilton. It also took some plot elements from Hamilton's Death of a Citizen. Hamilton's Helm was a cold and ruthless government assassin. His series of Matt Helm spy novels were more serious and realistic. The Silencers and its three sequels, however, would be more tongue in cheek and lighthearted. Dean Martin's Matt Helm was essentially Dean Martin. When he wasn't saving the world, he was having a drink, crooning a tune, or seducing beautiful women.
Irving Allen, the producer of the Matt Helm franchise, had been looking for a spy franchise of his own. Everybody wanted to get into the spy game after the success of the James Bond films. It had created quite a craze for both serious and campy spy fare. The 60's were loaded with spy spoofs from across the globe. Allen at one time had been partners with Albert "Cubby" Broccoli, who came to him with the idea of turning Ian Fleming's Bond novels into motion pictures. Allen didn't like the idea at all. He even insulted Fleming himself, informing him that his books were not even good enough for television. This, along with some other factors, would lead to the termination of the partnership between Allen and Broccoli. Allen would feel like a fool after the huge success of the first Bond film Dr. No in 1962 and its sequels. He acquired the rights to the Matt Helm novels of Donald Hamilton. Dean Martin was hired to bring Matt Helm to life on the big screen. To get Martin on board, Allen had to make him a partner in the series. Martin ended up making more money from playing Matt Helm than Sean Connery made from playing 007.
Dean Martin starred as Matt Helm, a slick and cool cat who loves booze and womanizing. Helm is a fashion photographer who snaps shots of beautiful women for men's magazines like Slaymate. When he's done taking their pictures, he seduces them in his ultra-cool bachelor pad. This place has to be seen to be believed. I want a pad like this. It even comes with a rotating circular bed that will drop its occupants into a large bubble bath. Helm's assistant Lovey Kravezit (Beverly Adams) is always willing to do what her boss asks. With a cad for a boss, you can bet that her work will get quite steamy. It turns out that Matt Helm is a secret agent in semi-retirement. He works for ICE (Intelligence and Counter Espionage). He gets called back into service by his boss MacDonald (James Gregory). Helm is having none of it. He's enjoying the cool and swingin' lush life too much. Big O (Bureau of International Government and Order), the opposition organization, has plans to start World War III. They are not taking any chances on Matt Helm foiling their plans. They try to take him out. Helm is saved by a former lover and fellow agent Tina, played by the exotic beauty Daliah Lavi. He's reluctantly pulled back into the world of espionage.
Big O is headed up by Tung-Tze, who is played by Victor Buono (made up with eyeliner to look Chinese). There is definitely not a politically correct movie. Big O's dastardly plan is to sabotage the American atomic missile program in their plot to control the globe. They are being aided in their scheme by a double agent dubbed "Cowboy." Matt Helm and Tina head off to Phoenix to find Sarita (played by Cyd Charisse), who is in possession of a microfilm that Big O needs. The 40something Charisse does two sexy numbers in this movie, lip-synching to the vocals of Vicki Carr. She'll definitely raise the blood pressure of any red-blooded male. They end up butting heads with several enemy agents, such as Sam Gunther (Robert Webber) and Andreyev (Roger C. Carmel). They also come in contact with a sexy and clumsy broad named Gail (played wonderfully here by Stella Stevens). They aren't sure if Gail is mixed up in Big O's evil plot or not. She has gotten hold of the microfilm, plus she's been seen dating Sam Gunther. Gail gets stuck trekking along with Helm to New Mexico (the location of Big O's subterranean base and the atomic missile site) as a way of proving her innocence. Nobody can make a station wagon cool quite like Dean Martin. It's called the "sex wagon." It comes with its own bed and bar. I told you this movie wasn't politically correct. These two are great together. Helm is usually at the receiving end of something stupid Gail does. The sparks definitely fly between these two and not always in a good way.
I'm not going to give much more about the movie away. James Bond isn't the only secret agent with gadgetry. Matt Helm has several gadgets, including a reversible shooting gun and exploding coat buttons, in his arsenal to use against his foes in Big O. If you haven't seen this movie, you owe it to yourself to see it. It's not high art, but it's not meant to be. It's a campy ride full of laughs, action, romance, and music. The Silencers, directed by Phil Karlson, was a box office hit in 1966. It spawned three sequels (Murderers' Row also in 1966, The Ambushers in 1968, and The Wrecking Crew in 1969). A fifth film in the franchise, The Ravagers, was never filmed. Elmer Bernstein scored the film. Dino also croons several of his tunes throughout this film as certain moments unfold. I bet you never saw 007 do that. People looking for a more serious and insightful spy thriller are not going to find it here. This is basically Dean Martin playing himself as a spy. If you like the cool charm and easygoing style of Dino, then I don't think you'll be disappointed. This is after all one of the spy franchises that inspired Mike Myers in his creation of the Austin Powers franchise. The movie is available with the other three movies in the Matt Helm Lounge DVD set. I believe it's only around $20 for the set. I hope you'll give it a shot if you haven't seen it. I raise a toast to that super-cool cad of a spy, Matt Helm. Cheers!