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The Wrecking Crew

The Wrecking Crew(1969)

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By 1966 the James Bond franchise had already enjoyed four straight box-office hits, so it was probably inevitable that the suave, unstoppable British agent and lady's man would be satirized. The year would see not one, but two major film spoofs: the sprightly In Like Flint starring James Coburn, and the far inferior. The Silencers, starring Dean Martin as American agent Matt Helm. Amazingly, the lackluster Helm film would spawn three sequels of its own. The four films a now collected together in Sony's new value priced set Matt Helm Lounge.

Helm works for a government agency known as I.C.E. (Intelligence and Counter Espionage), the American equivalent of MI-5, though he only works on the rare occasion that the agency can get him to set aside his extracurricular activities: drinking, womanizing, and lounging in a circular bed that will, at the click of a button, glide forward and dump him into an indoor pool.

The first film in the series, The Silencers, finds Helm called out of "retirement" by I.C.E. chief MacDonald (James Gregory of Barney Miller) to track down the head of the evil "Big O" (Bureau of International Government and Order). Big O is lead by Tung-Tze (Victor Buono), who has stolen the timetables for the U.S. Government's underground nuclear tests and plans instigate "Operation Fallout," in which he will use a device of his own design to amplify the blasts and set off World War III! With the help of fellow-agent and certified klutz Gail Hendrix (Stella Stevens), Helm races to stop Tung-Tze before he destroys the world.

Murderers' Row has Helm on the track of a kidnapped inventor Norman Solaris (Richard Eastham), who has created a death ray that can incinerate an entire city. The trail leads to Blofeld-wannabe Julian Wall (Karl Malden), who intends to use the ray to wipe out Washington, D.C. With the help of Solaris' groovy go-go dancing daughter Suzie (Ann-Margaret), Helm infiltrates Wall's remote hideaway to free the doctor and stop Wall. In The Ambushers, yet another criminal mastermind is on hand to steal America's newest superweapon, which just happens to be a flying saucer. Along with sexy fellow agent Sheila Sommers (Janice Rule), Helm fights to retrieve the saucer from evil overlord Leopold Caselius (Albert Salmi) and femme-fatale Francesca Madeiros (Senta Berger), who comes equipped with drugged lipstick.

The last film in the series, The Wrecking Crew, features Nigel Green as Count Massimo Contini, another criminal mastermind who has successfully stolen a trainload of gold bullion, leaving the U.S. and England on the brink of economic collapse. Along with gorgeous but accident prone agent Freya Carlson (Sharon Tate), Helm is dispatched to attempt to retrieve the gold,. Fully aware of Helm's proclivities, Contini sends out two beautiful accomplices, Linka Karensky (Elke Sommer) and Wen Yu-Rang (Nancy Kwan), to get rid of him.

The Matt Helm series is a bewildering quartet of films for the time in which they were made: with the British invasion already having transformed the music industry virtually overnight, and the country rocked by social upheaval as American youth rebelled against the social order, Martin and his Rat Pack cronies were becoming increasingly anachronistic. While buddy Frank Sinatra was attempting to turn back the clock with his "Tony Rome" films (Tony Rome, Lady in Cement), which at least had the courage of their convictions, the Matt Helm films try to meld the Pack's cool, gin-soaked personae with the youth-oriented "mod" world. The result is something like putting Olivia Newton John and Gene Kelly together in Xanadu. The only possible appeal was to the quickly dwindling backyard luau crowd, who had long since worn out their copies of Arthur Lyman's Taboo.

Martin, who was capable of some fine acting, tried here to bring the same lackadaisical, laid-back charm to the big screen that audiences were enjoying on his popular weekly television variety show, produced at the same time as these films: but what worked so well on the small screen is disastrous on the big screen, particularly in a genre that requires a more high-wattage performance to make it funny. Martin sleep-walks through the films as if he were laying back on his television couch and crooning a chorus of "Welcome to My World."

And the passage of time has been even less kind to the series: at a distance of forty years what little charm the films had to 60s audiences has long since been forgotten. The best of the lot is The Silencers, mainly due to Stella Stevens' hilarious performance as the goofy Hendrix. Janice Rule nearly steals The Ambushers from Martin, if for no other reason than that she appears to have been awake during the filming; and the underrated Elke Sommer seems to be the only one of the bunch with a full grasp of what kind of film she's in.

In the end, the best that can be said about the Mat Helm series is that they are marginally better than the Salt & Pepper films.

For more information about Matt Helm Lounge, visit Sony Pictures. To order Matt Helm Lounge, go to TCM Shopping.

by Fred Hunter