Helm For the Holidays

Happy 2013, everyone! Let’s check in again with agent-of-unnamed-government-organization Matt Helm, and his creator, author Donald Hamilton, in the second volume of the Helm series, The Wrecking Crew.

First, I want to address an issue I had with the last novel, Death of a Citizen, and a comment that addressed that somewhat, because that comment also addresses this novel. I wrote: “In a way, it’s a shame to take something as complete as this book to build a series upon. I hope the next book proves me wrong.” Bill Koenig, contributor to the HMSS Weblog, responded with the following:

“Death of a Citizen was written as a one-off but Hamilton’s editor felt it had potential as a series if the character’s name was changed (it was George originally) and if the wife were killed off (she wasn’t, Hamilton found another way of continuing the series). The second novel was originally done as a one-off with a different character and Hamilton had shelved it. He revamped it with the more pro-active Matt Helm and it worked. It wasn’t until the third novel, The Removers, that Hamilton had actually started a Helm novel as an actual series entry.”

This is interesting because, as I noted, the first novel felt quite complete and would have been fine as a stand-alone. I read the second novel with Bill’s comment in mind, and I came to admire Hamilton’s edits that made The Wrecking Crew flow seamlessly from its predecessor. The decision of Helm’s wife is addressed, and the antagonist of the previous novel is referred to in incredibly effective, but brief, segments as Helm explains his business to one of the female characters in the novel.

The female characters, Sara, Lou and Elin, sort of dominate the novel, and Helm’s semi-sexist attitude toward them is interestingly juxtaposed with Hamilton’s treatment of the characters. At a certain point in the novel, Helm’s profession of love for women in skirts, and his dislike of pants, has become almost a catchphrase, but perhaps Helm represents the man in transition from chauvinism to respect for women as equals. In many ways, the three female characters provide the forward progress of the novel, forcing Helm into action where bureaucracy would otherwise keep him impotent. By the novel’s end, the women have either proven themselves to him, or haunt him because of the promise of what they could have been and the gumption that they showed. It’s incredibly difficult to write a review of a novel without spoiling it completely, but my copy of The Wrecking Crew spoils something that happens in the last 20 pages on the back cover blurb, and anyway, more people end this book dead than alive. It’s part of reading a book about a professional assassin, I suppose.

Before, I said that Helm’s group was unnamed, but we learn from one intelligence agent in the novel that they have nicknames, including the German-supplied Mordgruppe and the stateside moniker that supplies the novel’s title, The Wrecking Crew. The internal conflict of the last novel is supplanted here by a return to decisiveness on the part of the character. He is playing the role of Matt Helm, photographer, occasionally, Matt Helm, bumbling secret agent, but inside he is always “Eric,” a hardened killer. The prey is an opposite number working for, it is insinuated, the Soviets, codenamed Caselius. When trying, barely, to procure information on the agent, Helm doesn’t begrudge the man his job, or feel superior:

I’m perfectly happy to be on his level, doll. It’s the level of a tough, intelligent, courageous man who could probably make a better living selling automobiles or insurance or whatever they sell in Russia, but who prefers to serve his country in the front lines, such as they are today. I don’t hate him. I don’t despise him. I don’t look down upon him, as everybody else seems to, from some kind of a higher moral plane. I’m just prepared to kill him when and if I get instructions to do so, whether it means anything or not. Meanwhile, I’d like to find out who he is.

The potential informant is Lou, the widow of a journalist who wrote a piece on Caselius. Her husband was mysteriously shot down in a total accident, and she only managed to survive because her husband’s body selflessly blocked the rain of bullets. She’s striking out on her own as a journalist, and needs a photographer for an assignment in Sweden. Mac has brought Helm in on this one because he knows a bit of Swedish, because he has photography experience, and, interestingly, because he’s a bit out of shape. The assignment calls for a sort of double-disguise–as noted above, Helm plays the photographer, but also puts on the act of an incompetent American spy, almost to the point of Inspector Clouseauism. The way that Hamilton crafts scenes where Helm runs through what he should be doing, and then swings his fists around ineffectively is fascinating, especially in an early point in the book where, had “Eric” been in control, a horrific death could have been prevented.

Most of the book plays out like an espionage-tinged mystery. Who is Caselius? Who of Matt’s acquaintances can be trusted? Is he the only one wearing the double-disguise? Why all of these pictures? It’s an effective way to create a page-turner, and when the answers start coming, they start coming fast and furious, and sometimes unexpectedly. I’d be interested to see the original draft of this story, before it was rewritten to be part of a series. After the killing, the denouement is not entirely satisfactory, but fits with most everything that’s come before it.

Where the story shines is in the writing of Hamilton and the world he creates. It’s a world where the job of espionage is as mundane as taking pictures, and the killing is quick and dirty. The game at hand is fairly shallow, and most of the cards are on the table. For Helm, it’s a matter of playing out the final hand to see what cards his enemies and accomplices have been hanging onto. I was a bit worried after Death of a Citizen that I wouldn’t be able to get into the swing of the remainder of the series, but if The Wrecking Crew is a sign of things to come (and I hope it is), I’ll be enjoying each of these holiday excursions into the universe of Helm.

Still uncertain? Here’s a sample of Hamilton’s writing to convince you:

I didn’t sleep very well, in spite of the pills. I kept seeing a slender, disheveled woman with bright hair that looked blonde in the dusk, stretching out her hands toward a shape in the woods, pleading for mercy. Then the dream changed. I was being attacked from all sides. I was overwhelmed, pinned to the ground; they were all over me and I was being slowly smothered by the weight of them… I opened my eyes abruptly to see light in the room. A man was bending over me. His hand was across my mouth.

We stared at each other in silence, our faces less than a foot apart. He was quite a handsome and distinguished-looking man, with thick, black, well-combed hair, grayed at the temples. He had a little black moustache. He hadn’t been wearing a moustache when I’d seen him last, there’d been no gray in his hair, and his arm had been in a cast up to the shoulder.

