Spoof Within A Spoof
By the mid-1960s there were many James Bond type movies. This included spoofs. One spoof was the Matt Helm franchise. Donald Hamilton created the Matt Helm character and in 1960 published the first of 27 books with Helm as the main character. Donald Hamilton’s Matt Helm is a serious character in serious circumstances.
Dean Martin was one of many A-list entertainers who had a reputation for being a heavy drinker. Dean Martin embraced the reputation as a heavy drinker and a womanizer. Contemporary comedians and Dean Martin often made jokes about his drinking. The Matt Helm movie franchise spoofed spy movies and Dean Martin’s persona. The films also made use of Dean Martin’s singing talent with some comical ditties. Much of the humor is dated and some jokes are now inappropriate. Some of the gags have been repeated in the Austin Powers movies. This article contains spoilers.
The Silencers (1966)
In the opening title sequence Vikki Carr sings the title song as dancers perform striptease dances. The song draws a parallel between .22 and .38 caliber guns and the iconic woman’s measurements of 38-22-38.[i] Matt Helm is on the payroll of Intelligence and Counter Espionage (ICE). He is living in semi-retirement and does photography work for “Slaygirl” a girly magazine. His house has many high-tech luxuries. This includes a round bed that drops him into a large pool that he uses as a bubble bath. His “answering service”, Miss Lovey Kravezit (Beverly Adams), is in the pool waiting for him. He has a drink. There are a series of tease scenes, similar to but not as suggestive as the ones in the Austin Powers movies.
The criminal organization opposing ICE is the Bureau for International Government and Order (BIG-O). Tung-Tze (Victor Buono) is the lead villain. One sight gag is Tung-Tze opening a can of “No Cal Egg Foo Young”. His lieutenants included Andreyev (Roger C. Carmel) and Joe Wigman (Arthur O’Connell). The plan is to redirect a rocket at the White Sands Missile Range to strike the area of an underground missile test. The objective is to make a large region of the United States uninhabitable by the leaked radiation.
BIG-O knows ICE will call on Matt Helm and so set out to kill him. Matt Helm declines going on the mission, preferring to go to Acapulco with Miss Kravezit.[ii] Helm comes home to find a trail of women’s clothes that he dubs, “a treasure hunt”.[iii] There is an assassination attempt similar to the one in the opening title sequence of the hit TV series, “The Wild Wild West” (1965-1969). Tina (Daliah Lavi) makes her entrance by foiling the plot. Tina and Matt have a history of being partners and lovers.
With more assassins outside Matt Helm has no choice but to go on the mission. Helm has a fully-stocked weapons case. His weapons include a camera that fires throwing knives. They deal with the assassins and travel to a hotel where they are to make contact with an informer. Matt Helm meets the clumsy Gail Hendricks (Stella Stevens).
Dean Martin’s humor is mostly wisecracks. Stella Stevens used verbal and physical comedy. Gail makes her entrance with a splash on Matt Helm. Sarita (Cyd Charisse) is performing at a nightclub. Sarita has a computer tape that has a timetable of the nuclear test. BIG-O henchman Sam Gunther (Robert Webber) shoots Sarita on stage. There’s a free for all in the scramble to reach Sarita. The dying Sarita gives Gail the Tape. Helm and Tina grab Gail. Helm roughly handles Gail who is furious at his behavior. Helm and his boss, MacDonald (James Gregory), lean towards believing Gail is a BIG-O agent but admit there is a possibility she is a victim of circumstance. They view Gail going with Matt to follow the trail as a win-win situation. MacDonald gives Helm a gun that fires forward and backwards and a blazer with grenades for buttons.
There is a car chase scene that hasn’t aged well. In 1966 seat belts weren’t widely used and Matt and Gail aren’t wearing them for the drive. Matt attempts to get Gail drunk so he can get some information out of her. He and Gail drink hard liquor as Matt drives and questions her. Gail, sober and drunk, gives sarcastic answers. Fifty miles from nowhere Matt stops for the night and converts his station wagon into what Gail aptly calls a “sex wagon”. Gail sleeps off her drunk and tries to escape during the night. There is a heavy rain and she’s soon muddy and drenched.
BIG-O captures Helm and Gail, thanks to Helm trying to seduce Gail. Helm escapes capture when a BIG-O agent accidentally activating one of the button grenades. Gail escapes capture thanks to Matt Helm’s forward and backwards firing weapon. Three BIG-O agents comically die in Gail’s escape. Matt gives Gail a machinegun. She loses control of the machinegun when she fires it.[iv]
The story ends with Gail in Matt’s home. Matt tells her she didn’t make one mistake last night. Moments later Gail mistakenly activates the mechanism that sends them sliding into the pool. This is the first movie to have a post credit scene.[v]
[i] In 1966 Twiggy gained notoriety and tastes soon changed to a preference for thin figured women. In the mid-60s striptease acts were often performed in nightclubs with a mixed audience.
