MOVIE REVIEW: “Murderer’s Row” (1966)

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Ok, last week’s review of “The Silencers” was a bit of a ramble, so let’s see if I can stay a bit more focused this time out. “Murderer’s Row” was the second movie in the Matt Helm series, released barely ten months after the first film, and in the same year. They really cranked ‘em out in the sixties.

Now, I had a lot of reservations about the first film, but I let a lot of them slide because it was an adventure/comedy after all, and not meant to be taken seriously. Some have called it a parody of the spy genre, but I think that might be going a bit too far, since it’s not really all that much different from the meant-to-be-taken-seriously Bond knockoffs of the same era, though of course it’s funnier. If it’s parody at all, it’s more a self-parody of Dino than anything else. “Hey, I’m always hanging around in a tux, I drink a lot of martinis, why don’t we build a movie around that?”

In my last review, I said that there were a couple fight scenes with Dino that made me kind of wish they’d played the movie a hair straighter, Since the 49-year-old Mr. Martin was an unexpectedly forceful presence in them. I also thought it would be nice if they toned down the smarm a bit - just a bit, mind you - so that the film seemed more like an actual film, and less like a home movie from the Playboy Mansion.

Evidently the producers of the series had the same thoughts as me, because they made exactly those changes in the sophomore film. (Or perhaps at some point in my own future, I travel back in time to give them notes. It’s unlikely, but I am a strange guy…) “Murderer’s Row” has a much better grip on what it wants to do, the plot makes a bit more sense, and is tighter, and while there’s plenty of pulchritude on parade, they play it in such a way that Helm never seems quite the Late Night Cinemax sex addict that he kinda’ did in the first reel of the first movie.

PLAY BY PLAY

For starters, gone is the two-and-a-half strippers and a song opening from the first film. (Cyd Charisse…sigh). Instead we jump right in to a much more energetic opening title sequence that just screams ‘60s:

(If that link doesn’t work, try here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0UE4Vpv-YMs ) and we hit the ground running with a scene of Washington DC being destroyed by a death ray!

That turns out to be a simulation to demonstrate Big O’s latest evil scheme for the benefit of the agency’s various lieutenants and cells. Since they’re very close to their target date, they don’t want to take any chances and the evil Julian Wall (Karl Malden, wrestling with a very bad accent) send his ace henchman “Ironhead” (Tom Reese, who’s best known from Gunsmoke, and who played Sgt. Velie on the short-lived Ellery Queen series in the ‘70s), who has an exposed chrome/iron plate in his head (Well, duh.) to kill all the world’s best agents. The French agent gets blown up in a disco. The English agent gets pushed off a cliff. The Japanese agent gets blown up in a bathouse, and so on. They don’t actually know what Matt Helm looks like - his identity is a closely guarded secret - and the only photo they have of him is from behind. It’s so vague that they point out his glass full of gin as an “Identifying Characteristic.”

Cut to Helm’s house - same set as the last movie - where he’s doing a cheesecake photoshoot for a girlie calendar. Finishing with Miss January, Miss July shows up early, and the whole project is running him ragged: “January’s just left, July is six months early, and April is three months late.” He declines another photo assignment so he and Lovey Kravesit can go on a vacation together, but for now he just wants to take a nap. Alas, Miss January (Best known for being a 1958 Playboy centerfold) is in his bed trying to seduce him. Matt turns her down, or tries to, but eventually relents. January hits a button, and Matt’s rotating, sliding bed heads to his swimming pool/tub. There’s a ray gun beam poking in from the skylight, but Matt doesn’t notice. The Evil Miss January - she works for Big O - tried to get out of the bed before it hit’s the water, but Matt playfully holds her in, there’s an explosion, and they’re both dead.

