Saturday, September 1, 2007

MATT HELM LOUNGE

Sony sent me an advance copy of the upcoming MATT HELM LOUNGE four-movie set, which stars Rat Packer Dean Martin as a swinging secret agent in THE SILENCERS, MURDERER'S ROW, THE AMBUSHERS and THE WRECKING CREW.

Clearly tone of the biggest inspirations for Mike Meyer's "Austin Powers" series, the four "Matt Helm" films are (very) loosely based on an excellent series of hardboiled novels by author Donald Hamilton. However, producer Irving Allen and star Martin, managed to transform the cold-blooded assassin of the novels into, well, basically an extension of Dean Martin's established public persona. Womanizing, laid-back and liable to start crooning, drop a double entendre or down a double martini with the slightest provocation, Martin's super spy was a lounge lizard in an ill-fitting turtleneck, saving the world casually between drinks.

Not to say the film as are without merit, though; they may not be up to the standards of the rival Bond series, but they're fun and funny, loaded with Rat Pack in-jokes and populated with some of the most beautiful femme fatales in the genre. These include Stella Stevens, Daliah Lavi, Cyd Charisse, Ann-Margaret, Senta Berger, Sharon Tate, Tina Louise and Nancy Kwan, among many others. Here's a quick rundown of the four films in the set:

THE SILENCERS (1966). The only flick in this set previously released on DVD, this is the exact same disc Sony put out a couple years ago. In the first of the series, directed by Phil Karlson, Matt Helm comes out of retirement, rejoins ICE (a top secret American spy agency) and sets out to foil the plans of Tung-Tze (Victor Buono) and his organization Big "O." The film is presented in a colorful, if slightly weathered 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer and includes trailers for unrelated Columbia discs.

MURDERER'S ROW (1966). In this second film, directed by Henry Levin, Helm heads for the Riviera and teams up with the incredibly sexy Ann-Margret to stop Karl Malden from destroying Washington D.C. with a heat ray. A rather fun hovercraft chase is the highlight of this one (well, that and Ann Margret's go-go dancing). ROW is presented in a crisp 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer and includes trailers for THE AMBUSHERS and a couple unrelated Columbia comedy discs.

THE AMBUSHERS (1967). This third film, again directed by Levin, is generally considered the weakest in the series, with Helm heading for Mexico in search of an American-built flying saucer that can only be piloted by women. Martin – and everybody else in this film – seems tired, and the plot plods along with very little pizazz. Martin's stunt doubles are more obvious than usual and the climactic chase is presented entirely with the stars in front of poorly-aligned rear-projection screens. The disc features a solid 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer and assorted trailers.

THE WRECKING CREW (1968). Things pick up a bit with the final Helm flick, as original director Phil Karlson returns to the series, and injects a little more wit and energy. This time, Helm's off to Copenhagen in search of a stolen trainload of gold, and is accompanied by the beautiful Sharon Tate. Future B-film star Chuck Norris has a cameo as one of the villain's thugs and Bruce Lee was the movie's "Karate Consultant." Another film, THE RAVAGERS, is announced in the end credits, but was never made, as Dean turned his attentions to his TV variety show (which only required him to work one day a week). The extras and technical specs are identical to the other discs: 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer and Columbia trailers.

The four movies come packaged in two space-efficient slim packs tucked into a cardboard slipcase. Be warned, though, the packaging has the four films in the wrong order. It doesn't matter much as there's no continuity to speak of, but the list above is correct.

Sixties spy-fi fans, Dean Martin/Rat Pack aficionados and "bird" watchers (as Austin Powers might say) will definitely want to pick this set up when it streets next month.

BUY: Matt Helm Lounge (The Silencers/ Murderers Row/The Ambushers/The Wrecking Crew)