MOVIE REVIEW: “The Silencers” (1966)

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Man, did this movie employ every stripper in the Los Angeles, or what? Seriously, the amount of barely-concealed T&A in this movie is astounding. I mean, the title sequence *alone* has not one, but three stripteases, and though there’s a lot of nekked ladies on screen, the naughty bits are always obscured in some way or another. While I appreciate the strategic requirements of that technique when people go to the trouble of doing it - like that Love, American Style episode that takes place entirely in a city of nudists - it does kind of begin to wear you down after a bit. It’s like FHM: The Movie!

I’m getting ahead of myself. Backing up a bit: When I was a little kid, I loved Spy Movies but didn’t quite understand them. I loved Get Smart, but never realized that it was supposed to be funny. But who doesn’t like spies? When I was a bit older, and go the joke, pretty much I only ever saw the *bad* spy movies on TV since the Bond Films - infrequently run in those days - always came on after my bedtime. I never quite got the context. I realized by this point they were supposed to be adventure comedies and maybe even parodies, but I was never quite sure of what they were making fun of. Imagine if you had never seen a Bond film, and had only the Austin Powers Trilogy to figure it out from. That was kinda’ like me at the time.

None of which really mattered by the time I was eleven or twelve. By that point, I’d figured out that girls were endlessly fascinating creatures that you just kind of wanted to sit and stare at all day long, but I hadn’t quite figured out why. Spy movies seemed a fine place to try and puzzle that out, though - acres and acres of unbelievably hot women in revealing clothing were always wandering about. Oh, yeah, and sometimes people get shot. What’s not to like?

My local UHF station showed “Spy Theater” on Sundays after church, about 2PM. This was just a random assemblage of whatever spy films they had on hand - the Flint movies, the Harry Palmer films, some of the Hitchcock flicks, the Cinema-length episodes of “The Man from U.N.C.L.E,” some random one-off films, and of course the Matt Helm movies. All these were shown evidently without a station censor bothering to screen them first. How bad could they be? They were sixties movies, after all - it’s not like there was anything dirty in ‘em.

Those Matt Helm movies, yikes!

Funny, goofball, lurid, luscious, adventurous, exciting, and literally overflowing with women who were literally overflowing from their clothes - I totally loved the hell out of these movies in the years between the original Battlestar Galactica and Galactica: 1980. They were everything a boy could want in those days. I watched ‘em all a few years ago, and at the loosing edge of my thirties, I wasn’t as impressed. They weren’t without their charms, but they weren’t all that and a bag of (Wiggling) hips either.

Last month, our obituary for Karl Malden http://www.republibot.com/content/obituary-karl-malden-1912-2009 gave way to a conversation about the Matt Helm movies, and talking to Dino Martin Peters (his website is here http://ilovedinomartin.blogspot.com/ ) led to me deciding to revisit the films and review them here on the site. The fact that there’s a spaceship in one of the movies places the entire series solidly within the Spy Fi subgenre, so it’s within our mandate, but I admit I’m a bit uncomfortable with this. Even though there’s nothing in these movies that you couldn’t show on TV as far back as the 1970s, there’s undeniably a kind of leering, smarmy quality to these films that puts them outside our normal tone for the site, there’s just no getting around that.

So now that you’ve been warned, on to the review:

PLAY BY PLAY:

We start out with Roger Carmel (Harry Mudd from Star Trek) scratching the name “Matt Helm” on to some bullets, then giving them to four gunsels. They put ‘em in their guns, and shoot the wall which starts the title sequence with the strippers, as I already said. Eventually she gets around to ripping her blouse open, with the title of the movie strategically covering her mommy-bits, and gives a naughty little downward ‘oh am I naked’ kind of surprised pouty smile expression that I have to admit is kinda’ fetching, even though she’s not supernaturally attractive. Then we get a blonde stripper with a feathered boa, and then - holy crap! - It’s Cyd Charise! She sings a stupid slutty song with dumb lyrics and dances and does a slow striptease, and it must be said she looks freakin’ unbelievable for a 44-year-old-woman in the sixties. I particularly love when her hair falls down in front of her eyes. Unlike the two women before her, she’s not *really* a stripper (Or “Specialty Dancer” as IMDb lists ‘em), and she only *starts* to take her clothes off when the title sequence ends and we cut away from her, but it’s still surprising. She’s obviously way more comfortable with her body than you’d expect of a woman of her age and social standing in those days.

Ah, hell, just watch it: There’s nothing particularly titillating in here, but, damn!

