Saturday, May 30, 2009

Spy-Fi Flashback: MATT HELM

While I am a huge fan of Ian Fleming and his creation, James Bond, my absolute favorite fictional spy is American agent Matt Helm, created by Donald Hamilton within the pages of a long-running paperback adventure series. Suspenseful, fast-moving, with a decidedly dark sense of humor, the Matt Helm series is notable not only for its exceptional quality but its unusual longevity.

Beginning with Death Of A Citizen in 1960, and ending with 1993's The Damagers, Matt Helm starred in one of the finest hard-boiled adventure series ever written. Cynical, violent, and extremely well-plotted, the Matt Helm series outlasted its many contemporaries, with World War II veteran Helm moving beyond the Cold War intrigues of the Sixties to continue defending his country's interests (and bedding beautiful young betrayers) well into the Nineties. But despite the frequently applied label, Helm isn't a spy. He is, quite simply, a government assassin, and he's very good at his job.

Helm is introduced in the first novel, Death Of A Citizen as a World War II veteran who worked as an assassin behind enemy lines. Helm is brought back into government service when Communist agents attempt to manipulate the now-civilian author of Western novels (like Hamilton himself) and professional photographer into helping them in their sinister schemes by kidnapping his young daughter. Needless to say, Helm rescues his offspring, but in such a brutal, ruthless manner that his wife is shocked and terrified by the monster she's married. She leaves him and Helm returns to his old work, now for an unnamed government agency run by his former military commander, a man known only as Mac.

A series about a professional killer might present problems for some readers, but Hamilton's a sharp guy, and manages to keep the audience squarely in Helm's corner by making sure that the expert marksman stays firmly on the side of the angels. Rarely is Helm used as a political assassin; instead, he's designated as a "counter-assassination agent," assigned primarily to execute other professionals in his own field. In the Cold War Sixties and Seventies, these are usually Communist killers, whose targets are often American scientists; but come the Eighties and Nineties, his opponents tend to be in the employ of fictional terrorist organizations from around the world.

Fans of tough-guy protagonists won't find a harder hardcase than Helm; cold, efficient, and professional (with a professional's disdain for amateurs), but endowed with a wide variety of interesting – and consistent – character traits and quirks that keep him from being just an emotionless killing machine. Among the more notable: a strong affection for dogs, especially the hunting breeds; an aesthetic dislike of women who wear pants (although he softened his views on this as the series hit its third decade); little patience for idealistic young women (and men) who can't stand violence (and who usually end up betraying him before the book is done); and a remarkable, nearly superhuman, ability to withstand tremendous physical abuse.

During the James Bond craze of the mid-to-late Sixties, Columbia Pictures produced a quartet of "Matt Helm" spy spoofs, beginning with The Silencers (1966). Very loosely based on Hamilton's novels (using the titles, a few character names, and locations), these colorful, if ludicrous, comedy adventures starred Rat Packer Dean Martin as a perpetually inebriated American secret agent. Totally miscast, Martin bore no resemblance whatsoever to Hamilton's tall, lanky outdoorsman, (I've always felt that Clint Eastwood in his prime would have been perfect for the role) but at least two of the movies are genuinely entertaining as spy spoofs, and there's no denying that the featured femmes (which included Stella Stevens, Ann Margaret, Sharon Tate, Tina Louise and Daliha Lavi, among others) were of a very high caliber, indeed.

Now, the Matt Helm franchise might be poised for a comeback. According to the Hollywood trades, the long-rumored new Helm film series has fallen under the producing auspices of Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, the writing team behind the recent Star Trek relaunch and the Transformers films. They do have some solid spy-fi cred, too, as they wrote the third Mission: Impossible movie and were the story editors/frequent script writers on J.J. Abram's Alias.

Although I'm (appropriately, I think) cynical about any updated film series being able to capture the distinct tone and unique characterization of Hamilton's work, I'm willing to keep an open mind on the subject. I can, after all, enjoy the Dean Martin films on their own breezy, swinging terms, and maybe a new movie will turn out okay. The key will be casting, I think.

Anyway, we still have the books. If you haven't read them, I highly recommend cruising the online booksellers and ordering a few.


Eric said...

I wish that Matt Helm was known widely more often by his much, much cooler codename.

Shanksow said...

Glad to see you do something on ole Eric (i.e agent Matt Helm)(also see comment #1)...

Reading the different websites, Donald Hamilton had a final Matt Helm novel that his son is trying (still) to shop around. But no publishing company is willing to publish it (how ironic is that?).

Anonymous said...

Judging by Martin's performances in Rio Bravo, The Young Lions, Some Came Running, and Rough Night in Jericho, I think he could have played Helm straight, in faithful adaptations of Hamilton's novels. But Eastwood, Lee Marvin, or Robert Mitchum would probably have been better suited to the character.