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In the 1960s you couldn't turn a corner without bumping into a super-spy. They were everywhere foiling nefarious schemes for world domination, unleashing clever but lethal toys, driving flashy sports cars. Their names are legion but Matt Helm has to rank at the top. Helm was the hero of a series of novels by former Western author Donald Hamilton that started in 1960 and continued until 1993 for a total of 27 books. These novels provided a ready-made audience so it was no surprise when Dean Martin, who could be both suave and witty, was cast as Matt Helm. His first outing was The Silencers (1966) and the ads proudly proclaimed "Follow his secret from bedroom to bedlam, with guns, girls and dynamite!"
The Silencers opens with Helm in retirement. But he's quickly lured back into action by his old partner Tina (Daliah Lavi) who's discovered a plot by Victor Buono of the Big O organization to drop atomic bombs over most major American cities. Since this is clearly not a good thing, Helm sets out to stop the dastardly villains, helped by the delightfully clumsy Gina (Stella Stevens).
In a sense, The Silencers was something of a game of catch-up. At one time producer Irving Allen had a partnership with Albert Broccoli but they parted ways when Broccoli wanted to adapt the Bond novels, something Allen sensed would be a disaster. Well, you've probably heard that the Bond films were definitely not disasters so Allen, along with half the free world, decided to make his own spy films.
The Matt Helm books more or less satisfied Allen's need for a super hero after a few alterations (in the books, for instance, Helm is married with three kids). The Silencers was based on two novels from the Helm series, the first Death of a Citizen and the fourth The Silencers. Along the way the grim tone and sudden violence of the books was replaced by Martin's own style of easy-going charm and comic high jinks. In fact, Herbert Baker, who wrote several Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis comedies, was enlisted for help on the script. Brought in to direct was B-movie veteran Phil Karlson who had a reputation for tough, hard-edged films like The Phenix City Story (1955). At one time, he had planned a tongue-in-cheek spy thriller with Richard Widmark called The Secret Ways but Widmark wanted realism instead of a spoof and despite the director's protests, the star actor got his way. (The Secret Ways (1961) was eventually released without fanfare and failed to attract few filmgoers). Widmark would later change his mind about Karlson's original suggestion: After The Silencers became a big hit, Widmark decided that the time was right to do a comic spy film with Karlson but the director had other plans.
Stella Stevens seems to be perpetually under-rated but few people can bring such comic timing and naturalism to what could have been just another "dumb blonde" role. She's best remembered now for the original The Nutty Professor (1963) but worked with John Cassavetes (Too Late Blues, 1961), Sam Peckinpah (The Ballad of Cable Hogue, 1970) and Peter Bogdanovich (Nickelodeon, 1976), not a bad resume. Also bringing a touch of class to the proceedings were composer Elmer Bernstein, a thirteen time Oscar nominee, and Gene Kelly's dancing partner, Cyd Charrise (her singing in the film is dubbed by Vicki Carr). Israel-born Daliah Lavi is a familiar name to cult buffs for her key roles in another spy spoof Casino Royale (1967) as well as such European productions as Mario Bava's The Whip and the Body (1963). Lavi had been "discovered" by Kirk Douglas when he was filming in Israel; during the 70s she became a popular singer in Germany and eventually gave up acting.
Oddly enough, shooting for The Silencers finished on September 9, 1965, the same day that The Dean Martin Show premiered on TV. When released, The Silencers became a big hit earning $7 million which made it 1966's seventh highest grossing film. Three sequels followed: Murderer's Row (also 1966), Mike Myers' favorite entry in the series - The Ambushers (1967) and The Wrecking Crew (1968). A fifth was being planned but Dean Martin felt he had done enough. In 1975 there was a Matt Helm TV show starring Anthony Franciosa; it lasted only one season.
Producer: Irving Allen, James Schmerer (associate producer)
Director: Phil Karlson
Screenplay: Donald Hamilton (novels The Silencers and Death of a Citizen), Oscar Saul
Cinematography: Burnett Guffey
Costume Design: Moss Mabry
Film Editing: Charles Nelson
Original Music: Elmer Bernstein
Principal Cast: Dean Martin (Matt Helm), Stella Stevens (Gail), Daliah Lavi (Tina), Victor Buono (Tung-Tze), Arthur O'Connell (Wigman).
by Lang Thompson