[ii] Acapulco was a popular vacation destination for Americans at the time.
[iii] There is a continuity error, one of the articles is a pair of shoes. The woman at the end of the trail, Barbara (Nancy Kovack), is wearing shoes and a man’s shirt, presumably Helm’s.
[iv] Tiffany Case (Jill St. John) had the same problem in “Diamonds are Forever” (1971).
[v] International Movie Database, The Silencers (1966) - Trivia - IMDb, last accessed 9/2/21.
Tune From Murderers' Row
There's an old spinning wheel where my head is. I can't remember last night what a crime. But I'm feeling so rotten this morning. Must have had me a wonderful time.
— Dean Martin playing Matt Helm
Murderers Row (1966)
This movie opens with the U.S. Capital being destroyed by a death ray. It is only a computer simulation. Julian Wall (Karl Malden) proclaims the time has come, and not “just for Republicans”. Lays out his plot then hands his henchman a list of ICE agents he wants killed. Three are killed in simple and comedic ways. The plan for Matt Helm is complicated. An assassin (Corinne Cole) is supposed to keep him in bed and activate the ride into the pool. The pool is rigged with a death ray. Matt Helm survives the attempt but ICE figured it better if everyone believed he was dead.[i]
Julian Wall has captured an American scientist. ICE figures Julian Wall might use the scientist’s daughter, Suzie (Ann-Margret) to get information out of him. Matt Helm goes to meet a contact, Dominique (Nadia Sanders). He finds her body in a refrigerator.[ii] Suzie saw him in Dominique’s apartment but inexplicably doesn’t identify him in a lineup. The two other men in the lineup didn’t look anything like Matt Helm.[iii]
At a club the band, Dino, Desi & Billy, perform. Dino is Dean Martin’s son Dean Paul Martin, the other members are Desi Arnaz Jr., and Billy Hinsche.[iv] There was an inside joke where Dean Paul called Dean Martin “Pops” and Dean Martin called Dean Paul “son”.
Coco Duquette (Camilla Sparv) is Julian Wall’s partner in crime. They hate each other. Matt Helm, and much of the audience, assumed the couple was married. When Suzie tells Matt they weren’t married, he quips “You mean they hate each other like that for nothing?”[v]
Matt Helm’s car had a car that can flash messages. One of the messages he flashes is the then contemporary joke, “If you can read this, you’re too darn close.” He has a suicide coin, originally intended for him and/or the captive scientist. He uses it on one of the guards. He had a gun that kills by extreme cold. He also has a gun with a three second delay before the trigger is squeezed and the bullet fires. It falls into the wrong hands and the bad guys invariably squeeze the trigger and break the first rule of firearm safety. There is a henchman (Tom Reese) with a special weapon, his iron skull. As with such henchmen in Bond and other movies, Matt Helm turns the special weapon against “Ironhead”. The climax is similar to Thunderball’s.[vi] The setting was France but it was filmed in America. This gave many sets a Hollywood backlot appearance.
[i] Murderers’ Row also has a scene where a Japanese agent has women bath him. Murderers’ Row predated You Only Live Twice, 1967, both elements. The Japanese bath scene is more explosive in Murderers’ Row.
[ii] When Murderers’ Row aired on television a couple of boys remembered they hadn’t seen a man’s spouse for some time. They looked in an abandoned refrigerator and found the woman’s body.
[iii] In this scene Dean Martin says, “Oh, Laverne, Patty, and Maxine.” The reference is to “The Andrews Sisters”, a famed 1940s singing trio.
[iv] Desi Arnaz Jr. is the son of Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball.
[v] Circa 1980 Polaroid had a commercial campaign with James Garner and Mariette Hartley. Many people erroneously assumed they were a married couple.
[vi] Thunderball came out in 1965.
The Ambushers (1967)
BIG-O captures an ICE flying saucer. The saucer’s astronaut is a woman, Sheila Sommers (Janice Rule), At the ICE training camp, where all the trainees are beautiful women, a near catatonic Janice runs into Matt Helm. Jose Ortega (Albert Salmi) has the saucer and Sheila Sommers suffered serious, unspecified, abuse in his captivity. This movie featured a bra gun, a concept also used in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery.[i]
Matt Helm and Sheila Sommers are to retrieve the saucer. The saucer is fatal to males when activated. This figures in to killing two bad guys, one by accident, another by clever design. This is why Sheila Sommers, despite her state, has to go on the mission. Once on the mission Sheila reveals while she was abused her state was an act. Ortega intends to sell the saucer to the highest bidder. Francesca Madeiros (Senta Berger) is one of the bidders. Sheila Sommers is a partner as opposed to an innocent. Janice Rule was the oldest of the main female characters in the Matt Helm franchise. She was less than 15 years younger than Dean Martin.