At Helm’s favorite bar, the flag is at half mast, and a bevy of mourning models all drink a toast to Matt while a Liza impersonator sings “Roll out the Barrel.” (I actually thought it might be Liza for a minute, but it’s someone named Jacqueline Fontaine. (I’d never heard of her either.) Mac (James Gregory) and Lovey (Beverly Adams) are there, too. Mac excuses himself, goes to a late-night garage, and meets with the not-at-all-surprisingly-not-dead Matt Helm, who he briefs on the mission:

Big O has kidnapped a scientist named Norman Solaris, who’s been developing a solar-powered laser death ray that they intend to use against the US. Their only lead is a shipment of inobtanium-40 heading to Cannes, since they know the death ray needs that. Matt is to meet with a French agent working undercover as a chanteuse. He’s to rescue Solaris if he can, but if he can’t, he’s to kill the man - and himself if he gets caught. Since there’s a mole in ICE - the non-existent-but-neat-sounding spy organization they work for, Matt will stay dead officially, and only Mac and the President know otherwise.

Helm heads to France and goes to his contact’s apartment, but finds her dead in the fridge. Leaving, he bumps in to Ann Margret (Inexplicably wearing a turtle-neck swimsuit), and is observed by the evil Mr. Wall and his girlfriend, Coco. Coco is immediately smitten with Helm. That night in town, Helm goes to a disco where he bumps in to Ann Margaret again, who’s unbelievably smoking’ hot, and who dances entirely too frenetically. She’s literally hanging all over him. The cops show up saying that the Chanteuse is dead and their lead suspect is Helm (Going under the name “Peters”). A fight breaks out, and Helm is arrested.

In the police lineup (Which is actually kinda’ funny), Mr. Wall identifies Helm/Peters as the murderer, but Coco says she couldn’t be sure, she wasn’t really paying attention. Ann Margaret comes in with her beat up boyfriend, Billy (Not the same Billy from the band) and also fails to identify Helm, somewhat surprisingly, so they let him go. Back at his hotel, Ann is waiting for him, and they make out a bit. She thinks he’s a hitman working for Mr. Wall and his girlfriend Coco. (“She’s not his wife.” “You mean they hate each other like that for free?”) Ann wants to hire Helm to her side. “I’ll make it worth your while” she says. They smooch around for a bit. He points out logically that he can’t be working for Wall, since Wall just tried to send him up the river, and she reveals that she’s Dr. Solaris’ daughter. Helm agrees to help her out, and starts to leave just as Billy bluster in talking like a twit and blathering about how he used to box for Yale.

The next day, Helm easily sneaks in to Mr. Wall’s private island, and is just as easily captured. Questioned, he claims he was just snooping around to find something to blackmail Wall over, he’s just a hood from the states. Checking this out, Wall contacts his mole in ICE, who confirms that “Peters” isn’t the guy’s real name. In actual fact he’s a hired gun from Chicago who can’t come back to the states because he owes his wife too much alimony. (“Did you have any children?” “No, just two dogs - a French poodle and my wife.”) Ya’ gotta’ hand it to Mac - he covered his bases. Wall decides he can always use another hired gun, and puts Helm on the payroll then and there, and points out that he’s decided to kill Ann Margret back on the mainland. Helm escapes, steals Wall’s hovercraft, and beats up Ironhead, then drives the hovercraft to the disco Ann’s dancing in, rips her dress off, and throws it at a picture of Frank Sinatra that’s inexplicably projected on the back wall. (“Sorry, Frank,” Dino says.) This is our obligatory Rat Pack in-joke for the film. (In “The Silencers” Helm is driving along and Stella Stevens is playing with the radio. A Sinatra song comes on, and Helm says “Ugh. Turn that off. That’s terrible.” She immediately switches it to another station where a Dean Martin song is playing, and Helm says “Now there’s a guy who knows how to sing!”)
The hovercraft dash to save Ann is intercut with scenes of her dancing, and it goes on for a long time. A very long time. A very very long time. Once again, the Republispouse turned to me while we were watching this and said “Is the movie running short again?” I checked the box: running time is an hour and forty-five minutes. Nope, not running long. Weird.

Helm reveals to her that her dad is still alive, they make out some more, then there’s a very long car chase that includes a weird continuity error: They start off in Anne’s car, a cute little girly 2-seater convertible, and then suddenly they’re in Helm’s car, with all his spy gadgets. There’s no explanation given for this, it just happens. The chase goes on easily as long as the dance sequence did, and it’s mostly music-free. Ultimately, the police chasing Helm are distracted by girls in bikinis (it is Cannes, after all), and the Americans get away.

