If you weren't around in the 1960s, you may not understand the appeal of Dean Martin, who, in his day, was the most popular entertainer in America; the guy who knocked the Beatles' song "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" out of the #1 spot on the charts (with "Everybody Loves Somebody"), star of the most watched variety show on TV, a surprisingly gifted actor, in the right film roles...for nearly a decade, no other performer could match his appeal, not Elvis, not Sinatra, no one...for a guy pushing 50, who never got past tenth grade, and was declared 'washed up' when he broke up with partner Jerry Lewis in 1956, Dino's string of successes were astonishing!
Columbia Pictures decided to capitalize on Martin's popularity, and the 'James Bond' spy craze, as well, with a series of films based on the "Matt Helm" espionage novels of Donald Hamilton. While Hamilton's books were gritty and realistic, however, the movies would be light-hearted spoofs, with Martin playing his screen and TV 'persona', an amiable boozer who saved the world while tossing off drinks and one-liners, and beautiful women swooned. In accepting the role, in addition to some very nice paydays, Dino had specific demands; the very short shooting schedule could not interfere with his nightclub work, TV show, or golf; and he would never have to go on location (the "Helm" films would highlight some of the finest second unit film work of the 60s, with glorious views of Monte Carlo, the Riviera, Acapulco, and Copenhagen...while Dino toiled away in the Burbank back lot!).
Needless to say, the "Matt Helm" films were never an Oscar threat, but as entertainment, they were far better than some of the schlock of the era, with some first-rate actors, hamming it up!
"The Silencers" (1966): First of the series, introducing Martin as Helm, James Gregory as MacDonald, his boss at I.C.E., and Beverly Adams as his 'Girl Friday', Lovey Kravezit (uh-huh). A convoluted, hare-brained plot to explode a missile over an underground nuclear test site (releasing the radiation and thus initiating WWIII), offers rotund, blue-eyed Victor Buono chewing up scenery as Oriental villain Tung-Tze, sexy Daliah Lavi as a double agent, Cyd Charisse (her singing dubbed by Vicki Carr) as a doomed entertainer, and, best of all, Stella Stevens as a beautiful, if VERY clutzy innocent, drawn into the action. Martin is obviously having fun, and Stevens shows why she was as 'in demand' as a comedienne as she was as a serious actress... (3 1/2 stars, out of 5)
"Murderer's Row" (1966): Lifting a plot element of "You Only Live Twice" (where 007 is 'killed'), Helm 'dies', so he can go incognito to Monte Carlo, and search for the creator of a dangerous laser beam weapon, capable of destroying Washington. He teams up with the inventor's daughter (jiggly Ann-Margret, at the peak of her 'sex kitten' phase), and the pair face off against uber-hammy villain Karl Malden, sporting a bogus accent from SOMEWHERE in Europe! Camilla Sparv is Malden's sexy henchwoman, and there's a rousing action finale aboard an out-of-control hovercraft... (4 stars, out of 5)
"The Ambushers" (1967): A silly premise, as Helm and the female pilot of an experimental USAF 'flying saucer' (Janice Rule), search for her missing Top Secret aircraft, after she stumbles out of a Mexican jungle with amnesia, but without her ride. The film works better than you might expect, as Rule is both attractive, and a very good actress. Senta Berger is the sexy villainess, and slimy Albert Salmi is about as kinky and distasteful a bad guy as you'd ever see in a "Helm" film... (3 1/2 stars, out of 5)
"The Wrecking Crew" (1969): A billion in gold is stolen, threatening to topple the economies of the free world, if Helm can't recover it! British character actor Nigel Green is a suave, if shallow villain, but it's the women who truly light up the screen; Elke Sommer, as a ruthless blonde assassin, Nancy Kwan as a calculating Chinese beauty, Tina ("Gilligan's Island") Louise as a doomed gypsy, and, in her next-to-last film, Sharon Tate as Helm's very annoying British(!) ally. John Larch replaces James Gregory as MacDonald, and there is a bittersweet quality to the film, watching the beautiful 26-year-old Tate, who would by murdered by Charles Manson and his followers, barely six months after the film's release. (3 1/2 stars, out of 5).
Although another "Matt Helm" film is announced at the conclusion of "The Wrecking Crew" ("The Ravagers"), it was never made. The spy craze had ended, and the "Matt Helm" movies were losing money. After four films in three years, Martin felt it was about time to move on, and Sharon Tate's murder so upset him, he 'pulled the plug' on the series.
While Martin's later life would be tragic, "The Matt Helm Lounge" serves as a reminder of a happier time when Dino truly was the 'King'!