Matt Helm is a fictional character created by author Donald Hamilton. He is a U.S. government counter-agent—a man whose primary job is to kill or nullify enemy agents—not a spy or secret agent in the ordinary sense of the term as used in spy thrillers.
|First appearance||Death of a Citizen|
|Last appearance||The Damagers|
|Created by||Donald Hamilton|
|Portrayed by||Dean Martin|
|Affiliation||United States government|
The character and the series
Published between 1960 and 1993, the 27 books in the series portrayed Helm, who acquired the code name "Eric" during his secret wartime assignments, as jaded, ruthless, pragmatic, and competent. The series was noted for its between-books continuity, which was somewhat rare for the genre. In the later books, Helm's origins as a man of action in World War II disappeared and he became an apparently ageless character, a common fate of long-running fictional heroes.
In the first book in the series, Death of a Citizen, which takes place in the summer of 1958, 13 years after the end of the war, Helm is frequently referred to by other characters as being of incipient middle age and apparently soft and out of shape, although no specific age for him is given. In the next story, which apparently takes place in the summer of 1959, a hostile agent from a rival American spy organization taunts Helm as a shopworn 36-year-old and clearly over the hill as a physical specimen. Later in the book, Helm himself says that he is 36 years old. Writer Hayford Peirce examined the issue of Helm's age, and found this figure to be improbably young given the information about Helm's background in Death of a Citizen. Peirce postulated that Helm was actually several years older than the 36 years mentioned in The Wrecking Crew and that he was probably born around 1918. By The Betrayers, the tenth book, the age issue vanishes completely.
Critic Anthony Boucher wrote: "Donald Hamilton has brought to the spy novel the authentic hard realism of Dashiell Hammett; and his stories are as compelling, and probably as close to the sordid truth of espionage, as any now being told." Golden Age mystery writer John Dickson Carr began reviewing books for Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine in 1969. According to Carr's biographer, "Carr found Donald Hamilton's Matt Helm to be 'my favorite secret agent,'" although Hamilton's books had little in common with Carr's. "The explanation may lie in Carr's comment that in espionage novels he preferred Matt Helm's 'cloud-cuckooland' land. Carr never valued realism in fiction."
Matt Helm in film and television
In 1965, Columbia Pictures acquired the film rights to eight Matt Helm novels. A five-film parody or spoof spy movie series was planned and four were made, debuting with The Silencers (from Hamilton's novels The Silencers and Death of a Citizen, adapted by acclaimed A Streetcar Named Desire screenwriter Oscar Saul). They were made to star Dean Martin, who co-produced with his Meadway-Claude Production company and received a partnership in the films. The series was produced by Irving Allen, who had once been the partner of James Bond film producer Albert R. "Cubby" Broccoli—the same man who had told Ian Fleming that his 007 novels were not "good enough for television," a point of contention between the two producers from 1958-1960 when they dissolved Warwick Films and went their separate ways.
The films used the name Matt Helm, his cover identity, plus book titles and some very loose plot elements, but otherwise the series bore no resemblance at all to the character, atmosphere, or themes of Hamilton's original books, nor to the hard-edged action of Bond. One reason for this is that the filmmakers believed the only way to compete with the Bond films was to parody them. (See also Casino Royale.) Likewise, a 1970s TV series Matt Helm, which cast Tony Franciosa as Helm, an ex-spy turned private detective, also departed from the books and was unsuccessful.
Martin played the part with his own persona of a fun-loving, easygoing, wisecracking playboy with plenty of references to singing and alcohol consumption. Although unnamed in the novels, Helm's department was called Intelligence and Counter-Espionage (ICE) in the films. Like the Bond films, the Helm movies feature a number of sexy women in each, sometimes referred to as "The Slaygirls".
For instance, in 1966's The Silencers, Stella Stevens played a redheaded bombshell who proves helpless while trying to help Helm, and a similar part was played by actress Sharon Tate in The Wrecking Crew. Martin co-starred in the films with popular '60s actresses such as Ann-Margret, Elke Sommer, Janice Rule, and Tina Louise.
Supposedly, the idea of a tongue-in-cheek take on Helm came from the first film's director, Phil Karlson. Intending to film a seriously intended screenplay with that approach had not worked for Karlson a few years previously with the 1961 Richard Widmark film The Secret Ways, as star-producer Widmark, who was married to the film's screenwriter, fired Karlson from the film and took over the direction himself without credit. Bond films of the 1970s, by contrast, adopted the style and setpieces of Helm films while also mostly ignoring the plot elements of Fleming's original books.
In 2002, it was reported that DreamWorks SKG had optioned the entire Helm book series. In 2005, Variety reported that DreamWorks had signed Michael Brandt and Derek Haas to write a screenplay for a high six-figure deal. According to the article, the film was to be a contemporary adaptation of the character, but no casting or release information was announced.
