Some early Bond knockoffs tried to be more than mere spoofs, and when 007 took a year off between Thunderball and Lewis Gilbert's You Only Live Twice (1967), a marginally original new series stepped up to fill the gap. The hero was Matt Helm, suavely played by Dean Martin, and although Helm's career never made it past four movies - the last was Phil Karlson's The Wrecking Crew (1968), a title signaling the fate of the franchise - it made a splash while it lasted. And it may eventually have repaid its debt to Bond by influencing his franchise, which acquired a more jocular tone when Roger Moore took over from Connery starting with Guy Hamilton's Live and Let Die(1973).
Henry Levin's Murderers' Row (1966), the second Helm movie, gamely tries to offer excitement and suspense along with the laughs, wisecracks, and miniskirts that audiences expected from pictures like this. It also shines a well-deserved spotlight on Ann-Margret, who starred in no fewer than four movies that year. Her teamwork with Martin helps explain why Murderers' Row became the eleventh highest-grossing picture of 1966.
Like many Bond thrillers, Murderers' Row has a science-fiction flavor. The first shot is a standard aerial view of Washington, D.C., but there's an odd streak of light extending faintly across the screen. The streak gets brighter and weirder, and then kaboom! The nation's capital is a smoldering wreck, apparently blasted to smithereens by a futuristic ray. The camera pulls back to reveal what actually happened: the city was just a model, but it really was destroyed by the ray, which is a prototype for the heliobeam, the ultimate weapon of mass destruction. In the wrong hands it could end civilization as we know it.
And naturally it's in the wrong hands - the hands of BIG O, alias the Bureau of International Government and Order, an organization dedicated to attaining that old favorite, world domination. The first step in their scheme calls for killing all the operatives of Intelligence Counter Espionage, or ICE, very much including Helm, who fakes his own death with help from ICE chief MacDonald (James Gregory) - note the initial M, another borrowing from Bond - and poses as a traveling postcard salesman to disguise his hunt for Dr. Norman Solaris (Richard Eastham), who invented the nasty ray. Ann-Margret plays Solaris's perky daughter, Suzie, so we know he can't truly be a bad guy. Other characters include Julian Wall (Karl Malden), who runs the assassination team, and Coco Duquette (Camilla Sparv), his super-sophisticated companion. Also on hand in a dancing scene is a pop-music trio played by Dino, Desi, & Billy, two of whom are sons of Dean Martin and TV star Desi Arnaz.
Every secret-agent fantasy thrives on secret weapons, and Murderers' Row has more than one. The biggie is the heliobeam wielded by the villains, but Helm makes surprisingly good use of a gadget Bond would have snickered at - a delayed-action gun that fires ten seconds after you pull the trigger. This flummoxes foes who get hold of it, wonder why it didn't shoot, and peer down the barrel just as it finally goes off. Fools them every time. Also in the picture are pint-size bombs that pack a huge explosive wallop. In one of the movie's showbiz jokes, Matt shows up just in time to grab one that's been pinned onto Suzy at a nightclub, and it detonates a nanosecond after he throws at the wall - which happens to be decorated with a picture of Frank Sinatra, one of Dean Martin's cronies in the famous Rat Pack group. "Sorry, Frank," mutters our hero as he escorts Suzy out of the wreckage.
Martin was known to audiences as a crooner and comic actor with a relaxed style and a taste for booze. He became a star as the genteel half of the legendary Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis comedy team, and from then on he usually played characters who resembled his own persona, such as the drunken Dude in Howard Hawks's Rio Bravo (1959) and the drunken Dino in Billy Wilder's Kiss Me, Stupid (1964), two of his most memorable roles. Helm was clearly engineered to his specifications, as was the series in general.
The movies are loosely based on books by Donald Hamilton, who published more than two dozen Matt Helm novels between 1960 and 1993, taking a darker, grittier approach than the films they inspired. Fans loved the playful nature of the screen versions, though, turning Karlson's The Silencers (1966) and Levin's The Ambushers (1967) as well as Murderers' Row into box-office bonanzas. The Wrecking Crew closes with a teaser for a fifth installment, "The Ravagers," but it wasn't made because Martin opted out, foreseeing a decline in the franchise's profitability. Helm's only subsequent appearances were in a short-lived ABC-TV show in the 1970s, starring Anthony Franciosa.
Ann-Margret was perfect for the Helm series, which (taking another cue from the Bond pictures) featured a different female star each time; among them were Stella Stevens, Elke Sommer, Cyd Charisse, Nancy Kwan, Tina Louise, and Sharon Tate in her next-to-last appearance before her tragic murder in 1969. Malden has a relatively small role in Murderers' Row, but he was a distinguished veteran of classics like Elia Kazan's A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) and On the Waterfront (1954). He and the rest of the cast appear to enjoy their material despite - or because of - its considerable silliness.
You know Murderers' Row is a quintessential product of the 1960s as soon as Helm ambles in wearing a leisure outfit that looks like a pair of Hugh Hefner's pajamas. And notice how the camera goes all psychedelic and prismatic in a dancing scene, taking an insect's-eye view that anticipates Michael Wadleigh's trippy Woodstock (1970). The production's special effects aren't very special - they're quite clunky, in fact - but director Levin takes steady advantage of Monte Carlo and the French Riviera, where the action was shot. Keep your mood as relaxed as Matt's, keep your eyes on the glamorous backgrounds, keep your ears attuned to Lalo Schifrin's sugary music, and you'll have a pretty good time.
Director: Henry Levin
Producer: Irving Allen
Screenplay: Herbert Baker, based on Donald Hamilton's novel
Cinematographer: Sam Leavitt
Film Editing: Walter Thompson
Art Direction: Joe Wright
Music: Lalo Schifrin
by David Sterritt