And if that link doesn’t work, then go here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kaT7K_a1g_Y

Anyway, once that’s all done and the movie actually starts, we find ourselves in the office of “Mac” MacDonald (James Gregory, also from Star Trek, but best known as Inspector Luger from Barney Miller). Mac is the head of ICE: the US department of Intelligence and Counter Espionage, the nonexistent-but-real-sounding spy agency for this particular movie. (Gotta’ have one of those, but you can’t use a real one without getting sued.) Mac is on the phone talking to one of his female agents (Daliah Lavi, the Israeli actress/model, who was 24 when this movie was made and it must be said that her unusual accent and looks and slightly refined, slightly imperious manner make her fairly compelling), who’s partner was just killed. He decides to recall the legendary secret agent Matt Helm (Dean Martin, aged 49 and he looks it) to active duty.

Cut to Matt/Dino’s swanky upscale bachelor pad: He’s asleep on a round bed, dreaming of some models he’s recently photographed for various T&A magazines. In his dream, he macks with the cowgirl from Western Trails (Who’s just adorable), then smooches around with the mostly-naked cover model from “Bait & Tackle magazine” (Who’s kinda’ bland, actually), and then smooches around some more with the woman who’s fencing in her underwear on the cover of “Slaymate” magazine. (She’s ok, but frankly the cowgirl just kills it for all of ‘em.), all the while Dean is singing parody versions of some of his own songs on the soundtrack. MacDonald’s phone call wakes Helm up, but he refuses to go back to active duty. He hits a button and his round, rotating bed slides across the room, through the wall, and dumps him in to a swimming pool-sized bathtub, complete with naked secretary with the unfortunately Flemmingesque name of “Lovey Kravesit.” (Beverly Adams, who continued working until the late 90s, but this is really her most famous role). They smooch around in the tub a bit, and after the auto-towel-drying system gets done with them, they decide to head to Acapulco for a photo shoot. Granted, three of the girls were in a dream sequence, but we’re not even ten minutes in to the movie and he’s made out with four chicks!

Meanwhile in the middle of nowhere, Roger Carmel he heading to the secret lair of “Big O,” the evil SPECTRE-like bad guys from this movie. He’s tailed by a couple ICE-operatives, and called on the carpet about this by his boss, but it all comes to nothing. The boss is Victor Buono, one of my all-time favorite character actors, who did episodes of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, The Wild Wild West, and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane, but curiously, *didn’t* do an episode of Star Trek. In this movie, he’s playing a character named “Tung-Tze,” an extremely obese man who’s hilariously not-at-all Chinese. Honestly, I’m not sure what the guy is supposed to be - is he of mixed racial ancestry? Is he actually supposed to be Chinese? (Unlikely with those blue-grey eyes). Is he just a fat gay dude who likes to wear a lot of eyeliner and mascara? (Maybe). Seriously, the casting here boggles me, but it’s always good to see Victor. He plays the role with a vaguely effeminate stern politeness that was kind of what people thought Chinese dudes were like in those days. Anyway: Tung-Tze reveals to his lieutenants that the US will be doing a missile test, and an unrelated underground nuclear test, on the same day, and they intend to hijack the rocket so it’ll ruin the nuclear test for some as-yet-unexplained reason. Just to be safe, Tung-Tze orders Roger Carmel to kill Matt Helm.

Matt comes home from a hard day of photographing naked chicks to find a woman in his bedroom, naked except for his tuxedo shirt. (Nice body, entirely too much makeup) She never bothers to introduce herself, they immediately start macking, and while his hands are otherwise occupied, she pulls a knife and is about to stab him when Secret Agent Tina (Dhalia Lavi) comes in and shoots her, saving his life. Even though Big O is trying to kill him, Helm still refuses to get involved. Tina points out the gunsels from the teaser are outside waiting to kill him, so he goes to his secret stash of guns (Hidden behind a non-secret stash of guns in a rifle case - I love that gag!) and reluctantly kills two of the guys, before speeding off in his station wagon (Yes, he drives a station wagon) with Tina. Tina puts the moves on him, they smooch a bit, and he’s reluctantly in for the duration of the case.