There is a fight in a brewery involving rolling beer barrels. Another fight is outdoors where numerous women ICE agents join in, one at a time, and use their martial arts skills on BIG-O agents. The scene ends with a Helm secret weapon that causes men’s pants to drop. A martial tune plays and the men stand at attention as Helm and Sommers make their escape.
Ortega has handgun size versions of the device he used to bring down the flying saucer. Matt Helm eventually gets one of the devices uses it to defeat BIG-O and rescue Sheila Sommers.
Janice Rule considers this the worst movie she was in. Harry Medved and Randy Dreyfuss has The Ambushers in their 1978 book “The Fifty Worst Films of All Time (and How They Got That Way)”.[ii]
[i] Probably the first use of such a weapon was in the 1965 science fiction comedy The 10th Victim.
[ii] International Movie Database, The Ambushers (1967) - Trivia - IMDb, last accessed 9/6/2021.
The Wrecking Crew (1968)
The setting is Denmark but the film has a Hollywood backlot appearance. The Danish police speak like American police officers. Count Massimo Contini (Nigel Green) successfully carries out a gold heist large enough to corner the gold market. MacDonald (John Larch) sends Matt Helm to solve the case. His first lead is Contini’s former girlfriend, Lola Medina (Tina Louise). The Count scorned her in favor of Linka Karensky (Elke Sommer). Lola meets a typical informer’s fate. ICE Agent Freya Carlson (Sharon Tate), who is stationed in Denmark, is teamed with Helm. Her clumsiness makes a terrible first impression on Matt Helm. He lets her know he doesn’t appreciate her assistance.
In an encounter with Contini, Linka, and some henchmen Matt and Freya prevail over the henchmen. Matt walks away from Linka but Freya tosses her in a pool.
Besides Contini’s henchmen, he has Wen Yu-Rang (Nancy Kwan) who has her own gang. She owns a nightclub, The House of Seven Joys. In an encounter at The House of Seven Joys, the strawberry blond Freya wears a brunette wig. She handles herself well. Yu-Rang and her gang commit an unintentional fratricide.
Later Matt compliments Freya, telling her she didn’t’ make a single mistake. He mentioned it may have been the wig. Freya returns to form when the road she has Matt take is blocked by water. Freya suggests it might not be deep. She tries wading across and gets in over her head. Fortunately, Matt has a small, easy to assemble, helicopter in his trunk.[i]
In a fight at Contini’s villa Matt Helm deals with the henchmen. Freya squares off against Yu-Rang in an Asian style martial arts fight. There is a control panel that opens and closes shudders and sets off explosives in rooms. The Freya vs Yu-Rang fight isn’t one sided but Freya is clearly the superior fighter. When the confrontation allows Freya tries to open a shutter but invariably blows up a room. The possibility of getting killed by Freya’s random throwing of switches frustrates Matt Helm. This indirectly saves Matt since Contini, who is on a train made of the hijacked gold, has the capability to destroy rooms from the train. He tells Matt Helm he thinks Freya is doing a good job of trying to blow Matt up. The final encounter is on the Contini’s train. Matt deals with Contini, then Freya asks if her hair is a mess. Matt answers, “You’re a mess”.
The closing credits end with; “Coming Up Next The Ravagers”. Charles Manson and his cult murdered Sharon Tate on the night of August 8/9, 1969.[ii] Her murder so upset Dean Martin that he abandoned work on The Ravagers.[iii] The Wrecking Crew was the last film in the Matt Helm franchise.
[i] This is reminiscent of the autogiro used in You Only Live Twice. Which was released the previous year.
[ii] The next night Manson and his followers murdered Leno and Rosemary LaBIanca.
[iii] International Movie Database, The Wrecking Crew (1968) - Trivia - IMDb, last accessed 9/12/21.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Robert Sacchi
Robert Sacchi (author) on September 14, 2021:
Thank you both for reading and commenting. Yes, these movies are good for nostalga and for time capsule purposes. People who remember Dean Martin's persona will probably get a kick out of these movies.
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on September 14, 2021:
My husband and I watched an old James Bond movie last week. These sound like they would be fun to watch as spoofs of those types of movies. Thanks for writing about them.
Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on September 14, 2021:
This is an interesting review of those movies from the mid 1960s, Robert. This is an excellent review of those movies, and it sure brings back memories.