Topic: The 60s James Bond Rivals (1): Matt Helm

Matt Helm

In the fifties, US author Donald Hamilton began writing a series of novels about a tough American agent called Matt Helm. These are grim, serious books with not much humour. Helm considers himself a professional who administers and receives violence as part of his job. Naturally he regularly encounters beautiful females, some innocents caught up in the plot and some working for the other side, and either they seduce him or he seduces them, and equally naturally he meets men as tough as he is, perhaps working for an allied organisation or perhaps working against him.

Apart from what I’ve said above, which basically applies to most fictional spies/secret agents, there is little or no resemblance to James Bond or Fleming’s works. Most of the plots revolve around figuring out who works for who, and feature journeys (usually by car) for large chunks of the normally short page count.

About this time, Cubby Broccoli grew interested in filming the James Bond novels and tried to interest his then partner, Irving Allen. Allen didn’t see any potential in Fleming’s books and refused. As we all know, Broccoli ended up forming a partnership with Harry Saltzman to film the Bond books and was unbelievably successful.

Smarting from this, Irving Allen bought the rights to Hamilton’s Matt Helm novels and set about filming them as a rival to the Bond series. This involved taking the bare bones of a Hamilton plot then throwing in as many beautiful girls, cheesy (even for the time) special effects, faked locations, and Bond rip-off.... er, homages, as the (limited) budget would allow. Good actors such as Karl Malden and Nigel Green were hired as the villains; lovely femmes like Ann-Margret or Elke Sommer would play the female leads.

Much of the Austin Powers character derives from this series- especially his "cover" as a photographer- perhaps more than Powers owes to Bond.  And it could be argued that some of the 70s Bond films took inspiration from Helm: some sequences in Murderers' Row are similar to some in TSWLM (the Ironhead character presages Jaws both in plot function and specifics).


The first three films (The Silencers, Murderers’ Row, The Ambushers) were produced in quick succession at the height of the spy craze and were very profitable. A fourth (The Wrecking Crew) came later, in 1969, and didn’t fare as well. The planned fifth (The Ravagers) was never made, for reasons explained below.*

A later TV series starring Tony Franciosa transformed Matt Helm into the typical 70s private investigator and bore no resemblance either to the novels or the films.

I’ve gone this far without mentioning the one name most associated with Matt Helm. To play the lead in his planned rival to Bond, Allen needed an established star who could carry not only a movie but a series. At this point in the mid-60s, the Rat Pack were enormous: No 1 singles, big-budget movies, sold out Las Vegas shows, even in the wake of The Beatles. Allen approached Dean Martin, who agreed to play Helm on condition that he was made a full partner. It’s doubtful if the Helm films would have achieved their financial success without Martin so Allen’s going for the deal was a wise decision commercially. Donald Hamilton’s cynical hero became a boozy crooner, and Matt Helm became Dean Martin playing at being a secret agent. Whether or not one enjoyed the Matt Helm movies became whether or not one enjoyed the Dean Martin persona... and many did.

Donald Hamilton did not appreciate what had been done to his novels, and continued to write them into the 90s in the same style he always had. I can’t recommend them highly enough- his characters live and breathe, Helm involves the reader as much or more than any other fictional agent, and his plots are (generally) believable if inevitably somewhat dated. Someday, someone will make an accurate film of one of the Matt Helm novels. IMHO, a 40 year old Clint Eastwood would have been the right man for the job... though of course he had Dirty Harry as his equivalent.

*The Ravagers was never made due to a combination of factors. Dean Martin had lost interest; the fourth film hadn’t been a big success; and actress Sharon Tate (who had been in The Wrecking Crew and was intended to continue in The Ravagers) was brutally murdered.


Re: The 60s James Bond Rivals (1): Matt Helm

I've seen a few of the Matt Helm films. they are quite enjoyable. I may see if I can get hold of the books.