At Helm’s behest, Ann borrows a boat from her longsuffering boyfriend, Billy, and the two of them head off to the island to rescue her father. As was considered appropriate female attire for rescues in those days, Ann is wearing basically a long T-shirt, and that’s it. Helm breaks out his delayed firing pistol (Pull the trigger, count to eight, and it shoots) and a Freeze Gun he stole from Coco on the hovercraft. He freezes a couple guards while sneaking in under cover of darkness, but then runs out of…uhm…juice? Freon? Whatever, and reverts to his delay gun. All the guards are taken down with more-or-less comedy. Meanwhile, Ann goes bounding around the dungeon, bluffing her way past the guards by being cute. “Mr. Wall sent me down to talk to Solaris, and I’m lost. Can you help me?”

When Helm finds Solaris, he’s been tortured badly and isn’t really terribly mobile, so Helm tries to kill the guy just as Anne busts in and stops him. Then they all get captured by Wall. Wall quickly finds out that Ann is Solaris’ daughter, and decides to torture her to get the information out of her old man rather than torturing the dad himself. Coco lets Anne put on some pants, so you know an action sequence is coming up. Helm tries to play it off like he’s still on their side, but eventually he says “You want to know who I am?” picks up a glass of booze and faces away from the camera. “Matt Helm!” they realize. (Love that gag!). He tries to buy his own life by giving false information to Mac, so they let him call. He tells them that the assignment is over, the good guys won, and everyone will be fine. There were coded bits of info in there to let Mac know that all was not on the level, however. (“Matt Helm never drank a glass of bourbon in his life!”) and he uses the info to identify the mole. Alas, the Mole gets off one last message, and Helm is thrown in to a shake-em-up machine that’s supposed to energize the Inobtanium-40. Ironhead puts him in there with a jellybean that’s never explained, but evidently is really significant.

Meanwhile, Wall shoots at Ann with a spear gun until her daddy relents. They take Ann away so the men folk can plot world domination, and once again she manages to bluff her way past what has to be the absolute worst crew of security guards in the universe by simply being cute. “My uncle designed the death ray control mechanism” one of them brags, “I can tell you all about it! This is the doubletalk reckonable hoobijoob ossilator which brings about inverse thingamabobs” “Cute!” Ann emphatically agrees. After describing in detail how impervious to damage it is, she destroys it with a bobby pin, then gets Helm out of the milkshake mixer.

Helm and Ironhead fight for quite a while, both directly, and over the never-explained red jellybean. Then Ann turns on an electromagnetic crane and hauls Ironhead in to the air. Helm throws the jellybean at him, and the guy explodes. Again, I can’t help but think that a scene was missing wherein they explain the surprisingly high destructive potential of jellybeans. Anyway…things go south quickly, and Wall kills his girlfriend not for any particular reason aside from *not* killing her would be a dangling plot thread. He futzes with the controls, then escapes to his hovercraft.

Helm, Ann and her daddy meet up in the control room, and realize they can’t stop the solar powered kill-o-zap from destroying Washington, since Wall has transferred control of the machine to his hovercraft. They’re screwed until Ann discovers a miniature sportscar hovercraft, and they give chase. They’ve got no weapons, though, so they don’t really pose much of a threat. Hovercraft are basically by definition enormous bumper-cars, so it’s unlikely that one can really cripple the other. Even so, Wall stupidly postpones destroying Washington so he can shoot at Helm with a special pistol that apparently fires Claymore mines or something. Very big explosions! He misses a lot, though. (“With aim like that, if he tries to hit Washington, he’ll take out Pittsburgh!”)

While Wall is dorking around with that, instead of - oh, I dunno - DOING HIS JOB as a super villain, Helm manages to jump from the little hovercraft to the big one, and gets inside. Ann quickly follows suit (See! Told you that if she bothered to wear pants, it had to be for a reason!), and takes out the pilot while Helm manages to get Wall to shoot himself - twice - with the delay pistol. (His final words: “Clever.”) Helm plants a bomb in the hovercraft, and he and Ann jump out. It explodes (Not really, there’s a crudely animated explosion superimposed on the film).