“You are careless, Eric,” he murmured, taking his hand away. “You sleep too heavy. And you still have bad dreams.”

“I don’t know why they bother with a key for this room, the way people wander in and out at will,” I said. “Roll up your left sleeve.”

He laughed. “Ah, we play tricks. It was the right one, don’t you recall?” He started to take off his coat.

“Hi, Vance,” I said. “Never mind stripping. I remember you.”

I got up, shook my head to clear it, went into the bathroom and started the hot water running. I got a jar of instant coffee and a plastic cup out of my suitcase. I loaded the cup with the powder and went back to the bathroom to fill it. The water was almost hot enough. I sat down on the bed to drink, without offering any to Vance. I hadn’t invited him. If he was thirsty, he could supply is own coffee, or at least his own cup.

“Don’t smoke,” I said to him as he produced cigarettes. “I don’t, and somebody might wonder who stunk up the curtains.”

He chuckled and lit the cigarette. “They will think it was just your lady friend. The one with the strange hair.”
I rose and knocked the cigarette from his fingers and stepped on it. “I said don’t do it!”

He looked up at me. “Careful, Eric!”

I said, “I could take you, Vance. I could always take you.”

He said calmly, “It was never proved. Some time we must try. But not here and now.”

I sat down on the bed again, and polished off my almost-warm-enough coffee. “Sorry, amigo,” I said. “I’ve had a rough night, and nembutal makes me irritable. Furthermore, I’m not in a mood for jocular references to the lady in question. She happens to be dead.”

“Dead?” He frowned quickly. “The commotion in the park?” I nodded, and he said: “At whose hands? Yours?”

“Why do you say that?”

“One of my reasons for coming was to warn you against trusting her too far. It wasn’t a message we could send through her apparatus, naturally. It appears that her department is secretly investigating some derogatory reports, which they only recently got around to mentioning to us.”

“I’d say the reports were probably correct,” I said. “But it was our man who got her. At least he announced himself by name, and now I’m inclined to think it actually was Caselius. Unfortunately, he gave me no opportunity to look at him in the light, and I think he was disguising his voice. . . . It was a cat-and-mouse act, Vance. Kind of lousy. They let her assist at her own funeral; they let her co-operate with them in making a holy spectacle of herself; they let her think until the last moment that she was just helping them to kid me along. Then they killed her. He killed her.

“It was a great joke, and whoever set it up would have wanted to be there to laugh. That’s why I think it was Caselius himself. He wouldn’t have bothered to arrange all that specialized fun for another guy. He’d have wanted to be there to finish her off himself, and see the horror in her eyes as she realized how cruelly she’d been tricked.” After a moment, I said, “I figure he killed her because she’d served her purpose and he couldn’t leave her alive to talk. That means she had something to talk about. I’ve got to go on to Kiruna in the morning with the Taylor woman. Can you check on two men for me?”

“I can try.”

I said, “One man I don’t know. But she said she was going to be married as soon as she finished her tour of duty here; and I think the bereaved fiancé deserves a little of our attention. Somebody filled her full of fine ideals and used them to make a sucker of her. The other is a man who currently calls himself Jim Wellington. I have no evidence of a connection between him and Lundgren-he does know Taylor-but maybe you can find one. Watch out for him; he’s been through the mill.

“He wasn’t one of ours, but he made a flight with me into France from our usual field, some time in late ’44 or early ’45. Some of those people went bad later, and some even changed sides. He might be one of them. I don’t know his outfit, but I’ll give you a description and Mac can find the date I made that flight and check the official records for my companion. Tell him it was that prison-break operation at St. Alice. My job was to take the commandant out of action with a scoped-up rifle five minutes before they blew the gates. I got the damn commandant, all right, but nobody else showed up, as in most of those lousy cooperative jobs, and I had a hell of a time getting clear.

“Hell, I’m talking too much. I guess I’ve got a bit of a jag on. She wasn’t much, Vance. Just a pretty clothes horse with intellectual and moral pretensions that she didn’t have the brains to live up to-just the kind who’d be a patsy for a clever character with a humanitarian spiel. But I don’t like the way she died, amigo. I just don’t like the lousy way she died!” He said, “Take it easy, friend Eric. In our business, one does not work well if one lets oneself become emotionally involved.”

I said, “I’ll get over it. I’m just a little shook-up tonight. Somebody held up a mirror, and I didn’t like the looks of the fellow inside the frame. As for that guy Caselius–”

He said, “You had better get over it. You are going to have to restrain your vengeful impulses.”

“What do you mean?”

He was reaching in his coat pocket. He said, “This is ironical, Eric. It is really very ironical.”

“Maybe,” I said. “I can see that it’s a lot of things, but I haven’t spotted much irony yet.”

He said, “I had another reason for coming, a direct communication from the master of ceremonies himself.”

“The master of-”

He laughed. “MC,” he said. “Mac. It is a joke.”

“I’m not up on all the jokes yet,” I said.

“This is no joke, however,” he said. He gave me a folded sheet of paper. “Read it and you will see the irony, too. I could tell you the gist of it, but I will let you decipher it yourself so as not to miss the full flavor of Mac’s prose.”

I looked at him, and at the paper; and I took the paper to the little writing table by the wall and went to work on it. Presently I had it lying before me in plain language. It had my code number and the usual transmission signals. The station of origin was Washington, D.C. The text read:

Representations from female agent Stockholm have led to serious case of cold feet locally. Temporarily, we hope, your orders are changed as follows: you are to make firm identification of subject if possible but do not, repeat do not, carry out remainder of original instructions. Find him, keep him in sight, but don’t hurt a hair of his cute little head. Realize difficulty of assignment, sympathize. Working hard to stiffen local backbones. Be ready for go-ahead signal, but under no circumstances take action unless you receive. Repeat, under no circumstances. This is an order. This is an order. Don’t get independent, damn you, or we’re all cooked. Love, Mac.

