Matt Helm: Pilot (1975)

Release Year: (1975)
Country: United States
Director: Buzz Kulik
Starring: Anthony Franciosa, Anne Turkel, John Vernon, Patrick Macnee
Music: Jerry Fielding
Based on characters created by Donald Hamilton

The Ambushers

Dean Martin as Matt Helm

I had heard a lot about this Matt Helm series – most of it was bad. The biggest complaint seemed to be that Matt Helm was no longer a wild, swingin’ secret agent with a crazy bachelor pad (I am of course, referring to the Dean Martin films as the template for this series, as opposed to the Donald Hamilton books which are a different kettle of fish altogether). In this series Helm is a private investigator with a less gadget reliant household. The thing is that while this Helm show is not a spy show, and therefore quite different to the movies of the sixties, there is — at least in this, the pilot episode — a concerted effort to explain that this Helm is the same character, only that he became disillusioned with all the lies, double-speak and double dealing in the espionage community, and sickened to his stomach, walked away from that life and now works as a private detective.

This is best explained by a character called Harry Paine, played by John Vernon (I love John Vernon – I think he’s a great character actor, whether it be as the Mayor in Dirty Harry or the befuddled Dean of Faber in Animal House). Paine explains that ‘Helm used to be a professional, employed by one of the intelligence agencies’ The agency that Paine is referring to is, thankfully not I.C.E., but a branch of covert intelligence referred to only as ‘The Machine’.

It is interesting to compare this Matt Helm pilot, with the Derek Flint telemovie, Our Man Flint: Dead on Target (which I think was also intended as a pilot for a prospective new series). In both programs, the swashbuckling spy heroes from the sixties, had become private eyes. But in the Flint production, the film-makers didn’t see fit to explain the change in profession — and consequently the character. In that instance, it appeared that the writers weren’t even aware who Flint was. At least in Matt Helm the writers have seen fit to acknowledge the character’s past — and while at first it may seem a little disconcerting at first to see Helm as such a different type of character, it is not impossible to reconcile the two. Some of the differences could simply fall down to the different personality styles of Dean Martin, compared to Anthony Franciosa.

This episode starts with an actress named Maggie Gantry (Anne Turkel – I recently looked at Turkel as Modesty Blaise), and she is keeping trim by running a few laps at a local sports ground. As she runs, she is approached by a gentleman named Gerald Taber. Taber is a private investigator that she has hired to track down her father’s murderer. Taber has bad news. It appears that he has hit a bit of a wall. He tells her that ‘they can’t do it – they’re are in over their head’. Maggie continues her exercise regime as Taber watches on. That is, until a grenade is thrown at the detective and he is consequently blown sky high. Then a car swings on to the sports arena and at speed, chases after Maggie. Eventually she gives up and the car slides to a halt beside her. Two men get out holding machine guns and wearing gas masks to disguise their faces. One says:

“Repeat after me! Gerald Taber is dead!
Bryce Redfield is Dead!
Earl Gantry is dead!
You, Maggie Gantry will be… if you don’t stop now!”

The thugs get back into their car and drive off. Maggie is consequently picked up by the police on suspicion of Taber’s murder and is now being held at the police station. She is given her one phone call to call her lawyer, which she does. The Lawyer’s name is Kronsky (Laraine Stephens), and it just so happens that she is the latest flame of Matt Helm. Kronsky has given Helm’s home phone number to her telephone service if she needs to be contacted, so when Maggie rings through, Helm answers the phone.

Some things never change. Matt Helm didn’t like answering the phone or getting out of bed in the ’60s, and he doesn’t like it in the ’70s. None-the-less, he reluctantly passes the phone to Kronsky. She arranges to come to the police station straight away to help Maggie out of her predicament. Kronsky needs a lift to the police station and Helm obliges — he now drives a very sleek red Porsche (which is a big step up of the brown wood-panelled station wagon that Helm drove in The Silencers).

Helm accompanies Kronsky to the police station and watches as Kronsky arranges for Maggie to be released. As Kronsky has other duties to perform, Helm agrees to drive Maggie home. Back at her home she explains that she hired Taber to investigate the death of her father, Earl Gantry. Apparently, he was killed during the war, but not during a battle or as a direct consequence of the war. He was murdered behind the lines whilst driving a jeep. It is believed that a Staff Sergeant named Bryce Redfield fired an anti-tank rocket at Gantry to stop him reporting an elaborate black-market ring. She had hired Taber to track down Redfield. His enquiries led him to a man named Harry Paine (John Vernon) who is an arms dealer, and a shady military commander named Shawcross (Patrick Macnee).

From his old days, working for ‘The Machine’, Helm has come across both men and knows what they are capable of. But still, he agrees to help Maggie out and take up the investigation from where Taber left off.

Going against all conventional wisdom — and reviews of Franciosa’s turn as Matt Helm — I think that this pilot episode was pretty damn good. It had a decent enough plot, with a few twists and turns, and I was particularly fond of the way that Helm’s past, and the nature of the spying business was painted as a dirty and corrupt game. It gave this show that touch of gritty varnish that it needed. Then it had a good cast too. I don’t mind Franciosa — obviously he’s a long way from Deano, but he handles the light stuff pretty well, and when the script had a bit of meat to it, he showed he was capable of delivering the goods. A supporting cast that features John Vernon and Patrick Macnee cannot be sneezed at either.

The thing here though is, I am basing my opinion on the whole series on viewing this one single episode — and being the pilot episode, the one made to sell the series, maybe a bit more effort and money was thrown into it to make it a solid piece of entertainment. From the modicum of research I have done about the series, it would appear that most of the episodes did not hit the heights of this pilot and were pretty disappointing. If that is indeed the case, that is a great shame, because on the strength of this, the Matt Helm series could have presented a good alternative to a character like Mike Hammer.

I must admit, I’d be curious to see more episodes, and see where exactly the wheels fell off.

My thanks, once again to MB.

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