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The success of the James Bond franchise in the early sixties spawned an abundance of spy spoofs that included Casino Royale< (1967), Our Man Flint (1965), Modesty Blaise (1966) (based on a popular comic strip about the curvaceous female spy) and a series of films starring Dean Martin as Matt Helm, a retired espionage agent called back into service by a secret government agency.
Intended as America's answer to 007, Helm was the creation of novelist Donald Hamilton, who, in the book, was a ruthless, no-nonsense assassin. In Martin's hands, however, the role became the prototype for Mike Myers' character in the recent Austin Powers films - except that Martin had genuine sex appeal. In all of the Matt Helm films, Martin is shadowed by the bodaciously wicked "Slaygirls" and there is an obvious but intentional camp aspect that is entirely missing in Hamilton's novels.
In 1966, when Dean Martin filmed the first Matt Helm picture, The Silencers, he was at the pinnacle of his television career with the The Dean Martin Show. Although his TV variety show was a hit and made Martin the highest-paid television star at the time, the actor/singer wanted to resume his movie career. Enter Irving Allen, an independent producer, who once worked with Albert R. "Cubby" Broccoli, the producer of the James Bond films. Unfortunately for Allen, he had parted company with Broccoli over a disagreement about the value of making a series of films based on the Ian Fleming character. But after seeing the box office returns of Dr. No (1962), Allen decided to option the Matt Helm character for a film series and tapped Dean Martin to portray the swinging secret agent. The Silencers performed well at the box office and Murderers' Row (1966) was quickly put into production as the next installment in the series.
Martin returned for the title role, starring opposite Ann-Margret as Suzie Solaris. At the time, the Swedish-born starlet was in the midst of a thriving film career, having already been featured in a remake of State Fair (1962) and Viva Las Vegas (1964) with Elvis Presley. The villain of the piece is Karl Malden as the evil Julian Wall, who kidnaps Suzie's father, Dr. Norman Solaris, inventor of a helio-beam that could potentially destroy Earth. Naturally, Matt and Suzie team up to rescue her father and save the world from destruction.
Murderers' Row had some interesting personal ties for Dean Martin. Screenwriter Herbert Baker had worked on one of the bigger Jerry Lewis-Dean Martin comedies, Artists and Models (1955). And Martin's son, Dino, Jr., heads up the musical trio in the film - Dino, Desi and Billy - performing the pop song, "If You're Thinking, What I'm Thinking." The highlight of the film, however, might be the wild discotheque sequence with Ann-Margret dancing like a woman possessed while unaware that inside her dress is a tiny bomb ready to explode. Luckily, Helm saves the day - by removing and discarding her dress in one expert snatch. Campy, lightweight fun, Murderers' Row was popular enough to spawn two additional Matt Helm vehicles, also starring Martin: The Ambushers (1967) and The Wrecking Crew (1969). Now, films like Murderers' Row are being plundered for their style, sense of fun and sight gags by Hollywood studios hoping to cash in on the popular Austin Powers series; DreamWorks recently optioned a series of 27 Matt Helm novels from the original creator, Donald Hamilton.
Producer: Irving Allen
Director: Henry Levin
Screenplay: Harbert Baker, based on the novel by Donald Hamilton
Production Design: George R. Nelson
Cinematography: Sam Leavitt
Costume Design: Moss Mabry
Film Editing: Walter Thompson
Original Music: Lalo Schifrin
Cast: Dean Martin (Matt Helm), Ann-Margret (Suzie Solaris), Karl Malden (Julian Wall), Camilla Sparv (Coco Duquette), James Gregory (MacDonald), Beverly Adams (Lovey Kravezit), Richard Eastham (Dr. Norman Solaris).
by Genevieve McGillicuddy