Matt Helm

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.

The character appeared in 27 books over a 33-year period beginning in 1960 and established Helm as one of the most tough-minded, pragmatic, and competent of all fictional agents, whatever their roles. 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 Second World 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 being 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.

A long Internet article (on the now defunct members.aol.com) by Hayford Peirce examined the issue of Helm’s age, however, 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. In the remaining 25 books of the series, however, 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.” [1] 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.” [2]

Matt Helm in film and television

In 1965 Columbia Pictures acquired the film rights to eight Matt Helm novels.[3] A movie series was made starring 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 was the attitude of the filmmakers that 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 as 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 Helm came from the first director, Phil Karlson. Karlson had the idea of filming The Secret Ways with that approach, but the star, producer, and husband of the screenwriter, Richard Widmark, fired him 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 had optioned the entire Helm book series. On August 9, 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 will be a contemporary adaptation of the character, but no casting or release information has been announced.

The Martin version of Helm served as a significant inspiration for Mike Myers’s comic character Austin Powers and many references can be seen. Most significantly, both are fashion photographers as their cover jobs.

Paramount retained 100% of the Matt Helm series after its split from DreamWorks SKG. Currently, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci are producing a more serious version of the Helm franchise. The tone of Paul Attanasio’s script is closer to that of The Bourne Identity, reports Variety. Despite having no contractual connections any longer, there are rumors that Steven Spielberg is considering directing or producing the Matt Helm update.