Re: The 60s James Bond Rivals (1): Matt Helm

Yes, I've seen the films. Enjoyed them ( very camp 60s), I can see
Barbel's  points on how Austin Powers  being a photographer like
Matt Helm. (The guys in that profession, are all so sexy and handsome)  ajb007/wink
I even tried to buy the Box set, but they seem only to be available for
the American market ( I don't know if my player is region free) .
  I do remember reading at least one Book, I'm guessing " Murder's Row"
As I remember the cover had several stills from the film, but can't remember
a thing about it. At the time as well as Bond, I was reading The man from uncle
and Nick Carter books.


Re: The 60s James Bond Rivals (1): Matt Helm

What a fantastic post - I had to double check I was still on AJB  ajb007/biggrin

I've never read or watched any of these...and I'm not really sure why...time to start scouring the second hand bookshops and eBay I think !


The Unbearables


Re: The 60s James Bond Rivals (1): Matt Helm

Thank you!  ajb007/smile


Re: The 60s James Bond Rivals (1): Matt Helm

I liked the one with Stella Stevens in it, because Stella was parading around in all manner of 'exciting' outfits! I wonder if Deano managed to contain himself?


Re: The 60s James Bond Rivals (1): Matt Helm


Maybe not!


Re: The 60s James Bond Rivals (1): Matt Helm

ajb007/lol  It's a tough life as an international super spy.  ajb007/biggrin


Re: The 60s James Bond Rivals (1): Matt Helm

Thunderpussy wrote:

ajb007/lol  It's a tough life as an international super spy.  ajb007/biggrin

Especially one who sings during missions!


Re: The 60s James Bond Rivals (1): Matt Helm

The Helm films also had Bruce Lee as the fight Choreographer and
an early appearance of Chuck Norris as a general " Heavy"  ajb007/wink


Re: The 60s James Bond Rivals (1): Matt Helm

Great post, Barbel. I always thought the Matt Helm films were good because of the villains being very Bondian like in an over the top way. I loved the 60's spy craze - Flint was good also - and nearly every actor worth his salt had a go at being a spy at some point.

Yeah, well, sometimes nothin' can be a real cool hand.


Re: The 60s James Bond Rivals (1): Matt Helm

ajb007/martini  Yes, The Flint films were another bit of over the top fun
I have them both on DVD   ajb007/biggrin along with the man from uncle
Films they released a few years back.


Re: The 60s James Bond Rivals (1): Matt Helm

Thunderpussy wrote:

The Helm films also had Bruce Lee as the fight Choreographer and
an early appearance of Chuck Norris as a general " Heavy"  ajb007/wink

Very true: Chuck is standing last on the right in the pic below.


The lady is Elke Sommer, and the film is The Wrecking Crew.


Re: The 60s James Bond Rivals (1): Matt Helm

CoolHandBond wrote:

Great post, Barbel.

Thank you!


Re: The 60s James Bond Rivals (1): Matt Helm

On Dean Martin's drinking reputation  ajb007/wink
On a documentary it had an interview with another actor who said
During his live stage shows, with Dino always with a glass in hand
Was doing his act. The actor asked him how he could do it, drinking
all the time.
Dean Martin told him the glass actually only had apple  juice in it.  ajb007/wink
" I couldn't do the show, if I was drunk"  he said.  ajb007/biggrin
Although when relaxing, I believe he did like a drink or three.  ajb007/smile I seem
To remember in one of the Helm films, he had a  walkie talkie disguised
As a bottle of whisky, turn the cap to talk.  ajb007/lol


Re: The 60s James Bond Rivals (1): Matt Helm

Another great post! The films are good campy fun. I also liked the first few Donald Hamilton novels, but to be honest, I thought they started to get a bit repetitive. The literary Helm is one tough bastard though.

If anyone is interested, this site has some cool images of Bruce Lee training Sharon Tate on the set of 'The Wrecking Crew.'
http://gutsanduppercuts.tumblr.com/post … and-sharon

—Le Samourai

A Gent in Training.... A blog about my continuing efforts to be improve myself, be a better person, and lead a good life. It incorporates such far flung topics as fitness, self defense, music, style, food and drink, and personal philosophy.
Agent In Training


Re: The 60s James Bond Rivals (1): Matt Helm

I think Stella Stevens would have made a great Bond Girl & old SC would have a wail of a time working with her ajb007/wink


Re: The 60s James Bond Rivals (1): Matt Helm

The Matt Helm films were bit off fluff.  More like an extended episode of The Man From U.N.C.L.E.  The never had a big budget look or quality production value.