Paramount retained the film rights to the Matt Helm series after its 2008 split from DreamWorks. In 2009, it was reported that Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci would produce a more serious version of the Helm franchise, with Variety saying that the tone of Paul Attanasio's script was closer to that of the film The Bourne Identity and that Steven Spielberg was considering directing or producing. In March 2018, Deadline Hollywood reported that Tom Shepard had been hired by Paramount to rewrite the script, with Bradley Cooper attached to play the title character. Spielberg reportedly would remain involved in some unspecified capacity.
(all by Donald Hamilton)
- Death of a Citizen (1960)
- The Wrecking Crew (1960)
- The Removers (1961)
- The Silencers (1962)
- Murderers' Row (1962)
- The Ambushers (1963)
- The Shadowers (1964)
- The Ravagers (1964)
- The Devastators (1965)
- The Betrayers (1966)
- The Menacers (1968)
- The Interlopers (1969)
- The Poisoners (1971)
- The Intriguers (1972)
- The Intimidators (1974)
- The Terminators (1975)
- The Retaliators (1976)
- The Terrorizers (1977)
- The Revengers (1982)
- The Annihilators (1983)
- The Infiltrators (1984)
- The Detonators (1985)
- The Vanishers (1986)
- The Demolishers (1987)
- The Frighteners (1989)
- The Threateners (1992)
- The Damagers (1993)
- The Dominators – unpublished. Hamilton finished this novel in the late 1990s, and was reportedly revising it in preparation for seeking a publisher in mid-2002, but as of 2019 it has yet to be published.
(all starring Dean Martin as Helm)
A fifth film was planned, based upon the novel The Ravagers, but Martin declined the opportunity to play the role once more, even though the title of the film was announced at the end of Wrecking Crew.
In 2005, Variety reported that a contemporary adaptation of the Matt Helm novels was in the planning stage, with DreamWorks holding the film rights to all of Donald Hamilton's books. In 2009, rumors of the Helm project continued, with Steven Spielberg reportedly signed to produce a film and possibly direct, with Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci also producing. The project never came to fruition.
A television series loosely based upon Hamilton's character was launched by the ABC Network in 1975. Titled simply Matt Helm, the series starred Anthony Franciosa as a retired spy who becomes a private detective. After being launched by a pilot TV movie, it ran for only 14 episodes.
In Japan, Jin Kimura (Japanese: 木村仁), also known as Mitsuhisa Kimura (Japanese: 木村光久) drew Matt Helm Series (Japanese: マット・ヘルム・シリーズ Hepburn: Matto Herumu Shirīzu), based on the novel, in the magazine Boy's Life (Japanese: ボーイズライフ), November 1968 – March 1969.
- Peirce, Hayford (2000). "Some Thoughts on Matt Helm's Birthday". Matt Helm Books. Don Winans. Retrieved May 13, 2015.
- Encyclopedia of Mystery and Detection, compiled by Chris Steinbrunner and Otto Penzler, New York, 1976, page 195.
- John Dickson Carr, The Man Who Explained Miracles, by Douglas G. Greene, New York, 1995, page 443.
- p. 191 The Film Daily, Volume 127 Wid's Films and Film Folk Incorporated, 1965
- Michael Fleming (July 29, 2009). "Spielberg spying 'Matt Helm'?". Variety. Retrieved 2014-12-09.
- Fleming, Michael (July 30, 2009). "Spielberg spying 'Matt Helm'?". Variety. Retrieved August 11, 2017.
- Hipes, Patrick (2018-03-09). "Bradley Cooper's 'Matt Helm' Movie At Paramount Moves Forward With Scribe Tom Shepherd". Deadline. Retrieved 2018-03-09.
- "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2005-11-23. Retrieved 2005-05-23.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
- "www.hmss.com". www.hmss.com.
- "Latest Movie Reviews and trailers - Script Reviews - Matt Helm". 27 September 2007. Archived from the original on 27 September 2007.CS1 maint: BOT: original-url status unknown (link)
- "Will Steven Spielberg Helm Matt ? - ComingSoon.net". 30 July 2009.
- 少年まんが作品 (in Japanese), Japanese: 木村祥刀 official website, Retrieved September 30, 2012.
- John Dickson Carr, The Man Who Explained Miracles, by Douglas G. Greene, New York, 1995
- Encyclopedia of Mystery and Detection, by Chris Steinbrunner and Otto Penzler, New York, 1976, ISBN 0-07-061121-1
- "Spielberg Spying Matt Helm: Secret Agent May Be Subject of Director's Next Film", by Michael Fleming, Variety, Wed., Jul. 29, 2009