This post originally appeared in the Mister 8 website (January 1st 2010), and appears here with the permission of the author.

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Helm For the Holidays

Music of Hugo Montenegro

Today I am going to look at the work of composer Hugo Montenegro. Montenegro is probably more famous for his re-interpretation of other composer’s music. His version of Ennio Morricone’s The Good, The Bad And The Ugly topped the U.S. charts (making it to #2). But Montenegro did his own tunes as well and provided the soundtracks to a few spy movies, namely The Ambushers, and The Wrecking Crew – starring Dean Martin as Matt Helm. He also composed the theme (from 2nd season) for the TV series, I Dream of Jeannie, which has got to count for something!

Montenegro’s re-versions of other composers tunes, in this day and age are a little redundant – as it is quite easy to access the originals. But that wasn’t always the case. As a lad, growing up in rural Australia, it was virtually impossible to access Morricone’s The Good, The Bad and the Ugly – whereas Montenegro’s was easy to find. I still have several western compilation L.P.s, from my childhood, with Montenegro’s version on them. On top of that, it got radio play too.

I must admit I find Montenegro’s original movie scores a bit too scattered for my liking, and don’t follow the plot. A wild swinging tune is great to listen to, while not watching the movie, but with the film, if the intent is to convey suspense – then the number fails – such as in the Frank Sinatra detective thriller, Lady in Cement.

I almost see Montenegro’s music as a toy from my youth. It was great when I was young, exposing a young fella to the wild multitude of sounds out there. But now as an adult, I think Hugo can be locked away in the cupboard, (or slipped into the bottom of the toy-box) and in its place, composers such as Morricone, Goldsmith, Bernstein, Williams et al should be sampled.

Mort Goode’s liner notes to the album, ‘Original Music From The Man From U.N.C.L.E.’ say this about Montenegro’s contribution:

‘One of the most intriguing elements that keeps “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” moving sprightly or stealthily each week is music. It sparkles or sputters. It tantalises or tickles. It relieves or revives. The variety of musical themes has been expanded for this album. This original music is fascinatingly arranged and conducted by Hugo Montenegro with a swashbuckling orchestra conjuring up images of U.N.C.L.E. escapades. Several talented and renowned composers have contributed to the music.’

Soundtracks Include:

The Ambushers, The Wrecking Crew, Original Music From The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Lady in Cement, Charro, The Undefeated.

Music of Hugo Montenegro

The Man From SMUT

Sylvia Kristel as Mata Hari

Warning: This post features slightly higher sexual content than usual. If you are easily offended, please skip over this one.

What is it about spy stories (and the world of James Bond) that make also make them perfect fodder for erotic lampoons? Is the the character names like Pussy Galore, Lovey Kravzit or Aureole Canasta? Or is it the womanising ways of a dashing secret agent?

Real life spy Mata Hari sets the blue print for sleeping with the enemy. Similarly, in films, one of the first spy films to be promoted as ‘sexy’ was the 1933 version of Mata Hari starring Greta Garbo. At the time, it was considered so steamy, that it was cut by the censors. I am still trying to work out what they saw?

North By Northwest
Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint in North By Northwest

The real shenanigans starts with Hitchcock. He starts off rather sedately. In The 39 Steps, our hero and heroine are handcuffed together. Even as they take a hotel room together, posing as man and wife, nothing happens apart from subtle innuendo. By the time we reach North By Northwest, things have changed. Eve Kendall, deliberately seduces Roger Thornhill on a train. Why, because she is working for bad guys, and what better way to keep and eye on him, and know what he is up to, than cosying up to him in bed. The scene doesn’t come off as sleazy as it sounds, as Thornhill is played by Cary Grant, and Kendall is played by Eva Marie Saint (looks count for something). And if the point is labored enough, the closing scene in the movie, as the lovers are re-united is a train rushing into a tunnel.

'Safe Sex' Bond

By sixties the swinging had really started. Into Bondage (pardon the pun). Although it hardly seems it now, the Bond films were pushing the boundaries of what could be shown sexually on the screen at the time. Strangely, they’d barely get a Parental Guidance rating today. Bond has three sexual conquests in his first adventure Dr. No. He slumps to two in From Russia With Love, but is back up to three in Goldfinger. By 1971, in Diamonds Are Forever, he has one, Tiffany Case – Plenty O’Toole doesn’t count as she was thrown out a window before Bond could complete his conquest. Why do I bore you with these numbers. Because in 1987, at the height of the media frenzy over the A.I.D.S. epidemic (the problem is worse now, but gets nowhere near the media attention it did in the mid to late 80’s) the Bond franchise introduced us to ‘Safe Sex Bond’. Or at least monogamous Bond. It was highly publicised how Bond in The Living Daylights was changing with the times. And in those uncertain times, it would be irresponsible for Bond to take multiple sexual partners throughout his mission. But of course, it was all media hype. Bond still had two sexual partners throughout the film. One in the pre-credit sequence, and one during the mission. Okay, less than Dr. No but one up on Diamonds Are Forever and still without a condom in sight.

But back to the sixties. Who else was there? Derek Flint had seven girls in his first movie, Our Man Flint. They were a little live-in, love-in family. In the next film, In Like Flint it is subtly suggested that he has cut back. Strange, given the title! Only four girls.

Dean Martin as Matt Helm, surrounded by the 'Slaygirls'

The four Matt Helm films were a festival of flesh. After all, drunken old Deano needed something to leer at. As Helm’s cover was as a photographer, the series was graced with some of the most attractive girls of the spy genre, all for Deano’s snapshots and/or lusty intentions. They even had their own Playboy Bunny rip-off called ‘The Slaygirls’ for Matt to photograph and dream about in some corny musical montages. Despite the amount of flesh that surrounded Matt Helm, his conquests were rarely fulfilled until the closing scenes.

In the 1960s there were many sleazy spy books, like the Clyde Allison’s 0008 series, and The Lady From L.U.S.T. The Baroness and The Man From O.R.G.Y. and many others too numerous to mention. By the 1970s, film censorship around the world began to ease up, and what had once been solely the domain of adult books was now available to be portrayed on the cinema screen.

