Thursday, January 16, 2014

Dean Martin Ogles the Ladies in "The Wrecking Crew"

I was in the mood for a guilty pleasure recently and up popped The Wrecking Crew (1968) on TCM. Guilty pleasures don't get much guiltier than this fourth entry in Dean Martin's Matt Helm series. With spy movies all the rage in the 1960s, Columbia tried to posture Helm as a poor man's James Bond, Well, sort of. The Helm pictures were actually spoofs--not clever ones like Our Man Flint--but broad tongue-in-cheek efforts. That approach suited Dean Martin, who appeared as the turtle-necked protagonist while still doing his weekly variety TV series on NBC.

The plot resembles Goldfinger with Matt's agency, Intelligence and Counter Espionage (ICE), sending the secret agent to recover $1 billion in stolen gold bullion. Villain Count Contini (Nigel Green) plans to flood the financial markets, thus devaluing the economies of Great Britain and the U.S. Throw in some chases, fisticuffs, and plenty of pulchritude and you have The Wrecking Crew.

Dean sniffs Sharon Tate.
It's a far cry from Donald Hamilton's 1960 novel, the second of 27 Matt Helm spy thrillers. Indeed, the only resemblance is that Helm's cover was as a photographer in both the book and film. Otherwise, Hamilton's tough-minded hero had little in common with the cigarette-smoking, Scotch-drinking ladies man played by Dean Martin.

Martin's film series kicked off in 1966 with The Silencers, which co-starred Stella Stevens as Matt's klutzy cohort (the poster proclaimed: "Girls, Gags & Gadgets! The best spy thriller of Nineteen Sexty-Sex!"). A follow-up, Murderers Row, appeared later that year. It's probably the best of the four films, simply on the basis of a cast featuring Ann-Margret and an over-the-top Karl Malden as the bad guy. Still, the formula was wearing thin by the time The Ambushers (with Senta Berger) was released a year later.

Elke Sommer's "come hither" look.
What redeems The Wrecking Crew is its cast. Tina Louise and Nancy Kwan have little to do other than look glamorous (or, in Kwan's case, also manage a few karate kicks). However, Elke Sommer and Sharon Tate are perfectly cast. Sommer's European sultriness poses a perfect counterpoint to Martin's lecherous looks. In addition, she has a grand time playing a villain and (spoiler alert!) "dies in perfect beauty" (as she described in her interview with the Cafe). In contrast, Tate mixes kooky charm with buckets of sex appeal as Matt's female sidekick. I'm not sure that Tate would have evolved into a major star, but she shows her potential as an appealing comedienne in The Wrecking Crew.

While the karate fights leave much to be desired, they were still choreographed by a young Bruce Lee (granted, he didn't have much to work with). Also, if you look closely at the henchmen in the House of 7 Joys fight, you may notice Chuck Norris (in his film debut).

Dean takes a look at Sharon.
Although the closing credits of The Wrecking Crew promise a fifth installment to be called The Ravagers, another Matt Helm film was never made. Weak boxoffice receipts doomed the franchise and Martin, tired of the series, wanted out. Sharon Tate's murder, which occurred just a year after The Wrecking Crew, also cast a shadow over the series.

Still, decades later, the spirit of Dean Martin's Matt Helm movies lives on. It's hard to watch Mike Myers in his Austin Powers spy spoofs without concluding that he's channeling a lot of Matt Helm.


  1. Oh, yes, sometimes we need those guilty pleasure films, don't we? I had one about 10 days ago...for me, it was "Dirty Dancing."

  2. Rick - me too, I always thought this one would make a great subject for the "Guilty Pleasures Blogathon"

  3. One of the most fun things about revisiting classics is realizing how many performers and technical folks you know. It was fun reading about Bruce Lee's choreographed fight scenes and Chuck Norris's debut as well as the work of Elke Somer, Sharon Tate, Tina Louise, and Nancy Kwan. Fun post!

  4. Nice post. I remember going to see all of these in the 60s, thinking they were the rat's ass. But when I bought the Matt Helm Lounge set, I could barely get through them. Sometimes, nostalgia isn't what it used to be.

  5. Mr. Rick, what a remarkable review of Helmer numero quatre. Thanks for accentin' our Dino in this way...and btw, likes gotta 'fess up that I am in total total agreement with you that "Murders' Row" is simply the best of the quartet. Never was, never will be anyone as cool as the King of Cool...oh, to return to the days when Dino walked the earth. Know that your reflections are bein' shared this day with all the pallies gathered 'round ilovedinomartin.