Thursday, 26 November 2015

A double slice of Matt Helm

Several months ago, I wrote piece on the various clones of James Bond. While researching this piece, I was introduced to several films I had never seen. While I enjoyed most of them, the one that stuck with me the most were the Matt Helm series starring Dean Martin. Not for the reasons you may think -- these movies are not good. What I found interesting was how similar the Bond and Helm franchises were in the shift from page to screen.

Both series are relatively grounded and quite dark, and the transition to the screen sees the scope and tone completely change. The key difference is by degree -- whereas the Bond franchise took several instalments to turn into campy semi-parodies, with the Helm series, this was the intention from the beginning. It's like they skipped their Connery and went full Moore from the off. 

Onto the reviews.

The Silencers (Phil Karlson, 1966)

In The Silencers, former secret agent Matt Helm is brought out of retirement for one last mission. Helm has little interest in ‘getting back to work’, but is quickly thrust into a race against time to stop a ruthless organisation from igniting World War III.  

This movie is really slow and really dull. It is obvious that no-one cared making this movie. Dean Martin certainly doesn't, but he at least seems to be having fun.

I've only read one of the Helm books, and with the way the Bond franchise has treated its source material, the digressions of The Silencers don't seem that egregious. However, as a Bond parody this is pretty weak stuff. The world-building here is extremely lazy, and Helm comes off as a weak carbon copy of Roger Moore's James Bond, with uninteresting gadgets and really unfunny one-liners. The one comedic bit which shows a degree of inspiration is Helm's inner monologue. This is conveyed in the form of song by Dean Martin. It's a small offbeat touch that stands out in the laugh-free wasteland of the movie around it.

The other major bum note is Stella Stevens as Helm’s dim bulb love interest -- she makes even the weakest Bond Girl of the same period feel like a fully developed character. Completely helpless and stupid, she adds nothing to the picture except to provide a whipping boy for Martin's sophomoric putdowns. Victor Buono is surprisingly limp as the main villain Tung Tse. He is also in the shittiest yellow face makeup I have ever seen -- they have just given him a little eyeliner and pulled his hair back. It was so bad I did not even realise he was supposed to be Asian until I read the IMDb credits to figure out what his character's name was for this review. 

If there is one bright spot, it is Tina, played by Daliah Lavi -- she adds a touch of class to the sorry proceedings and raises the temperature as a fellow agent who aids Helm out of trouble and into bed (and vice versa). She is smart and sexy, and made me wish she had managed to get into an actual Bond movie. She got close -- she was in the unofficial Casino Royale in 1967 and later played the villainess in Some Girls Do, another dire Bond parody. 

The best action moment comes extremely late. Trapped between two vehicles that are about to mash his car between them, Helm uses his superior driving skills to dodge out of the way, leaving the villains to smash into each other. This is not much, but it is a testament to how much of a snooze the rest of the film is that this one generic action beat stood out.

Overall, this movie is a real snoozer. If you like mid-60s movies and Dean Martin, you might like it, but the pacing is funereal and nothing that interesting happens.

Murderor's Row (Harry Levin, 1966)

Right from the beginning, Murderor's Row does so much to separate itself from the cinematic black hole of The Silencers -- the pacing is better, there is more action, a few funny lines and interesting plot points. It also contains several touches which were later echoed in the Roger Moore Bond movies.

Once again, Dean Martin stars as Matt Helm. After faking his death to ward off his enemies (a set piece replicated by You Only Live Twice a year later), Helm is sent off to the French Riviera to hunt down a missing scientist. Soon the plot expands to involve a laser mounted on a satellite, a henchman with a steel noggin, a gogo-dancing Ann Margaret and, most unlikely of all, Karl Malden as a madman intent on world domination. 

The movie is filled with set pieces -- car chases, fights on boats, a dance scene or three. They are all tangentially related, but who cares? In the moment they are all interesting, a feeling increased when compared with its predecessor.

Composer Lalo Schifrin makes his one and only contribution to the series, delivering a rhythmic, memorable theme for Helm that gives the character more of an identifiable signature. It's not as strong as John Barry's work on Bond or Jerry Goldsmith's work on the Derek Flint movies, but it works for this picture. Sadly, Schifrin's work would be completely ignored by the next two films.

Overall, this was a much more enjoyable viewing experience than its predecessor. It is not great, and the films which follow it fall off the cliff, but for the Helm franchise Murderer's Row represents the modest peak.

I was considering reviewing the next two Helm movies, but that would require watching them. Instead, I'll be reviewing the Derek Flint movies starring the late, great James Coburn.

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