They’re pulled out of the drink by Ann’s plot device of a boyfriend, Billy, who turns out to know how to fly a helicopter. The world is saved - hooray!
Back in the ‘States, back in Helm’s house, Ann and him are fooling around on his bed. Once again, the wrong button sends them in to the tub/pool, but this time they’re met by all twelve of the calendar girls in various states of revealing costumes. While Ann and Dino continue to make out, one of the calendar girls inexplicably pulls a machine gun out of nowhere, and opens fire (Or is it inexplicable? I mean, Helm *IS* making out with Ann right in front of her!). Helm and Ann dive underwater.

THE END

OBSERVATIONS:

There’s never any explanation given as to how Matt managed to avoid dying in the tub early on in the movie. There’s also never any explanation as to how Matt apparently knew she was a spy. And let me get this straight: They knew where Helm lived, and what his cover was, but they didn’t know what he looked like?

Helm’s semi-automated bar is pretty neat!

Lovey looks different in this movie. At first I thought it was a different actress, but I suppose it might just be that she’s wearing clothes. That said, her dress made of alternately see-through and opaque horizontal stripes was quite fetching.

In the disco, once of the guys in the band calls Helm “Dad” in hipster slang. (“He calls everyone ‘dad.’” “What, doesn’t he know?” “It’s a wise son who knows his father.” “With the way they’re wearing their hair these days, it’s a wise father that can recognize his own son.”) This is an in joke - the guy in the band is Dean Paul Martin, Dino’s son. The band was “Dino, Desi and Billy” consisting of Martin’s son, Desi Aranaz, Jr, and someone named Billy Hinsche, who evidently later went on to do the soundtrack of Automan. It was a real band, making a stab at rock stardom, which, of course, never arrived.

Back in the disco, in Ann Margret’s VERY LONG dance scene, I should mention that she wears some completely ridiculous clothes. Particularly that stupid hat, which looks like a World War I snoopy aviator’s cap crocheted out of white yarn. She is undeniably hot, though. Following the long and basically boring dance sequence up with an equally long and equally boring car chase was a bad move, and the movie effectively grinds to a halt for about ten minutes here. I don’t know what to make of the car change in mid-car chase. Presumably there’s a scene missing where they change vehicles that got left out for some reason, but it’s really, really distracting.

The Freeze Gun is kinda’ neat, but demonstrably impossible outside of comic books. The Delayed Pistol looks really neat, but isn’t nearly as clever as the reversed-firing gun from the last movie.

The Soundtrack doesn’t inspire my mad desire to own it, like last week’s Elmer Bernstein oeuvre did, but the Lalo Schifrin main theme is still pretty sweet, and most of the incidental music is really good. I’m still not sure if we’ve got a Matt Helm theme or not, though, and while the movie doesn’t need to be leitmotif, it *does* need a recognizable core for the protagonist to hang all the other incidental music off of. Dino’s self-parody songs tend more towards ironic situations than the goofy lyrics of the first one. “Not the Marryin’ Kind” turns up more than a few times, and always bugs me a bit because the song sounds so much like “King of the Road.” the Boyce & Hart song on the soundtrack (Performed by Dino, Desi & Billy, makes no impression whatsoever)

The plot makes a relative amount of sense this time out, until the last act when the super hyper solar laser death ray is destroyed at least three time (Bobby Pin, exploding hovercraft, etc), and still manages to be a going concern. What? Is this a weapon or Rasputin? Also, if someone could please explain to me how a weapon that the scientist hasn’t actually told them how to complete yet could destroy Helm’s bathroom and Miss January in the beginning of the film, I can’t help but feel I missed something there. The way the various henchmen get bumped off is much more satisfying in this film than in the first, where characters were randomly dropped and new ones were introduced at random.

The direction is much more able than in the first film, and they’re clearly taking it a bit more seriously, but the film is at least fifteen minutes too long. Really, you could cut twenty and it wouldn’t hurt much, mostly from the big dumb hippie dance sequence and the car chase. The final chase - using two *real* hovercraft! - is much better than I remembered, but suffers a bit for not really having any music to underscore it, and it’s mostly shot from a helicopter in long shots. There’s not a lot of up-close action shots to really drive home the excitement and spectacle of it. Still, if you’re the kind of guy who likes hovercraft races, this is your movie. That said, the editing is a mess. I find myself wondering if they were shooting for a two hour film, and 1:45 was the best they could manage. Definitely there are scenes missing. The magical mid-chase car-change, for instance. Or when Helm tries to kill Dr. Solaris with a coin that’s got a poisoned needle in it, how does Ann Margret know what he’s doing? She hasn’t seen the gadget before, he hasn’t told her about it, heck, they haven’t even explained the device to the audience! Likewise, there’s obviously some exposition for the Jellybean of Death that got left on the cutting room floor.