The two of them drive to Arizona and get a couple hotel rooms - one for him, one for her, how quaint - and while his room is being made ready, he heads to the pool. Roger Carmel, meanwhile, sneaks in to Matt’s room and switches out the phone for a non-GTE-approved knockoff. Meanwhile, at the pool, Matt gets splashed repeatedly by Gail Hendricks (Stella Stevens, 30 and red-headed at the time, and wearing a one-piece bathing suit that shows nothing, and yet is amazingly revealing) She’s clumsy and enganges in a whole bunch of Lucile Ball/Jack Tripper shenanigans, while Matt introduces Tina as “Mrs. Helm.” Gail, meanwhile, is evidently dating the organ player at the pool bar, who likes cowboy clothes (The bar itself actually drives around the pool. Pointless, but undeniably cool.) Gail manages to destroy Dino’s clothes, so him and Tina head back up to their rooms to change, but she entices him to her room, and they do it.

Afterwards, Tina and Helm head to the “Slaymate” club (where Roger Carmel is lurking, and Gail and the cowboy/organist are on a date - I’m confused: upper class people like this took dates to nudie bars in the sixties?). There’s an oddly-shot stripper sequence (I suspect they couldn’t actually manage to hide the important areas, so they cut most of the scene), and then Cyd Charisse - playing a character called “Sarita” - comes out and sings and dances in a sequence that goes on entirely too long, and while Cyd looks pretty incredible here, her costume can best be described as embarrassing. Anyway, she’s supposed to pass a computer tape to one of the gunsels, the plan goes south and so the guy shoots her on stage. Higgaldy Piggaldy ensues, and Gail talks to the dying Cyd, who gives her the tape.

Tina and Helm grab Gail and get her out of the theater, and there’s a breif fistfight between Helm and Carmel which is actually probably unintentionally more realistic than anyone intended when filming this. It’s every bit as awkward as watching a real fight between a fit 49 year old and a fat, foppish 34 year old would be. (Yikes! Harry Mudd was only in his mid-30s? Wow!). Back in the hotel, Dino rips off stella’s clothes for no particularly logical reason other than she’s Stella Freakin’ Stevens, hottest woman in the world, and the audience isn’t paying to see her dressed. She talks them in to calling someone, that non-standard GTE phone sprays poison gas in everyone’s faces, and Gail tries to escape, but is intercepted by Mac, who just happened to be about to knock on the door at the time.

After the gas wears off, Helm and Mac question Gail, and decide she’s an enemy agent, but they let her tag along with Helm anyway. Then Helm goes over to Tina’s room, they make out a bit, and then they do it again. We’re like halfway through the movie, and not terribly much has happened yet, by the way. The next morning, Mac gives Helm a special gun which shoots the person who’s holding it if you pull the trigger normally, and shoots forward if you push the trigger forward (Kind of clever, really). They also give him a blazer with hand grenades as buttons, and send him on his way with Gail, based on Cyd Charisse’s dying words. Mac also mentions that there’s an as-yet-unidentified Big O agent around called “Cowboy,” probably the organ player from the bar.

En rout to the town of Wigwam, near San Juan, there’s a car chase that eats up about five minutes of screen time. Afterwards, a bar slides out from the side of the car, and Dino drinks and drives to an extent that was probably only moderately amusing back in the day, but is utterly hilarious now. He questions Gail about her involvement with Big O, but she goes back and forth between playing along and not having any idea what he’s talking about. Then they pull over for the night, and some beds and stuff fold out from hidden compartments in the station wagon. A drunken Gail tries to escape in the rain, and we get a very long Lucile Ballesque scene of her getting in more and more trouble, repeatedly falling in the mud, and not even getting ten feet from the car before she gives up and heads back. Again, this scene goes on for like five minutes. Watching this with the republispouse, my wife turned to me and said “What, was the movie running short or something?” Back in the car, her and Dino start making out, and then they do it.

The Wigwam lead turned out to be a dead end, and Helm accuses Gail of deliberately misleading him, and intends to take her to prison. She runs away. Dino recognizes one of the gunsels running around, however, and calls this in to Mac (On a payphone!) while Arthur O’Connell (From Fantastic Voyage and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, but again, not Trek) cleans his windshield at the local gas station. Mac tells Helm that Tina’s been kidnapped by Big O. Seeing Gail in a park, Helm convinces her that some hillbilly skeet shooters are trying to kill them, and they make out some, in a rather pointlessly confused scene. Then they get captured by the cowboy/organist, who takes Helm’s gun and delivers the both of them to Tung-Tze in the Big O secret lair.

