Donald Hamilton’s Matt Helm novels centred around a grittier super-spy, prone to psychological angst, with little interest in booze, broads or bossa nova. Not so Dean Martin, who played Helm in four kitschy, colourful, double-entendre laden spy spoofs throughout the Swinging Sixties, kicking off with The Silencers. Retired from active duty with I.C.E. (Intelligence and Counter Espionage), super-spy turned playboy photographer Matt Helm daydreams about beautiful girls before a gadget laden bed slides him into a warm bubble bath with his gorgeous secretary Lovey Cravesit (Beverly Adams). Hey, “Pussy Galore” ain’t exactly subtle either.
Anyway, since Matt is living a swinging bachelor lifestyle, his boss Macdonald (James Gregory) fails to entice him back to work. That is, until a lady assassin takes a pot-shot at Helm and bombshell I.C.E. agent Tina (Daliah Lavi) persuades him to help trace an American scientist defecting to the world-conquering organisation Big O. Led by chubby Chinaman Tung Tzo (Victor Buono, with Fu Manchu makeup and groan-inducing chop suey accent), Big O plot to reroute the upcoming missile tests to Santa Fe, thus blanketing the South-Western United States with radiation. All they need is a computer tape with missile codes, which is where that defecting scientist comes in. Matt and Tina trail the tape to a swanky nightclub where their contact, exotic dancer Surita (legendarily leggy dance diva Cyd Charisse) performs an amazing floorshow. But Surita is shot, Tina is kidnapped and Matt is forced to team up with klutzy waitress Gail Hendricks (Stella Stevens) to foil Big O’s evil scheme.
Fans of Hamilton’s sober pulp thrillers were aghast, but the Matt Helm movies were pretty popular with moviegoers. Tailored around co-producer Dean Martin’s stage persona, their ramshackle plots are basically an excuse for him to trade boozy quips, croon silky lounge numbers and ogle more scantily clad starlets than the eye can clock. Modern audiences may not take too kindly to their casual sexism and those averse to Dino’s louche, easygoing charm will find them an endurance test, but the Matt Helm movies really haven’t a mean bone in their collective body. Those fond of the kitschy extravagance and lame humour of Moonraker (1979) or the Austin Powers movies will find themselves on familiar ground, and these predecessors are almost as self-aware.
Loosely based on the first Matt Helm novel, “Death of a Citizen”, The Silencers has at least some semblance of plot when compared to the later entries. While Martin eventually lapsed into autopilot, here he tosses gags and wild gadgets (including a backwards shooting gun and coat button hand grenades) with aplomb and sparks genuine comic chemistry with the talented Stella Stevens. In what became a reoccurring gag throughout the series, this finds Matt squabbling with Gail over her taste in music: Frank Sinatra singing “Come Fly with Me.” She obliges by switching the radio onto a certain booze-loving Rat Pack member performing “Everybody Loves Somebody, Sometime.” To which Dino observes: “Now there’s a guy who can sing.”
Daliah Lavi already had a host of Eurospy movies under her svelte belt, with kitsch classics like Casino Royale (1967) and Some Girls Do (1968) in her future. She could probably play sultry femme fatales in her sleep, but thankfully never did and brings a touch of exoticism to her meagre role. MGM’s production designers fashion a frothy, fantastical world keyed in to fantasies of the Swinging Sixties jet set, much as their musicals did for audiences in the Fifties. Speaking of musicals, Surita’s eye-popping floorshow provides the highlight of The Silencers, a plot point that oddly foreshadows one in Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element (1997) (is Besson a Matt Helm fan?), while the opening credits also feature Cyd Charisse, as she lip-synchs the theme song by Vicki Carr. Matt Helm would return in Murderers’ Row (1966).