Matt Helm shoots the works and saves the world!
Long before Mike Myers donned false teeth and a funny accent to become an international man of mystery, no less a Hollywood legend than Dean Martin took aim at the superspy genre. The Silencers is the first in a series of four spoofs featuring Martin as Matt Helm, a spy with far more Hugh Hefner about him than James Bond.
Facts of the Case
Matt Helm enjoys the swinging life of a professional photographer, shooting layouts of gorgeous women for men's magazines and bringing more than a few of them back to his incredibly modern, high-tech bachelor pad. He has every modern luxury available to him at the push of a button, including a bed that scoots across the floor and dumps him into an Olympic-sized bubble bath when he feels the need to freshen up. The only problem is that Helm is a sometime secret agent, still on the government payroll and subject to being recalled to service at a moment's notice.
Helm is forced back to the spy game to thwart the dastardly plans of Tung-Tze (Victor Buono, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, Robin and the 7 Hoods) and his nefarious organization, "The Big O." The Big O is plotting to take over the U.S., and somehow an act of sabotage involving a missile test and an underground atomic bomb test on the same day is a key element of their strategy. (One might ask how contaminating a large chunk of the country with radiation would help to conquer it, because the conquered territory would be basically unusable anyway, but to so ask would be to question the whole underlying principle of the Cold War—a discussion best pursued at another time.)
Accompanying Helm on his journey from home to Phoenix to the deserts of New Mexico is an assortment of female accomplices and foils. Tina (Dahlia Lavi, Casino Royale) is Helm's old partner, glad to have him back for this perilous mission. Along the way, Helm picks up Gail Hendrix (Stella Stevens, The Nutty Professor, The Poseidon Adventure, looking absolutely stunning as a redhead), an innocent bystander who gets caught up in events by accident, and whose only defining characteristic is klutziness.
Helm must contend with car chases, double agents, booby traps, and a song and dance number by Cyd Charisse as he swaggers along to the final, critical showdown with The Big O.
The Silencers is mostly just a chance for Dean Martin to act like Dean Martin. His good time Rat Pack persona—habitually inebriated, womanizing—comes out full force. There are even snippets of a few of his classic songs shoehorned in for good measure, not because they fit the movie but just because he's Dean Martin, after all. Whether that's a good thing depends on how much you like Dino's playboy shtick. You'd better like it a lot, because it makes up the bulk of the movie, and the rest of the cast doesn't make much of a dent, or even an impression at all, for that matter. Stella Stevens's only job is to be attractive and trip and fall a lot. I guess she does a good enough job of it, but her contribution to this film is primarily visual, not thespian, in nature. She's basically a flesh-and-blood special effect, a standard-issue accessory for Martin's secret agent only slightly less silly than the actual hardware he is issued by his agency. Dahlia Lavi is much more memorable and far less bland than Stevens, and actually makes something approaching an impression; she and Martin show genuine spark and chemistry as they play off each other. Sadly, the movie limits Lavi's onscreen time, giving us an extra helping of the much less satisfactory Stevens instead.
The rest of the characters, from enemy agent Sam Gunther (Robert Webber, 12 Angry Men) to a henchman played by Roger C. Carmel (best known as Harry Mudd from episodes of Star Trek), to even Cyd Charisse's nightclub dancer Sarita, are seen briefly, ignored, and then forgotten like highway mileage markers as the plot zooms by on cruise control. Victor Buono's role as the chief bad guy is exceptionally unfunny, and marred by a strange sense of racial humor as well. Evidently, a heavy dose of eyeliner and a Chinese-sounding name weren't enough to turn him into Secret Asian Man, so we also get weird sight gags like popping open a nice, refreshing can of "Low-Cal Egg Foo Yung" as his beverage of choice.