Now as much as I like spy films, there are certain films that I will not be reviewing due to their explicit sexual content. But, because they borrow so heavily from the established and familiar tropes of Bond (and other) spy films, I thought that a very brief overview was in order.

It would appear that around the world, for every James Bond, there are ten raunchy Jane Bonds, and for every Agent 007, there are equally ten raunchy Agent 69s. Here’s a few of them.

Jane Bond

Jane Bond meets the Man with the Golden Rod
Amber Lynn as Jane Bond

Not to be confused with the Cantonese caper, masked crusader, crime films films from Hong Kong the Jane Bond films, put simply, are pornographic parodies of the James Bond series. There have been so many over the years, made in various countries over the world, that I would suggest that the are impossible to catalogue, but titles amongst the multitude include Jane Bond (1975) AKA: The Girl From AUNTIE which featured Joan Devlon as the titular Jane; A License to Thrill (1985) with Heather Wayne as Jane and characters such as Pussyfinger and Dr. Yes. Then there is Jane Bond Meets Thunderballs (1985) starring Stacey Donovan. Amber Lynn starred in two flicks as Secret Agent 0069, Jane Bond Meets Octopussy (1986) and Jane Bond Meets the Man with the Golden Rod (1987). From Germany there was 00Sex, es ist niemals zu spät! (1998) – AKA: A Female James Bond in Action and 00Sex im Auge des Orkans (1999) – AKA: 00Sex 2: Eye of the Hurricane which both featured Kelly Trump as Jane Bond.

'Octopussy' was always a title ripe for parody

Moving on from Jane Bond, there is the similarly titled Jane Bomb (2004) from Sweden, which stars an actress called Linda Lust in the role of Jane Bomb, and features character names such as Ivana Blofeldt, Miss Moneypussy, Silverfinger, Agent 0069, and Blowjob. Enough said, really.

Mata Hari

Due to the fact that Mata Hari was an exotic dancer has made her a prime candidate to be sexualised in films. The most famous was Sylvia Kristel’s turn as Mata Hari in the 1985 film, but at the hardcore end of the spectrum, there is Code Name Mata-Hari – The Fountain of Youth (2006) and Code Name Mata-Hari 2 – Sex is not Enough (2006) featuring Katy Caro as character named Greta (a nod to Greta Garbo), codenamed Mata Hari.

Agent 69

Next we have Agent 69, as featured in Agent 69 Jensen i Skorpionens tegn (1977) – AKA: Agent 69 in the Sign of Scorpio, followed by Agent 69 Jensen i Skyttens tegn (1978) – AKA: Agent 69 Jensen in the Sign of Sagittarius – which featured Ole Søltoft as the bumbling Agent 69.

It’s getting rather sleazy. But really, I am pointing out the extreme’s of one of the genre’s conventions. SEX and SPIES have always had a connection. Sex is always rearing it’s ugly little head somewhere, but as you can see, the amount and the way that it is portrayed vary from era to era, and film to film. Even in the children’s films like Spy Kids 2: Island Of Dreams, and Agent Cody Banks there is a clumsy childlike attraction between the boys and the girls (though not taken to mattress levels). So from kids films to hard-core porn, spy films certainly have a very healthy love life.

The Man From SMUT

Dig that Crazy Scene, Man!

One of the fascinating things about watching spy films from the 1960s is the layering of psychedelic elements into the plot, and their presentation on screen. Psychedelia is one element that truly separates a spy film from 1960s from those of the preceding decades, and those after it (although I am sure some throwback psychedelia filtered through to the ’70s and beyond – such as the Michael Caine film Blue Ice, but the tripping torture sequence in that film, I would suggest was meant to evoke the torture scene in Caine’s The IPCRESS File which was made in 1965).

The psychedelic elements in spy movies came out of several factors. Firstly, and most obviously, LSD. LSD was invented in the 1940s, but the C.I.A. started experimenting with the drug in the 1950s.

From Wikipedia:

Beginning in the 1950s the US Central Intelligence Agency began a research program code named Project MKULTRA. Experiments included administering LSD to CIA employees, military personnel, doctors, other government agents, prostitutes, mentally ill patients, and members of the general public in order to study their reactions, usually without the subject’s knowledge. The project was revealed in the US congressional Rockefeller Commission report in 1975.

As the C.I.A.s experiments weren’t public knowledge until the 1970s they can’t really be held accountable for the profusion of psychedelic elements in spy films throughout the ’60s. However the rise in the use of LSD as a recreational drug, coincided with stories about ‘truth serums’ emanating from Russia, and ‘brain washing’ emanating from China. One of the first stories to capture the public’s imagination about ‘brain washing’ was Richard Condon’s The Manchurian Candidate.

Once again, a snippet from the knowledgeable contributors at Wikipedia:

The Oxford English Dictionary records its earliest known English-language usage of “brainwashing” in an article by Edward Hunter in New Leader published on 7 October 1950. During the Korean War, Hunter, who worked at the time both as a journalist and as a US intelligence agent, wrote a series of books and articles on the theme of Chinese brainwashing.

[Also, brain washing…]

… originally referred to methodologies of coercive persuasion used under the Maoist regime in China, which aimed to transform individuals with a reactionary imperialist mindset into “right-thinking” members of the new Chinese social system. To that end the regime developed techniques that would break down the psychic integrity of the individual with regard to information processing, information retained in the mind and individual values.

To listen to a radio broadcast of Edward Hunter talking about Brainwashing, visit WFMU’s Beware of the Blog – Radio Site. Here you can also download an MP3 of the interview.