The rest of the big plan is revealed: Tung-Tze says that they’re going to hack the US missile test so it causes the underground nuclear test to basically go above ground, which will irradiate most of the American southwest. The US will blame Russia, which will cause a nuclear war, and Big O ends up having taken the first step to whatever their nebulously-defined ultimate goal is. Wow. If Nuclear War is your *First* step, no one can accuse you of thinking small, that’s for sure. But seriously, it’s entirely unclear how ruining Nevada, and a Nuclear Smackdown ‘twixt the US and USSR is supposed to work to their advantage. I suppose we’re supposed to believe that Big O is working for the People’s Republic of China, who will then take over the burned out cinder of the world? I dunno. It’s all rather vague, but Tung-Tze seems pleased with it, so it’s possible that it’s got subtle charms that are lost on me because I’m not a morbidly obese vaguely effeminate character actor with girly eye-makeup and prosthetic eyebrows. You know, big world. Takes all kinds.

Arthur O’Connel, the hick from the gas station, turns out to be Big O’s main rocket scientist, and surpising nobody, Tina turns out to be a double agent code named “Cowboy.” In her badgirl clothes she looks pretty amazing, though. I particularly dig the white proto-punk stripes in her otherwise jet-black hair. The Organist takes Gail off to “The Blue Room” (“Don’t worry, it’s quite pleasant if you like blue”) and Tina takes Helm off to her swanky cave room, where she asks him to defect because she’s hot for him. While putting the moves on him, she accidentally activates one of his button grenades, and probably dies, though this is a little unclear. Helm escapes, a gunfight ensues, and he attacks the Big O control room, badly damaging it. The organist tries to kill Gail with Helm’s gun, shooting himself, then, in confusion, shooting himself again. Gail takes the gun and runs away, using the thing in unexpectedly clever ways to get past every guard she meets (she feigns suicide once, hands it to another as she runs past, who shoots himself as she gets away). Helm, meanwhile, is held down in the main cave by machine guns and then two big red rods which are evidently supposed to be lasers, but they sound like a broken belt sander and they look like…uhm….big red tubes. There’s no beams or anything, just VERY LONG red glowing, smoking tubes (Two of ‘em) and some sparks on the rock walls. When I watched this last night, I blinked when Tung-Tze hit a switch that said “Lasers” and really had no idea what the hell was going on.) Helm manages to excape in a fairly clever Voyage to the Bottom fo the Sea kind of manner, and he and Gail get to the enemy blockhouse where Arthur O’Connel is controlling the rocket form.

After a battle, and a hissy-fit from Tung-Tze, the possibly-Chinese arch villain is shot with helm’s gun. Helm redirects the missile to hit Big O’s secret lair. Then Helm and Gail head back to his place and do it. In between doing it, they get dressed for a night on the town, but Mac calls to check up on them and while trying to hang up the phone, Gail manages to activate the bed, which once again crosses the room and dumps her and Helm fully clothed in to his swimming pool-sized bath tub, where they make out a bit while the credits roll.

THE END

OBSERVATIONS:

Phew. Where to begin? First this is a deliberately cheesy movie, as was the style of the time, and in that it succeeds, though it probably played out much funnier in context in ‘66 than it does on ‘09. Calling it a ‘parody’ is probably a bit much - I think they were just riding the spy gravy train without giving it toooo much thought beyond ‘it should be funny’ - but tt’s definitely worth watching as a slice of cinematic history: It’s just effortlessly, drippingly racist and sexist, and while I’m not at all politically correct, if you watch this with friends who are, you can expect to see them wince. A lot. The plot is functional, but never really makes sense, and never fully engages the audience. The production design isn’t as lavish as a Bond movie, of course, but it’s definitely in that spirit, and it’s still fairly eyepopping just the same: Helm’s home is sprawling (I suspect at least the living room and garage were someone’s real house). The Big O lair is very cool, as an maze of tunnels, caves, and assorted high-tech 1960s fiddle-de-dits. Tina’s cave bedroom is actually pretty neat, and it’s sort of a shame that such a lavish set only gets one scene in the movie. Though there’s obviously only really one tunnel here, the way they edit their shots makes it look like a lot more, and their use of a fisheye lens in subtle fashion maximizes the look of the place and makes it seem more impressive than the actual set probably really was.

Direction (By Phil Karlson, who later did “Ben” and “Walkign Tall” as well as one Elvis film) starts out really strong, but starts to loose energy about a third of the way through the film. Absolutely nothing interesting happens between the halfway and three-quarters mark of the movie, though once again things pick up in the end. I blame this more on the script - the movie was obviously being shot wet, and there’s so many scenes that don’t quite make sense that it’s obvious a lot of changes were taking place during the shoot - than the director, but even so, there’s a number of scenes in the second half of the film that go nowhere and take twice as long as they need to get there. He makes an interesting decision to shoot several of the action sequences - particularly the car chase - without any kind of music, whcih gives them an interesting feel.

