Some time ago I watched an instalment of the Matt Helm series of films based on the books of Donald Hamilton, “The Wrecking Crew”. Today I caught the second movie in the series, “Murderers’ Row” from 1966.
The film was directed by Henry Levin (“Kiss The Girls And Make Them Die”, “The Ambushers”) and was based, however loosely, on Hamilton’s 1962 novel, also titled “Murderers’ Row”.
Following some suitably groovy titles featuring lots of red and pink and pictures of young women – kind of like a swinging sixties James Bond meets Austin Powers sequence – the action starts as Washington D.C. is destroyed by a heliobeam. Then the camera pulls away to reveal that it was a model being destroyed in a demonstration to show how the criminal organisation Bureau of International Government and Order (“Big O”) intends to harness the power of the sun within a matter of days.
With Intelligence Counter Espionage (“ICE”) having been infiltrated, Big O chief Julian Wall (Karl Malden – “A Streetcar Named Desire”, “Where The Sidewalk Ends”) orders that all ICE agents be killed.
After a number of agents are killed in various explosive ways photographer / agent Matt Helm (Dean Martin – “Who Was That Lady?”, “Kiss Me, Stupid”), busy shooting portraits for a calendar meets his fate at the hands of Miss January (Corinne Cole – “The Party”, “The Swinger”) in a bizarre tipping bed / indoor pool incident!
After a wake at Matt’s local bar, which is filled with weeping women wearing black trench coats, hats and fishnets (naturally), we see his boss at ICE, MacDonald (James Gregory – “The Manchurian Candidate”, “The Silencers”), meet the not-so-dead-after-all Matt to discuss the inventor of the heliobeam, one Dr. Norman Solaris (Richard Eastham – “There’s No Business Like Show Business”, “That Darn Cat!”, who has disappeared without trace. Matt’s sent to Monte Carlo to begin investigations under the assumed name Jim Peters, where he is to team up with local contact Dominique.
When he arrives she is already dead and he meets Suzie (Ann-Margret – “Tommy”, “The Pleasure Seekers”), a friend of Dominique, by the swimming pool. Suzie says that Dominique is missing.
Before you know it she and Matt are cutting a rug on a nightclub dance floor. Well, it’s more a case of Suzie dancing while Matt wisecracks but it’s certainly a productive use of Ann-Margret’s visual talents(!).
Julian is also in Monte Carlo, with Coco Duquette (Camilla Sparv – “The Trouble With Angels”, “Downhill Racer”). They spot Matt coming out of Dominique’s apartment and send a killer, Ironhead (Tom Reese – “Vanishing Point”, “The Outfit”) after him. But police arrive at the nightclub to inform Suzie that Dominique has been murdered, all hell breaks loose and Matt is arrested for Dominique’s murder, with Julian, Coco and Suzie as witnesses!
Despite Julian’s insistence neither Coco or Suzie manage to identify Matt and he is set free. Meeting up later with a babydoll-clad Suzie, Matt discovers that she is Solaris’s daughter and that she is convinced that Coco is responsible for his disappearance.
Matt falls into the clutches of Julian and Coco and discovers that they do, indeed, have Dr. Solaris. Mistaking Matt for an American gangster Lash Petroni, Julian decides to use him to kill MacDonald and get rid of Suzie too. Matt manages to overpower Ironhead and make his escape but will he be able to save Suzie and her father, not to mention Washington D.C.?
Naturally things can’t be that simple, especially with more than half of the film still to go. Matt and Suzie have to survive any number of scenarios involving lots of bluffs and apparent double crosses – and several more costume changes for Ann-Margret – as Julian attempts to see Washington D.C.’s destruction…
When I wrote about “The Wrecking Crew” I said that it was “a light-hearted spy caper… full of gentle humour, action, hip and swinging 60s music, gadgets, explosions and hot chicks.” That is equally true of “Murderers’ Row”.
There’s plenty of opportunities for Martin to indulge in wisecracks and innuendo and lots of shots of Ann-Margret strutting her stuff with close-up shots of her anatomy, the filmmakers using her sexuality to full advantage, just as was the case with Sharon Tate in the aforementioned instalment.
Old fashioned, less than convincing visual effects, sexist etc. etc. Yes, the movie is all of these things, but if you enjoy tongue-in-cheek espionage spoofs from an era when practically all women fell for the hero at first sight it’s also great fun…