Monday, November 14, 2011

Matthew R. Bradley: Donald Hamilton’s Serious Spy Becomes a Bond Parody

This link came from the always excellent Cinema Retro and is written by the always excellent Matthew Bradley. I saw the first Helm movie when it appeared and really hated it. If The Helm books obviously aren't the the equal of either Deighton or le Carre t they're first class American Cold War pulp and not without a good deal of wisdom about life in this vale of tears. To me Hamilton was a far better writer than Fleming or the many Fleming imitators. I wish JFK had picked up a Helm book instead of a Bond but then Bond flattered Kennedy's mystique--the handsome stud who cleverly defeated all the bad guys. Helm was cowboy boots and burgers by comparison. My kind of protagonist.


Donald Hamilton’s Serious Spy Becomes a Bond Parody
By Matthew R. Bradley

When JFK revealed his fondness for the James Bond books by Ian Fleming, and 007—ably embodied by Sean Connery—struck box-office gold with Dr. No (1962) and its sequels, the resultant “Bondmania” set off a spy craze manifested in everything from atmospheric adaptations of Len Deighton and John le Carré to tongue-in-cheek secret agents on screens small and large. Perhaps the most successful of the latter was Matt Helm, a singing and swinging spy played in four films for Columbia Pictures by Rat Pack member Dean Martin, who unlike Connery shared in the profits from the outset via his own company, Meadway-Claude Productions. The former partner of Bond producer Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli - Irving Allen - was playing catch-up after deeming Fleming’s work unworthy of filming, which speeded his breakup with Broccoli. But ironically, his quartet of quintessential spy spoofs was actually based on a series of gritty Gold Medal paperback originals by Donald Hamilton that had been launched by Fawcett before Kennedy was even in office, or Connery started shaking his martinis.

According to Jeff Banks in Twentieth Century Crime and Mystery Writers, Fawcett chose Swedish émigré Hamilton (1916-2006) to create a new series as a follow-up to the adventures of CIA agent Sam Durell, begun by Edward S. Aarons in 1955: “He had established a reputation with half a dozen non-series suspense novels and his popular westerns. Since assassination had been a frequent feature of Hamilton’s suspense fiction, and since Durell worked directly as a spy and usually in exotic foreign locations, the companion series was developed about a hero who was primarily a counterspy (and the ultimate way to counter a spy is to kill him), operating usually within the continental United States.” Hamilton’s work had already been filmed as The Violent Men (1955), Five Steps to Danger (1957), and The Big Country (1958), but beginning in 1960, he focused largely on the Helm series. Twenty-seven novels were published through The Damagers (1993), with the twenty-eighth, The Dominators, as yet unpublished.

When we meet him in Hamilton’s Death of a Citizen (1960), Helm is a happily married writer-photographer specializing in Westerns, living in Santa Fe with his wife, Beth, and their three children, until he is brought face to face with his wartime past as an assassin. Arriving unexpectedly at a party, Tina—with whom he was involved personally and professionally—claims that she still works for their old boss, Mac, and dupes Helm into helping her dispose of a rival agent before Mac reveals that she has gone over to the other side. After Tina kidnaps Helm’s baby daughter, Betsy, to force him to undertake a hit (or “touch”) for her, he cold-bloodedly kills her male accomplice, tortures Tina to elicit Betsy’s location, and fakes her suicide. Scarcely the stuff of spoofery, it would seem, yet Helm’s cinematic debut, The Silencers (1966), was officially based on both Hamilton’s 1962 novel and Death of a Citizen, although Oscar Saul, a veteran screenwriter with credits ranging from A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) to Major Dundee (1965), liberated Martin’s conspicuously single Helm from any pesky family ties.

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Chad Eagleton said...

I'm still hoping for a serious Helm adaptation.

Fred Blosser said...

The Helm films foreshadowed the turn that the 007 movies would emphatically take with DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER, plunging ever further into self-mockery. Except that DIAMONDS and the sillier of the Roger Moore films had bigger budgets, they are almost interchangeable with the Helm flicks.

DEATH OF A CITIZEN and MURDERERS' ROW are hardboiled masterpieces, almost worthy of being ranked with Hammett. THE REMOVERS, THE WRECKING CREW, and THE SILENCERS are nearly as good. Once the books began getting fatter, they lost the edge of the earlier entries.