I would gladly kill or die to have the soundtrack to this film. It's just great, even without Dino singing parody versions of his own songs. Elmer Bernstein kicks out a great slice of brassy mid-60s jazz here, and it's just gorgeous all the way through. Really its only failing is the lack of a definable "Matt Helm Theme."

The women are mostly pretty va-va-voom in that special 1960s way, and while there’s no denying the smarm of the film, most of that is in the first act, and things settle down after that. In the end, Dino makes out with six women eight time, and has sex three times with only two different women. Three of the women he’s macking around with are in a dream sequence in the beginning, so I’m not sure if we should count them. Also, it’s not *entirely* clear if he does it with Lovey, so maybe I’m lowballing the sex numbers, I dunno. In the past I’ve called these movies “Late night Skinemax flicks with no actual nudity” but that might be a bit excessive. The first ten minutes or so feel like that, but the rest of the film is more sedate. Even so, IMDb lists a half dozen “Specialty Dancers” and a dozen more “Slaymates” and “Girls.”

There’s a number of good lines:

One of the Big O agents compliments Tung-Tze on the latest American disaster, to which he replies: “Did you like it? Oh, thank you!”

Gail tells Dino: “You’re sick! S-I-Q-U-E-Sick!”

The scene where Gail realizes Helm was only sleeping with her to get information is surprisingly raw: “I’m going back to the motel - I need another bath!” she says with real disgust in her voice.

Dean Martin is pretty amazing, really. Though he’s obviously not taking this film very seriously - “What, you mean they pay me to make out with chicks? AND I get to sing? Hot damn, sign me up!” - it’s amazing just how much charisma he brings to the screen. He effortlessly commands every scene, and though he’s clearly too old to be playing the dashing over-sexed swinger/man of danger, he still manages to pull it off. In fact, some of the scenes - the fight in the garage, for instance, or the second half of the alley fight with Roger Carmel - work so well that it’s kind of surprising. Dino used to box, after all, and even in middle age he’s still unexpectedly effective in a fight scene. It makes me kind of wish they’d played it a tad straighter, because even though the whole movie is a self-serving gag, the fact is the man is - and always was - a damn effective leading man. Also his scenes with James Gregory have some unexpected chemistry to them that adds to the idea these guys have a past.

As an actress, Stella Stevens is jaw-droopingly mouth-dryingly beautiful. As a beautiful woman, she’s not much of an actress. She delivers her lines like she learned them the night before. When playing excited, her voice tends towards shrill rather than emotional. The physical comedy stuff mostly doesn’t work (Except in the scenes with the reverse-pistol). She’s not awful, but she’s not all that good, with one or two exceptions. She was never the greatest actress, but I don’t really blame her (“Wanted: Actress who can talk and not wear many clothes”) because she’s not really given much to do here, but daaaaaaaaaaaaamn, son, is she hot, particularly with the red hair she’s got here. She is never more beautiful - and more on display - than she is in this movie.

Did I mention that I’ve got completely inappropriate lust for Cyd Charisse? Great…I’m in love with another dead chick…

Oh, by the way, Cyd’s singing voice was actually Vicki Carr, dubbed in after the fact. This was done really well, I totally didn’t realize that wasn’t Cyd singing.

Roger Carmel and Daliah Lavi both go out with a whimper, and the brilliant Victor Buono is shamefully underused, but on the whole this is a fun movie that does what it set out to do: Moderately amuse and titillate.

So that’s what I’ve got. My favorite scene in the movie actually isn’t in the movie, by the way: after the closing credits there’s a ‘teaser’ for the next movie in the series (“Murderer’s Row,” Which I’ll be reviewing next week) that consists of Dino on his revolving bed, surrounded by pretty much all the girls from the movie (Not counting Cyd, Stella, or Daliah, of course). Dino alternately smooches the cowgirl and the fencing girl from the opening dream sequence, and then, overcome by embarrassment or silliness or whatever, he abruptly cradles his head in his hands and says “Oh my God…” in a humiliated fashion. I know that’s coming every single time, but it’s obviously unscripted and it completely cracks me up every single time I see it.

WILL CONSERVATIVES LIKE THIS MOVIE?

Oh, God, no!

The entire movie is online here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Y0al2LyGfQ&feature=PlayList&p=E41D8E994D...

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