For stories about ‘truth serums’ we turn to the USSR – from Wikipedia:

A defector from the biological weapons department 12 of the KGB “illegals” (S) directorate (presently a part of Russian SVR service) claimed that a truth drug codenamed SP-117 was highly effective and has been widely used. According to him, “The ‘remedy which loosens the tongue’ has no taste, no smell, no color, and no immediate side effects. And, most important, a person has no recollection of having the ‘heart-to-heart talk'” and felt afterwards as if they suddenly fell asleep. Officers of the S directorate used the drug primarily to check the trustworthiness of their own illegal agents who operated overseas…

So combining drugs and brainwashing which had already crept into the arena of espionage, and adding the increasing public awareness of mind altering substances such as LSD eventually paved the way for film-makers to portray lurid and fanciful tales of espionage littered with psychedelic elements.

Our Man Flint - Japanese Record Sleeve

But these ‘real-life’ elements were not the only reason for ‘psychedelic spy stories’. During the mid to late sixties, there was a massive spy boom brought on by the success of the James Bond movies. Films and television shows emerged seemingly overnight, each of them eager to capture their own slice of the lucrative spy market. But how did these imitators separate themselves from just being pale imitations? The first thing they did was get away from the stiff authoritarianism of the Bond series. Bond was a suit with a gun. The imitators adopted more casual heroes: heroes who were hipper and more with the times. Derek Flint the hero of Our Man Flint and In Like Flint does work for a government agency, he works alone. But he can go-go with the best of them. Matt Helm as played by Dean Martin is The Silencers, Murderers’ Row, The Ambushers and The Wrecking Crew was perpetually inebriated and never in a suit. So in line with the loose heroes of these movies, the film makers adopted a modern approach in the presentation of their movies. Weird camera angles, shots through coloured glass and fish-tanks, psychedelic wallpaper and colour schemes were all adopted to in an attempt to present their movies as hipper and more in keeping with the times than the staid old Bond movies.

Youth gone wild in Hammerhead

On of the more interesting opening scenes, happens in the film Hammerhead, where secret agent Charles Hood attends a piece of performance art, clearly based on the Theatre of the Absurd. During the opening, manikins are being shot and dismembered, while a food fight happens around them. One girl gets covered in tomato sauce and placed inside a giant bread roll, while nude violinists and accordion players serenade her out of key. It’s a very surreal sequence.

David Niven and Joanna Pettet in Casino Royale (1967)

Slightly ironic, is the fact that Charles K. Feldman’s 1967 version of Casino Royale, itself a James Bond film, also tried to distance itself from the official Bond series by adding generous helping of psychedelia.

Monica Vitti as Modesty Blaise

But for psychedelic excess, Joseph Losey’s film version of Modesty Blaise must take the cake. In the film we are treated to a swirling kaleidoscope of colours, and twisted imagery. One of the many stylised highlights of excess is when the villain, Dirk Bogarde, drinks from an over sized wine glass, which not only contains an electric blue beverage, but features goldfish swimming around inside as well.

Dig that Crazy Scene, Man!

Matt Helm: Pilot (1975)

Release Year: (1975)
Country: United States
Director: Buzz Kulik
Starring: Anthony Franciosa, Anne Turkel, John Vernon, Patrick Macnee
Music: Jerry Fielding
Based on characters created by Donald Hamilton

The Ambushers
Dean Martin as Matt Helm

I had heard a lot about this Matt Helm series – most of it was bad. The biggest complaint seemed to be that Matt Helm was no longer a wild, swingin’ secret agent with a crazy bachelor pad (I am of course, referring to the Dean Martin films as the template for this series, as opposed to the Donald Hamilton books which are a different kettle of fish altogether). In this series Helm is a private investigator with a less gadget reliant household. The thing is that while this Helm show is not a spy show, and therefore quite different to the movies of the sixties, there is — at least in this, the pilot episode — a concerted effort to explain that this Helm is the same character, only that he became disillusioned with all the lies, double-speak and double dealing in the espionage community, and sickened to his stomach, walked away from that life and now works as a private detective.

This is best explained by a character called Harry Paine, played by John Vernon (I love John Vernon – I think he’s a great character actor, whether it be as the Mayor in Dirty Harry or the befuddled Dean of Faber in Animal House). Paine explains that ‘Helm used to be a professional, employed by one of the intelligence agencies’ The agency that Paine is referring to is, thankfully not I.C.E., but a branch of covert intelligence referred to only as ‘The Machine’.

It is interesting to compare this Matt Helm pilot, with the Derek Flint telemovie, Our Man Flint: Dead on Target (which I think was also intended as a pilot for a prospective new series). In both programs, the swashbuckling spy heroes from the sixties, had become private eyes. But in the Flint production, the film-makers didn’t see fit to explain the change in profession — and consequently the character. In that instance, it appeared that the writers weren’t even aware who Flint was. At least in Matt Helm the writers have seen fit to acknowledge the character’s past — and while at first it may seem a little disconcerting at first to see Helm as such a different type of character, it is not impossible to reconcile the two. Some of the differences could simply fall down to the different personality styles of Dean Martin, compared to Anthony Franciosa.

This episode starts with an actress named Maggie Gantry (Anne Turkel – I recently looked at Turkel as Modesty Blaise), and she is keeping trim by running a few laps at a local sports ground. As she runs, she is approached by a gentleman named Gerald Taber. Taber is a private investigator that she has hired to track down her father’s murderer. Taber has bad news. It appears that he has hit a bit of a wall. He tells her that ‘they can’t do it – they’re are in over their head’. Maggie continues her exercise regime as Taber watches on. That is, until a grenade is thrown at the detective and he is consequently blown sky high. Then a car swings on to the sports arena and at speed, chases after Maggie. Eventually she gives up and the car slides to a halt beside her. Two men get out holding machine guns and wearing gas masks to disguise their faces. One says:

“Repeat after me! Gerald Taber is dead!
Bryce Redfield is Dead!
Earl Gantry is dead!
You, Maggie Gantry will be… if you don’t stop now!”