Production design is more-or-less real-world, with a lot of location work in France, and as such it’s less impressive than the previous film’s flights of interior decorator fantasy.

The smarm has been toned down quite a bit, as I said. In fact, we never actually get the feeling that Helm does it with anyone in the course of the movie - he only kisses four women, I think: Lovey, January, Ann Margret, and Coco, and though his mourners in the beginning of the film, and his erstwhile assassins at the end are all clearly supposed to be random sex-buddies, he doesn’t nail any of ‘em during the course of the film. Likewise, though he’s clearly gonna’ get some from Ann at the end, the credits roll before that happens. In the end, the film ends up being slightly more demure than a Bond film of the same era (Bond always bagged a minimum of two women per film - one in the teaser, and the leading lady in the denouement), and they were clearly unhappy with the way the hypersexual hokey-jokey stuff played out in the first film (Let’s not forget Dino’s “Oh my God” in the post-credits teaser last time out.) This mostly helps the film.

Dino seems a bit more in his element, too, a bit more comfortable. Curiously, his scenes with Mac have a bit less chemistry than last time out, and play more like a clip from a lost Neil Simon play. The late, great Karl Malden just doesn’t work as an evil European aristocrat/industrialist. The accent is theoretically supposed to be French or generic-continental of some kind, but it’s just silly and doesn’t work. Malden himself forgets to use it from time to time. He is far and away the best villain in the series, however, particularly in the early scenes when he’s got some menace. (“Steal their voices.“ “What?“ “Kill them.“) He’s used to being obeyed. Ann Margret is 25 at the time this film was made, and unquestionably at the peak of her legendarily scorching hotness. That said, I wouldn’t be surprised to find out she was stoned the whole time they were filming this - her dance scenes are entirely too hyperactive, her hoots and ‘yeahs’ while dancing with Helm are vaguely turrets-like, and of course she spends most of the movie wearing utterly ridiculous clothes which are supposed to be haute coture, but basically distract from her own hotness on occasion (See what I did there?). Her energy level varies wildly from scene to scene and sometimes even line to line, but I blame that more on directorial and editing choices than the actress herself, and come on, if you don’t like just staring at mid-’60s Ann Margret, you’re not even gay, you’re dead. Bottom line: she’s much better than Stella Stevens, and probably even better looking. She’s just achingly beautiful.

I have to say a few words about Billy, Ann’s longsuffering doormat/plot device. Everything that she needs in the movie she gets from him - boat, helicopter, ride to the police, you name it. He’s a total fop. “After I graduated Yale, my dad wanted me to join his firm, but I said ‘I want to make it on my own’ so he gave me $250,000 in traveler’s checks and here I am!” An upper-class twit played for laughs. Unfortunately, these scenes are never really as funny as they should be. There’s something in there that’s hilarious that they just narrowly manage to miss every time. I dunno. Maybe I’ll steal that and do something with it in one of my own stories.

Again, there’s a lot of genuinely funny lines in the film. Republicans hadn’t been in the White House since 1960 when the movie started, and when we see Washington destroyed in the beginning of the film, Wall says “The dream has finally come true, and not just for Republicans.” Later on, when Wall says he couldn’t really do a worse job of running the world than anyone else has so far, to which Helm says, “I think you can. I believe in you.” The scene where Helm identifies himself by holding up a glass is pretty hilarious, both on a meta level and as a plot device. Really it’s a good bad film all around, and I have to admit the last time I watched it like five years ago, I harshly misjudged it.

WILL CONSERVATIVES LIKE THIS MOVIE?

They might. If they’re conservatives with a hovercraft fetish, they’ll freakin ADORE it!

Next week I’ll review “The Ambushers,” the third film in the series. (1967) In the meantime, you can watch the whole movie free online here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CIcgwClVMuM

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