Thursday, October 18, 2012

"Matt, They Can Brainwash a Vacuum Cleaner!"

No, from the well. I like my innuendo fresh...
As promised (thanks to encouragement from ilovedinomartin' blog), I've returned to the wacky world of Matt Helm, with Dean Martin's second outing as the I.C.E. counter-agent against the evil machinations of Big O in Murderers' Row (1966).

This time, a super weapon, the Helio-bomb, threatens to wipe Washington D.C. off the map after the scientist who invented it is kidnapped by an agent of Big O. Matt is reluctantly returned to service after faking his death to rescue Dr. Solaris (naturally a guy named Solaris captures killer sun rays. What's he going to make? Moon-bombs?) from an island fortress off the French Riviera. So Dino spends some time in the sun in the south of France and gets caught up in the wild swinging scene of the lovely Ann-Margret.

Wood-paneling: the essence of chic.
Like it's predecessor, The Silencers, Murderers' Row features a non-stop barrage of swanky scenes, snarky dialogue and snappy gadgets.  Though it again tosses aside the grim and grimy underworld of Hamilton's original Matt Helm novels for more colorful settings and a host of fashion magazine glamor, this one seems a trifle less full of the fluff than the first film.  It definitely has a more early Bond film vibe, but doesn't skimp on Helm's endless one-liners, the drinking and driving, and the occasional jab at fellow Rat Packer Frank.

In fact, that almost ends up being the problem: It definitely features a stronger plot than the original, but still features plot holes that one could drive a tricked-out hovercraft over and through.  The one that plagued me most was that after Ann-Margret disables the machine the refines the ore that powers the Helio-bomb with a bobby-pin (ok, fine, fair enough),  moments later, the men guarding her still leave her loose enough to power the electro-magnet that aids Dino in fending off the character I refer to as Quarter Destro (the credits call him Iron Head...see if you can spot him in the accompanying photos).  Wait, what?  She just blew up one machine, and the armed guards let her play with the magnet for several minutes to take out their boss. Guess it's true what the say about finding good henchmen.

When Shop Class goes terribly awry...
That's just one, there's several other gaping gaps in logic.  Now, don't get me wrong, in the generally fun-filled light atmosphere, these heavy suspensions of disbelief can't spoil the fun (and a belt or two of gin will have you giggling over most of them after a wry retort from Dino).  What bothers me, in retrospect, is that this could've been a solid action story above and beyond being a light afternoon's entertainment if only someone had seen to it that the script made a little more sense where it counts (like when Matt's got a cover story for his cover story that isn't spoiled by Big O's inside man in Washington).  All of this could've been avoided, I suppose, if they'd headed off into the bizarre anything goes tone of the 1967 version of Casino Royale, but since they played it more by the numbers, I couldn't help but notice it.  I know that consideration for pop culture longevity has only become a recent concern, but I like to think that for all the talent involved, they'd want a movie that over time would appeal to more than just guys into nostalgia or goofy cinema...oh me.

In my dreams, I wake up to this sort of thing...
Karl Malden, the all too serious star in On the Waterfront and Patton, does an entertaining turn as the villain, Julian Wall.  His strange relationship with his mistress Coco is surprisingly risqué for the era of married couples in seperate beds. You'll just have to see the movie to see what I mean.  The only odd mis-step with his character is his introduction where he's given the Blofeld treatment.  For those who don't remember, Ernst Blofeld was James Bond nemesis in the Connery run of movies, but until You Only Live Twice (1967) where he's played wonderfully by Donald Pleasance, he's only shown from behind or in shadows.  Problem is: a) Malden has a very distinct voice, and b) when they semi-reveal him, Malden also has one of cinema's even more distinctive schnozzes. So even if you don't know who he is, when you see him as're not likely to not be able to figure out he's the ominous shadow from the opening.

"What?! I thought it was Telly Savalas...I'm serious!"
In any event, a great deal of the fun is found in the genuine chemistry of Martin and...uh... -Margret.  Even though Dino's hilariously out of place in her psychedelic discotheque world, he's never not cool.  But at the same time, the filmmakers don't go out of their way to make her world seem like some idiotic fad either.  It's a far more diplomatic trade-off of the generation gap than was served up in most movies at the time.  In all, you can't help but wish that you could quip off to nearly every bit said to you like Dino can, and you sure wouldn't mind have a kooky beauty on your arm like Ann-Margret while doing so.  (I got to work on a film with Ann-Margret, and I can assure you, she's continued to be every bit of the lovely lady she was then.)

Also, for a silly 60's swankfest, one can't ignore that the first film had the great Elmer Bernstein at the musical helm, and the second features the also dazzling Lalo Schifrin. So I say, see The Silencers to ease into the world of Matt Helm...but keep Murder's Row nearby as just the right chaser.

Bonus: The ideal substitue for the pool noodle.
I will some point...and so will Dean Martin as Matt Helm in The Ambushers (1967).