The article discusses two of the spy franchises that attempted to compete with the James Bond films during the 1960s - Matt Helm and Derek Flint. According to Sean Egan's James Bond: The Secret History, Sean Connery was paid less for all four of his Bond films to this point (combined) than Dean Martin - granted a healthy percentage of the grosses - received for the James Bond spoof, The Silencers, alone (P.191). "While repeatedly renegotiating their own deals with UA, Broccoli and Saltzman had been dismissive of Connery's entreaties for a commensurate financial recognition of his role in the franchise's success." (P.205) Knowing this, it is easy to understand why Connery walked away.
In like Flint, and Helm
Bond's major rivals during spymania in the 1960s
Every Wednesday With DANIEL CHAN
THERE’S a whiff of 1960s spymania over Astro’s Cinemax channel 412 this month with the screening of the first 20 James Bond movies and the first two Matt Helm films.
During the Swinging Sixties, Helm and Derek Flint were, for a brief spell, worthy American rivals to British secret agent 007.
Singer-actor Dean Martin portrayed Helm four times, in 1966’s The Silencers, which was a huge box-office hit, and Murderers’ Row the same year (the two films screened over Cinemax this month), 1967’s The Ambushers and 1969’s The Wrecking Crew, while James Coburn, previously best known as a member of 1960’s The Magnificent Seven, got his big break as Flint in 1966’s Our Man Flint and 1967’s In Like Flint.
The Helm movies were loosely based on the novels by US author Donald Hamilton (1916-2006) with the screen versions deviating substantially in terms of plot and characterisation of the hero.
In the 27 Helm novels by Hamilton published from 1960 to 1993, Helm was a tough, deadly US government assassin of enemy agents, not unlike British author Ian Fleming’s Bond who’s licenced to kill. Bond predated Helm in the book world, as the 14 Bond novels by Fleming (1908-1964) were published from 1953 to 1966.
The Helm movies were Bond spoofs made strictly for laughs with little tension in the action. Martin, who had co-produced the Helm series, imposed his own persona of a laidback, wisecracking and skirt-chasing playboy with Helm as a fashion photographer who habitually romances his bevy of models and who occasionally moonlights as a hitman for a US government agency called Intelligence and Counter-Espionage (ICE) whereas in Hamilton’s novels, the agency was never named.
Martin, the second-in-command in singer-actor Frank Sinatra’s Rat Pack, certainly indulged himself to the hilt, including having his romantic hit songs being played during his romantic escapades, and compared to Bond, Helm got to kiss more women in each movie.
In the four movies, Helm foiled plots to divert an American missile into an underground atomic bomb testing site in New Mexico (The Silencers, shades of Dr. No), threat of city-wide destruction from a laserlike beam from an orbiting satellite (Murderers’ Row), the misuse of a government-built flying saucer hijacked by a terrorist (The Ambushers) and the collapse of the world economy through the theft of gold bullion (The Wrecking Crew, shades of Goldfinger).
The Helm movies were less gadget-laden than the Bond movies, and Helm was equipped with some amusing firearms, notably, a pistol that shoot backwards (The Silencers) and a pistol that fires by 10 second delay after being triggered (Murderers’ Row). Helm also killed an enemy with a poison dart fired from a cigarette and this happened in Murderers’ Row, a year before the same weapon was used by Bond in 1967’s You Only Live Twice... as they say, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
Problem was the quality of the Helm movies dropped from movie to movie, and at the end credits of the fourth movie, viewers were informed of a fifth film called The Ravag-ers, but Martin decided not to go on. In 1975-76, there was a Matt Helm TV series starring Anthony Franciosa in the title role, but now as a private eye, but the hour-long series lasted only 14 episodes.
Moving on to Flint, he was created directly for the big screen by Hal Fimberg, as a freelance secret agent for an Interpol-styled agency known as ZOWIE, an acronym for the ridiculously-named Zonal Organisation World Intelligence Espionage.
Coburn was well-cast as the cool and groovy Flint, a sophisticated modern Renaissance man who can speak 45 languages fluently, has degrees in various scientific and artistic disciplines from 17 universities, won Olympic medals in five different events, holds a black belt in judo, is a master fencer, also a ballet instructor, a renowned painter, and talks to dolphins!
As a lover, Flint is one-up on Bond and Helm as, at his high-tech apartment, he keeps a personal harem comprising four women of American, European, Latin and Asian ethnicities. Oh, yeah, he has a custom-made cigarette lighter with 82 uses, or as he nonchalantly puts it, “83 if you count the flame”.
The Flint role vaulted Coburn into leading actor status, and in the twilight of his career, he won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for 1997’s Affliction, as an abusive father. Our Man Flint had a passable plot of three mad scientists using a weather-control machine to blackmail the world. However, the franchise was sunk by the In Like Flint sequel with a ludicruous plot of an international feminist conspiracy to take over the world by kidnapping the US President and replac ing him with a compliant double.
While Helm and Flint did not have staying power as movie franchises, the irony is that their spy spoof approach ultimately influenced the Bond producers to embrace self-parody during the seven times Roger Moore played Double-O Seven from 1973 to 1985.
Over the past few years in the Hollywood grapevine, there’s persistent buzz that two-time Oscar-winning director Steven Spielberg is interested in reviving the Matt Helm movie franchise as a producer, and perhaps even directing one or two... after hitting the big time with 1975’s Jaws, Spielberg made it known that he was interested in directing a Bond movie, but the Bond producers weren’t keen to compromise on creative control. Times has certainly changed as the upcoming 23rd Broccoli-produced Bond movie, Skyfall, is being helmed by Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes.
Photos: Dean Martin as Matt Helm, James Coburn as Derek Flint
[Source: Malay Mail, September 19th, 2012, P.27. Copyright © 2012 Malay Mail Sdn. Bhd.]