The novels on the other hand were excellent.  Helm and Bond were totally different.  Although the Helm novels were spy stories to me they always read more like traditional American hard boiled private eye stories only with spies rather than gangsters.  More Raymond Chandler/Mickey Spillane than Fleming.

Helm was a lot tougher and ruthless than Bond and didn't have any of Bond's reservations or naval gazing about killing.  He was sort of like an earlier version of Jack Reacher.

I would recommend the Helm novels to anyone.  The plots aren't as memorable as Bond's.  The villain's don't have the grandiose scheme's that Bond's had, and the stories do have a tendency to blend into one after a while, but they are a good read. 

Someday someone may make a good movie out of a Helm novel.  If they do the leading man needs to be more Client Eastwood than Dean Martin


Re: The 60s James Bond Rivals (1): Matt Helm

Good post. I'm going to try & track down a few of these books as a result of what has been said here as I'm sure I will enjoy them.


Re: The 60s James Bond Rivals (1): Matt Helm

Bodie wrote:

the leading man needs to be more Client Eastwood

Yes, he's a tough customer.


Re: The 60s James Bond Rivals (1): Matt Helm

Sorry for raising this tread from the dead, but I was watching The Wrecking Crew on the Sony Movie Channel last night and wanted to get this forum's take on it and other Helm films. Maybe I should start a new thread or something.

I was struck at how awful The Wrecking Crew was—even by bad 1960s Bond inspired spoof standards. Dean Martin’s performance was dire, as were his fighting skills, the dialogue was very bad, and the musical score was wall-to-wall, and sounded like the music in Doris Day-Rock Hudson romantic comedies. Why it had to have Martin singing songs every time he met a new woman God only knows.

As a parody of Bond, it was a bad one, and even the 1967 Casino Royale spoof was less embarrassing. God knows what was going through Irwin Allen’s mind when he chose to give the Helm character this particular cinematic treatment.

The revolving restaurant booth in the film no doubt inspired the revolving bar booth in Live and Let Die. Also, I think Roger Moore’s Bond was inspired by Martin’s approach to Helm in some aspects. Moore was never as light-hearted when he was playing The Saint, so that aspect is not really a part of Moore’s pre-Bond persona.


Re: The 60s James Bond Rivals (1): Matt Helm

I agree. "The Wrecking Crew" is the weakest of the Matt Helm series. Dean Martin had lost interest (and it shows), and the budget had been cut (to the extent that James Gregory, who had played Helm's boss Mac in the previous 3 films, refused the pay cut and was replaced). The film bears little resemblance to the book, and the "location" shots were laughable- leading to a well-deserved joke in the Austin Powers movies.
The reasons the film is notable are that it features one of the last performances of the talented Sharon Tate, who would tragically be murdered soon after, the first performance of Chuck Norris (see above) and Bruce Lee was involved in the fight choreography, though this is hard to believe as the fights are terrible. The film ends, like the Bond movies, with the announcement of the next one "The Ravagers" but that was never made. Masochists see this- http://www.republibot.com/content/tv-mo … gers”-1970


Re: The 60s James Bond Rivals (1): Matt Helm

Found this video, about half way in. There's a selection
Of photos showing Bruce Lee on set choreographing
The fights


Re: The 60s James Bond Rivals (1): Matt Helm

Thanks TP, I've edited my post but they're still terrible!


Re: The 60s James Bond Rivals (1): Matt Helm

ajb007/lol  everyone  has an off day, and perhaps
Bruce  was having one with this.

Although I have just ordered the box set of
Matt Helm films.  ajb007/wink

Last edited by Thunderpussy (13th Aug 2019 09:41)