The thugs get back into their car and drive off. Maggie is consequently picked up by the police on suspicion of Taber’s murder and is now being held at the police station. She is given her one phone call to call her lawyer, which she does. The Lawyer’s name is Kronsky (Laraine Stephens), and it just so happens that she is the latest flame of Matt Helm. Kronsky has given Helm’s home phone number to her telephone service if she needs to be contacted, so when Maggie rings through, Helm answers the phone.

Some things never change. Matt Helm didn’t like answering the phone or getting out of bed in the ’60s, and he doesn’t like it in the ’70s. None-the-less, he reluctantly passes the phone to Kronsky. She arranges to come to the police station straight away to help Maggie out of her predicament. Kronsky needs a lift to the police station and Helm obliges — he now drives a very sleek red Porsche (which is a big step up of the brown wood-panelled station wagon that Helm drove in The Silencers).

Helm accompanies Kronsky to the police station and watches as Kronsky arranges for Maggie to be released. As Kronsky has other duties to perform, Helm agrees to drive Maggie home. Back at her home she explains that she hired Taber to investigate the death of her father, Earl Gantry. Apparently, he was killed during the war, but not during a battle or as a direct consequence of the war. He was murdered behind the lines whilst driving a jeep. It is believed that a Staff Sergeant named Bryce Redfield fired an anti-tank rocket at Gantry to stop him reporting an elaborate black-market ring. She had hired Taber to track down Redfield. His enquiries led him to a man named Harry Paine (John Vernon) who is an arms dealer, and a shady military commander named Shawcross (Patrick Macnee).

From his old days, working for ‘The Machine’, Helm has come across both men and knows what they are capable of. But still, he agrees to help Maggie out and take up the investigation from where Taber left off.

Going against all conventional wisdom — and reviews of Franciosa’s turn as Matt Helm — I think that this pilot episode was pretty damn good. It had a decent enough plot, with a few twists and turns, and I was particularly fond of the way that Helm’s past, and the nature of the spying business was painted as a dirty and corrupt game. It gave this show that touch of gritty varnish that it needed. Then it had a good cast too. I don’t mind Franciosa — obviously he’s a long way from Deano, but he handles the light stuff pretty well, and when the script had a bit of meat to it, he showed he was capable of delivering the goods. A supporting cast that features John Vernon and Patrick Macnee cannot be sneezed at either.

The thing here though is, I am basing my opinion on the whole series on viewing this one single episode — and being the pilot episode, the one made to sell the series, maybe a bit more effort and money was thrown into it to make it a solid piece of entertainment. From the modicum of research I have done about the series, it would appear that most of the episodes did not hit the heights of this pilot and were pretty disappointing. If that is indeed the case, that is a great shame, because on the strength of this, the Matt Helm series could have presented a good alternative to a character like Mike Hammer.

I must admit, I’d be curious to see more episodes, and see where exactly the wheels fell off.

My thanks, once again to MB.

Matt Helm: Pilot (1975)

Slash and Burn

Author: Matt Hilton
Publisher: Hodder and Stoughton
Release Year: 2010

Slash and Burn is the third novel in Matt Hilton’s Joe Hunter series following on from Dead Men’s Dust and Judgement and Wrath. Is Joe Hunter a spy? No, but that brings up an interesting question. What constitutes a spy story. If you’ll forgive me as I talk about spy films for a moment – here’s a little guide that I am sure I have posted before which relates to the different styles of spy films and the characters that populate them. The same is true for spy novels. I have edited it slightly to make it more relevant. In my view, the seven main spy story styles are:

the globe trotter

Funeral in Berlin
Funeral in Berlin

This is the most easily detected espionage story style. It features international globe trotting secret agents fighting crime and evil masterminds all around the globe. In some case the stories are barely more than glorified travelogues, but it makes for some fantastic backdrops to the action. This style of story proliferated in the sixties, when the jet-set age really took hold. Beautiful people in beautiful locations doing particularly nasty things seemed to be the maxim here. Perfect examples of these are the James Bond or Matt Helm stories, but even many of the lesser known tales of espionage liked to work in foreign locations. In fact, the locations used were often a selling points for these films or novels. If a spy story utilised an exotic location then it wasn’t unusual for that location to be mentioned in the title. The role call of destinations included, Our Man In Havana, Funeral In Berlin, That Man In Istanbul, Espionage In Tangiers, The Girl From Rio, Assassination In Rome, Our Man In Marrakech, Fury In The Orient, Hong Kong Hot Harbour, From Beijing With Love, Our Man In Jamaica and many, many others.

the innocent bystander

The Thirty-Nine Steps
The Thirty-Nine Steps.

This is the classic wrong place at the wrong time scenario. The innocent bystander is the sneakiest, but probably the most common of the espionage story conventions. It is harder to detect because the hero is not a highly trained secret agent but anybody or everyman/woman. It is the innocent person who stumbles in on an incident or who gets caught up in the web of intrigue by accident. The classic example would have to be, The 39 Steps where Richard Hannay by shear happenstance gets caught up with foreign spies. Or The Russia House, where Boozey Barley Blair, a book publisher, is contacted by a Russian defector whilst at a book fair in Moscow. Also, the Innocent Bystander is the least male biased of the espionage conventions. Often it is woman who gets caught up in the conflict.

the sleeper

The Manchurian Candidate
The Manchurian Candidate

The sleeper is an enemy agent that is hiding in plain sight. They live amongst us, appearing to live a normal life. In reality they are lying dormant, just waiting for a trigger to send them off on their mission of destruction. The triggers that send the agents off can be phrases, such as poetry, or images, such as playing cards. The best example of films in this style is The Manchurian Candidate (1962), based on the best selling book by Richard Condon. It’s an absolutely amazing film starring Frank Sinatra and Lawrence Harvey. In the film, Harvey plays Raymond Shaw, the all American son of a prominent politician. During the Korean War, Shaw is brainwashed in Manchuria, and set to become a killer. His trigger is a playing card. Practically any story which features brainwashing is a sleeper story. In reality, by brainwashing somebody, you are trying to get the subject to complete a task that is against their will and not in character. This, I guess, makes them a sleeper agent. The final scenes of The IPCRESS File (the film ,that is) feature a mind altered Harry Palmer battling the instructions that he has been programmed with. Quite different, but with the same intent, the lovely ladies at Blofeld’s allergy clinic in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service have all been brainwashed and given instructions to unleash a deadly toxin at various locations around the world. The Sleeper is one of the most dangerous of enemy agents because they seem the most unlikely.