Matt Helm's beverage of choice is not so exotic, of course. Filmed in a more innocent, less politically correct era, one of Helm's prized possessions is his amazingly oversized station wagon, equipped with a mobile bachelor pad and a wet bar. I'm not sure if the sight of Martin and Stevens tooling down the road knocking back whiskeys like they were Kool-Aid was as unintentionally funny back then as it is now. I am sure that it is probably a more disconcerting sight now than it was back then.
If Dino's swinging routine hasn't aged well, neither has the film's plot. Perhaps at one time we were innocent and secure enough in this country that the idea of a shadowy international organization attempting to blanket our landscape with radiation seemed like a good idea for a spy comedy. After all, such a thing could never happen in real life. Given the developments of the past 30 years, and the past three in particular, joking about this sort of thing seems in much poorer taste than was probably the case on its initial release. Now, the storyline seems more appropriate for a Tom Clancy novel than a silly Dean Martin romp. Even setting modern objections aside, the story falls painfully flat as a series of predictable, paint-by-numbers locations and plot points. Even the climactic showdown/shootout in the villain's super-secret lair, shot with an apparently adequate special effects budget, fails to be funny, exciting, or even interesting. Mostly it consists of Martin throwing bombs at rock walls and shooting at steel doors to no effect. There's also a giant laser that makes a noise like a dentist's drill with low batteries, which sort of threatens Dino, provided he stands in the right spot and doesn't move much. It seems only slightly more powerful than the one my DVD player uses to read discs. Granted, James Bond has faced many similarly silly situations, but let's face it: Dean Martin is simply no Sean Connery.
The Silencers is a Columbia TriStar DVD release. When it comes to picture and sound quality, Columbia TriStar tends to run some distance behind the pack of major studios. The Silencers, on the other hand, looks relatively good for a film of its age. All of the colors in the garish '60s sets come through as strong and vibrant. The image is sharp and clear, with acceptable levels of film grain and only occasional source print blemishes. One of the key elements I always examine is how well the transfer handles tricky dark tone-on-tone areas, such as jacket lapels; do the lapels stand out clearly, or do they blend into the body of the jacket? A movie like this, with lots of guys in navy blue or black suits, provides ample material for analysis. These areas look pretty good in The Silencers, with lapels generally clearly defined and discernible. Shadows and dark areas were good but not great, showing deep, solid, rich black levels, but tending to suffer from some lack of definition. Edge enhancement, that eternal bane of DVD critics and film enthusiasts, continues to be a problem on Columbia TriStar discs, and The Silencers is no exception.
Audio is a completely unremarkable Dolby 2.0 Mono. Analog hiss is present, as it is in most older soundtracks, but it is minimal; unless you put your ear to your speakers and listen carefully for it, you are not likely to hear it. Dynamic range seems a bit cramped. Voices tend to sound just a bit flat and hollow as well.
Special features, if they can be labeled as such, include three bonus trailers for other Columbia TriStar releases: Don't Raise the Bridge, Lower the River, Fun with Dick and Jane, and The Mouse That Roared. Not a bad selection, and some well-loved classic comedies, to be sure, but they hardly camouflage the lack of any extras that actually relate to the feature presentation. Of course, it is hard to conceive of any special features for this fiasco.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There is a larger question to consider here: does parody work if the parody itself, er, sucks? Is it possible that The Silencers is a brilliant example of exposing stupidity by being stupid? There are elements of the Bond films and other spy flicks that are certainly ripe for comedic exploitation—elements that are silly, ridiculous, or downright dumb. However, does a parody work if it turns out just as dumb as (or worse than) the source material it purports to lampoon? I'm inclined to say no; I suppose that, in the eyes of some, that might mean I just don't get it.
As bad as The Silencers is, the worst of it is that Martin went on to make three Matt Helm sequels. I've not seen them, but from the intelligence I've been able to gather, they aren't even as good as this one.
Guilty! The Silencers certainly deserves to be exposed to a laser, but the one in your DVD player is not the one I have in mind.
We stand adjourned.
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