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Hollywood turned spy fiction’s most hard-boiled killer into Austin Powers

Matt Helm was a stone-cold spy to rival James Bond, until Dean Martin put on his suit

Matt Helm (Dean Martin) sits naked on a bed surrounded by women in lingerie in The Silencers
The Silencers
Photo: Everett Collection

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James Bond wasn’t the only suave-but-brutal spy on the 1960s pulp-novel scene. While Ian Fleming sparked the craze with his 1953 debut novel Casino Royale, which introduced the world to 007, seven years later, Donald Hamilton would introduce a deadlier spy into the international arms race in Death of a Citizen. Matt Helm is retired and living a quiet life as a journalist in New Mexico, before being drawn back into the world of espionage when a young woman from his past appears asking for his help. The books eschew the glamor of Bond, instead offering up a hard-boiled violence and scrappiness that makes them feel more like noir than the super-spies we’re used to.

Polygon is diving into the world of espionage throughout fiction and pop culture history with Deep Cover, a two-week special issue covering all sorts of spy stories and gadgets.

Unless you were scouring the vintage spinner racks for noir gems — or reading a lot of manga magazines in Japan (we’ll get there) — you might never have come across Helm at all. Or if you did, it might have been in an entirely different guise: In 1965, Columbia Pictures acquired the Matt Helm book rights and quickly cast Dean Martin as the killer counter-agent. If that sounds like an unexpected casting for the older retired spy turned back-in-business cold-blooded murderer, you’d be right. Columbia didn’t want to make Matt Helm movies, they wanted to make James Bond-inspired spoof films — and it transformed the character forever.

Casting Martin and veering away from the grim realism of the books, the Technicolor world of The Silencers reimagined Helm as a lackadaisical, boozy, singing spy surrounded constantly by beautiful women in varying states of undress. Within minutes of the film beginning there are two musical numbers — one sung by Helm himself — and a comedic bathing scene, establishing immediately that this is a far cry from the bleak world of Hamilton’s Helm. Essentially shedding anything other than Helm’s name and a few events from the pages of the book, the film instead crafted a musical adventure that featured plenty of killings and villain-fuelled mayhem alongside the jokes, dance sequences, and many semi-naked women. Like the Bond films before them, and many other movies of the era, the shininess of the Matt Helm films sits in contrast to racist tropes and laughable treatment of women.

Matt Helm loads a bullet into a revolver for a black-haired woman in a blue dress
Matt Helm in a red suit dances with a redheaded girl in front of the band Desi and Billy
(L to R) The Silencers, Murderers’ Row
Photos: Everett Collection

The Matt Helm films had a direct impact on the spy-movie genre and parody films going forward. Austin Powers’ equally problematic “Swinging ‘60s” romps would never have existed without the Helm films and its fellow 1966 parody release, Our Man Flint. Mike Myers’ spy even shares his cover career with Helm, both of them posing as fashion photographers. In a bigger picture sense, The Silencers is notable as the first movie to include a post-credits scene, which features Helm surrounded by beautiful women on a revolving bed, kissing them as it turns back towards the audience and an ostentatious yellow font announces his next adventure.

That film was Murderers’ Row, which debuted less than a year later, and saw Ann-Margret liven up the antics with her unique wit and comedy prowess. In classic spy movie fashion, this movie centers around a dangerous laser and the villain who wants to wield it. Next up was 1967’s The Ambushers, which moved even further from the gritty world of the books, with a UFO-focused plotline and a recognizable sequence featuring a magnetic stripping device made to tear the clothes off a young woman. The film would influence the Bond flick Live and Let Die a few years later.

Helm’s final wacky big screen adventure The Wrecking Crew hit theaters just three years after his on-screen debut. Hunting down stolen gold, Helm was once again wrapped up in espionage hijinx, though this time the focus on action was far heavier.

Matt Helm fires a futuristic gun that lights up with sparks as he hits a switch on a control panel
A woman in a swimsuit bends over in front of Matt Helm who looks at her butt in an approving way
Matt Helm in a yellow sweater chokes out a bearded guy in khakis on a spaceship in The Ambushers
Two Asian henchman point guns at Matt Helm as a redheaded woman with glasses in a green coat sneers behind him and an Asian woman in a blue gown holds up a knife Photos: Everett Collection

(L to R) The Ambushers, The Silencers, The Ambushers, The Wrecking Crew

Aside from Martin’s last turn as Helm, the film features some other historical performances, including Sharon Tate’s final role before her death and the debut of future action superstar Chuck Norris. Behind the scenes a young man named Bruce Lee worked as an action choreographer and, thanks to his involvement and Tate’s, decades later The Wrecking Crew would go onto feature prominently in Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

At the time, the popularity of the films and books was such that there was even a short-lived Matt Helm manga adaptation in Boy’s Life shonēn magazine that ran from 1968-1969. Alas, it seems that the comics were lost to time, but their existence hints at just how much of an impact the grounded spy made.

One of the most unusual parts of that impact is how the Matt Helm films — which were made to parody the success and stylistic trappings of James Bond — have mostly been forgotten, replaced by a parody of a parody, with Austin Powers becoming a household name in Helm’s place. That unique history, along with the strange juxtaposition of the overly grim source material and its colorful, comedic, musical adaptations, make Matt Helm a spy oddity worth revisiting.

The Silencers, Murderers’ Row, The Ambushers, and The Wrecking Crew are all available to stream on Fubo and Crackle, and available to rent on Amazon, Apple, and VUDU.