the soldier

All Quiet on the Western Front

Wartime spy dramas usually feature ‘The Soldier’. It’s always a thin line to tread, between some War stories and Spy stories, but generally the nature of the mission, helps separate them into their appropriate categories. For example there is no mistaking that films Saving Private Ryan, The Longest Day and Platoon – or the novel All Quiet on the Western Front are solely a war stories. Whereas stories such as Eye Of The Needle, Where Eagles Dare, The Eagle Has Landed, The Counterfeit Traitor, belong to the Spy genre.

the assassin

The Assassin is an interesting sub-genre of the usual secret agent movie, where the glossy veneer has been removed, and all that’s left is the ruthless bastard. Let’s face it though, most secret agents are paid killers, even the James Bond’s of the world are sugar coated assassins. The world of the assassin is an interesting one, and a topic that has been visited again and again. But there’s quite a bit of confusion over which films are in fact spy stories, and which are crime stories. I suggest it is the employer of the assassin that defines whether the character is a spy or crime story. But this category isn’t for the well manicured, well dressed gentleman spy. It is reserved for the men who specialise in ‘wet work’ – the HARD men of the genre.

the idiot

Our Girl From Mephisto
Our Girl From Mephisto

From the travesty that was Casino Royale in 1967 to more recent fare like the recent updates of I, Spy and Get Smart, there have been plenty of comedic attempts at capitalising on the success of spy films (spy novels too – look at the Clyde Allison 0008 stories or Alligator by I*n Fl*m*ng). Unfortunately few of them are very good. Most, to be honest are quite painful. Johnny English, Austin Powers and Le Magnifique are among the more successful attempts of the genre, but even they have their detractors. Many of the children’s spy films are clearly intended to be comedy films as well. Condorman and The Double ‘O’ Kid are prime examples. Both of them are bad films, but they were never intended to be taken seriously.

the retiree

Icon
Icon

There are two variations on the retiree spy film. The first and most obvious variation is where the old retired masterspy is called back into action for one final mission because he has a skill set that is essential to the successful completion of the mission. There are a whole swag of films like this, such as Firefox with Clint Eastwood, or even the Matt Helm films with Dean Martin. In the Helm films, Dino has retired and wants to be left alone with his camera and coterie of dolly birds, but somehow gets dragged back into the action time and time again. The mini-series, Icon based on Frederick Forsyth’s book, with Patrick Swayze also trots out the formula once again. Swayze’s character is called out of retirement because of his knowledge of antiquated biological agents.

The second variation, which could almost be called the ‘messed with the wrong guy’ spy film, usually features a band of villains picking on a person or group of civilians (often a family). It just so happens that these people have been befriended by or related to a retired bad-ass spy. To the villains, the spy just seems like an old codger (or a nobody), but we know, despite the wrinkles, this guy is a lethal weapon. If the plot device sounds familiar, it is. The 1987 film, Malone, starring Burt Reynolds is essentially an updated version of the classic western, Shane. Television shows in particular have latched onto this style of story, with Man In A Suitcase, The Equalizer, and even Burn Notice featuring agents who have been ‘retired’ from active duty, and now spend their time helping out average Joes with their problems. On a more personal level, both Belly Of The Beast with Steven Seagal and Taken with Liam Neeson feature stories where they play retired spies, but their daughters have been foolishly kidnapped by evil doers. Once this happens the gloves are off, and the old retired spy is once again up to his usual tricks doing everything possible to get their loved one back. As you’d expect with this kind of storyline, generally these films tends to play more like a revenge flick and have a tendency to be rather violent.

slash and burn

And that now bring us back to Slash and Burn and Joe Hunter. Is Joe Hunter a spy? No. But he does have a lot of the same characteristics as ‘The Retiree’ as listed above. Let me tell you a bit about Joe. Hunter’s employment history reads as follows (pg. 360 Slash and Burn):

Joined British Army at age 16. Transferred to the Parachute Regiment at age 19 and was drafted into an experimental coalition counterterrorism team code named ‘ARROWSAKE’ at age 20. As a sergeant, Joe headed his own unit comprising members from various Special Forces teams. Joe retired from ‘ARROWSAKE’ in 2004 when the unit was disbanded and has since supported himself by working as a free-lance security consultant.

So that’s Joe Hunter. A retiree who now works freelance. He could be compared to Robert McCall in The Equallizer or if you prefer a more cartoonish comparison, maybe Hunter could be described as the one-man equivalent of The A-Team. But by now, you’re probably wondering about the book. Well Slash and Burn delivers everything that at book called ‘Slash and Burn’ should deliver and more. In fact I thought it was better than Dead Men’s Dust which I thought was fantastic – but Slash and Burn surpasses it. It is simply breathless reading.

Dead Men's Dust
Dead Men's Dust

When I read Dead Men’s Dust a year ago, I thoroughly enjoyed it. It was a fast paced thrill-ride. But it did have its flaws. In particular, during the middle chapters, the story crawled away from Joe Hunter – and for a while he struggled to keep up. Let me explain: Hilton constructs his stories in a fashion where (almost) every chapter alternates in viewpoint. For example, the first chapter may be from Joe Hunter’s point of view and is written in first person. The second chapter is from the villain’s point of view and is written in third person. Now this works pretty well, as it gives Hunter a unique voice, but also keeps the story rocketing along, keeping the reader in the loop – so to speak. But in Dead Men’s Dust, for a short while, Joe Hunter was left to play catch-up to information that readers already knew. The good news is, in Slash and Burn, Hilton has really mastered that writing technique now, and rather than waiting for Hunter to catch up, the reader has to breathlessly keep up with Hunter who rockets through the story.

The story opens with Imogen Ballard running for her life in the rugged countryside near the town of Little Fork in Kentucky. She is being chased by a cadre of killers who are determined to track her down.

Meanwhile in Pensacola in Florida, Joe Hunter is catching some sun of the deck of his beach house, when he is approached by a woman named Kate Piers. She needs his special type of help with a little problem. Hunter is wary at first, until she explains that she is the sister of Jake Piers, who Hunter knew from his days in the Special Forces.

Hunter agrees to help, and Kate outlines her problem. It appears that her sister Imogen, has gone missing. Furthermore, she may have become involved with some mobsters and corrupt officials. Consequently she may be in hiding.

Together Kate and Hunter make the journey to Little Fork and into the mountains to Imogen’s home. Within moments of their arrival, the couple are ambushed to two gunmen who believe in shooting first and asking questions later. Of course, Hunter is no stranger to gunfire, and can hold is own in a gun battle, but the real surprise package is Kate, who proves to be particularly adept with a pistol.

The hostile reception committee indicates that Imogen’s predicament is a little more serious than first perceived. And now Hunter and Kate have stepped into the fray, they are also targets for the killers who are seeking Imogen.

Along the journey, in their quest to find and protect Imogen, Hunter and Kate have to contend with plenty of life-threatening situations and aggressive characters, not the least being the seven-foot tall Bolan twins, Trent and Larry. These boys are just mountains on meanness, and once they have a target in sight, they don’t give up.

The situation gets so hot, Hunter has to call in his friends Jared ‘Rink’ Rington and Harvey Lucas to even the odds a little. But only just a little. You see, the man behind all the mayhem is a business man who goes by the moniker of ‘Quicksilver’. This is not because he is mercurial, but because he is a skilled technician with a cut-throat razor. Quicksilver also doesn’t believe in fair fights. He wants the odds stacked heavily in his favour, and calls in five of the most ruthless assassins that the syndicate has on its payroll.

The sound of gunfire is so loud in this book, that you almost need earplugs when you read it. Slash and Burn is relentless in its escalation of the action sequences – each passage building and improving on the previous passage.

From the blurb:

Joe Hunter is always ready to help a lady in distress. Particularly when Kate, the lady in question, is the sister of a dead Special Forces mate.

Robert Huffman pretends to be a respectable businessman. But the psychopathic twins he uses as his enforcers give the lie to that. Huffman is a player in the murky world of organised crime and needs Kate as bait for one of his schemes.

Joe is way outnumbered by the bad guys, but since when did that stop him? He’ll rescue Kate if he has to slash and burn to get her…

Obviously a book called ‘Slash and Burn’ is never intended to be high art. It’s popular fiction, and on that level, the book delivers, and I for one, am looking forward to Joe Hunter’s next adventure (which if memory serves me, will be called ‘Cut and Run’).

Slash and Burn

The Silencers

Dean Martin As Matt Helm Sings Songs From “The Silencers”
LA Gloria Records 1966 (New Zealand pressing)
Produced by Jimmy Bowen. Arranged by Ernie Freeman and Gene Page.

When The Silencers was released at the cinemas in the mid sixties, two albums were released to accompany it. First there was Elmer Bernstein’s soundtrack album, which features the incidental music and a few numbers by Vicki Carr (Carr dubbed the singing for Cyd Charisse in the film). The second was Dean Martin As Matt Helm Sings Songs From “The Silencers”. It looks like a soundtrack album, but it is just Dean Martin singin’ a few songs that were featured in the movie – BUT with a difference. In the movie, Matt Helm spends a bit of time fantasizing about bikini clad dolly birds. During the fantasies, he sings a few old standards, but with cheeky revised lyrics. But here on the album, the songs are performed straight.

These are the notes from the back of the album cover…they are written in some weird sixties ‘hip’ jargon which at times borders on indecipherable…fun, none-the-less.

‘DEAN MARTIN, in his neat role as super secret Matt Helm – sophisticate of the world, gutty guy, virile adventurer, devil with the dollies – “thinks” snatches of favorite songs thruout “The Silencers”. These “think” songs explode in this album. Martin sings out loud all of the evergreen pops from the film, and sings them with some of the most exciting, hit-sounding arrangements ever suscitated.

Backed by the big bands of Ernie Freeman and Gene Page, Martin goes moseying through the grand songs from “The Silencers”, and does it with the same easy style that has recently made him into America’s most consistent best-selling recording artist. Surrounding his songs are four Elmer Bernstein-authored instrumentals, all themes from the picture, performed in lofty swinging style by the Freeman-Page orchestras.

In “The Silencers”, Martin plays no poor man’s secret agent. Martin secret agents right: dressed up snappy by Sy Devore…chased by nasty Chinese bandits…surrounded by kiss-n-kill cuties…ambushed in motel rooms with supine Slaygirls…every girl he meets makes Apassionata Von Climax look like one runt kid.

Fun as females can be, they can also be nasty-deadly, as “The Silencers” proves. But songs by Martin can never be deadly, nor nasty. This zingy album proves that. It’s the nicest thing that ever happened to a super secret agent.’

TRACK LISTING:
Side One
01 The Glory Of Love
02 Empty Saddles In The Old Coral
03 Lovey Kravezit (Instrumental)
04 The Last Round Up
05 Anniversary Song (Instrumental)
06 Side By Side

Side Two
01 South Of The Border
02 Red Sails In The Sunset
03 Lord, You Made The Night Too Long (Instrumental)
04 If You Knew Susie
05 On The Sunny Side Of The Street
06 The Silencers (Instrumental)

If you’re a fan of Dean Martin, then this album is okay. If you’re after a ‘soundtrack’ album, then you’re bound to be disappointed. The four instrumentals featured on the album aren’t really from the film either.

The Elmer Bernstein score can be found over at THXJay’s The Crime Lounge.

The Silencers