The Art of the Film Still, Pt. 1: MURDERERS’ ROW (1966)

18 Mar

One of the things I want to do on this blog is scan images from my movie still collection, something I was never able to do before I got a scanner late last month. While I can get screen grabs from any movie scene contained on any DVD I have, there’s an art form to the traditional movie still that’s hard to recreate via screen grab. Besides, I have many stills I want to share that are from movies I don’t have on DVD. There are different kinds of stills one can collect from the era before EPKs (Electronic Press Kits). There were black-and-white stills sent out to newspapers and magazines. These generally had no border. And then there are those that were sent out from the National Screen Service, a company set up to provide posters, lobby cards, stills, etc. to theaters for display. They had text on the bottom listing basic info about the film (title, cast, director, producer, studio), plus copyright info, plus a notice from the National Screen Service declaring the still to be its property, with the proviso that it be returned after use. (Not all of them got returned—otherwise I wouldn’t have any.)

These NSS stills used to be displayed prominently in glass cases set up around the outside areas of the theater and in the inside foyer before entering the lobby. Some theaters made lots of room for such displays, some just didn’t have the space for more than a few. I remember the stills used for such displays being predominantly black-and-white, but I must have seen some in color occasionally. I loved looking at these pictures and the accompanying posters when I passed theaters, no matter what was playing. Even when I’d just seen the movie, I was always keen to see exactly which scenes were displayed and compare them to what I remembered from just seeing the movie. I learned early on that the stills didn’t always match what was in the movie. Sometimes the stills featured scenes that weren’t in the movie at all.

I decided to open this series with a color still from MURDERERS’ ROW (1966), a secret agent spoof starring Dean Martin as Matt Helm and produced by Columbia Pictures.

I saw MURDERERS’ ROW when it came out. It was the second film to star Martin as Helm. I had not seen the first one, THE SILENCERS, when it came out, but I did make a point of seeing the subsequent Matt Helm movies in theaters. I was a big fan of James Bond in particular and secret agent movies in general. I remember liking MURDERERS’ ROW a great deal, going so far as to see it again a few years later when it played on a double bill with MACKENNA’S GOLD (1969). I watched it again for this report and although it seems awfully silly today, I can remember why I liked it at the time. It’s full of wisecracks. Martin’s got one for every situation—it’s like a Mad Magazine parody of a secret agent movie. Yet the secret agent plot, about a criminal mastermind seeking to blow up Washington DC with a death ray at the behest of certain foreign powers, is played absolutely straight, with Karl Malden as the mastermind. This type of parody reminds me of Bob Hope comedies like CASANOVA’S BIG NIGHT (1954), which has a plot drawn from a straight swashbuckler and full-scale production design to match, with Hope’s comic cowardly persona and his constant stream of one-liners expertly inserted. MURDERERS’ ROW isn’t as funny as CASANOVA, but I found it enjoyable nonetheless.

The three characters in the scene depicted in the still are: secret agent Helm (Martin) in the center; Suzie Hamilton (Ann-Margret), the daughter of a kidnapped nuclear scientist, on the right; and, on the left, Billy Orcutt (Duke Howard), a vacationing Yale graduate and Suzie’s would-be suitor. The three have just emerged from a basement disco where Matt had gone to successfully thwart an explosion meant to kill Suzie. I recently bought the Matt Helm box set containing all four Matt Helm films (the others being THE SILENCERS, THE AMBUSHERS and THE WRECKING CREW), so I have the DVD of MURDERERS’ ROW and can show how the scene looked in the movie:

(Ann-Margret is seen to much better advantage in the still.) In the action just prior to this shot, Matt had stripped off Suzie’s outer garment just before the broach on it was set to explode and thrown it at a wall on which was projected a slide of a photo of Frank Sinatra.

“Sorry, Frank,” Dean declares right after the explosion.

(Why Sinatra’s image was there is never explained in the film. Of course, the use of Sinatra as a butt of Martin wisecracks in the Helm films is the equivalent of all those Bing Crosby gags in the Hope films.)

One of the pleasures of this film is the chance it gives us to watch Ann-Margret, then in her terminally cute phase, dance up a storm, a treat offered by so few films in Ann-Margret’s heyday. (I believe BYE BYE BIRDIE and VIVA LAS VEGAS were about it when it came to appropriate showcases for her musical talents. She also dances in THE SWINGER, which I’ve never seen.)

Another pleasure is the chance to see Camilla Sparv, who plays the villain’s beautiful partner, Coco Duquette. I always thought the Swedish-born Ms. Sparv was the most beautiful of all those gorgeous European actresses who migrated to Hollywood in the 1960s (think Senta Berger, Virna Lisi, Luciana Paluzzi, Elke Sommer, Elsa Martinelli, Catherine Spaak, etc.). Too bad I only got to see her in one other film on the big screen during that time—MACKENNA’S GOLD.

When Paris Hilton became famous some 30-odd years later, I was struck by her resemblance to Miss Sparv.

MURDERERS’ ROW doesn’t have the song parodies that are sprinkled throughout the other Matt Helm films, but it does have a quintessential secret agent score by Lalo Schifrin, with a catchy theme that was I was able to memorize after that very first viewing in early 1967 and have been able to remember ever since.

It also has an original song for Martin, a pleasant number in the singer’s patented casual style, performed on the soundtrack twice in the movie, “I’m Not the Marrying Kind,” by Schifrin and Howard Greenfield.

Martin’s son, Dino (aka Dean Martin Jr.), appears with his own band, Dino, Desi, and Billy, in one disco scene and they perform a song, “If You’re Thinking What I’m Thinking,” prompting a gag in which the son tells the father, “Now you’re swingin,’ Dad,” to which Martin makes a joke that, “The way they’re wearin’ their hair nowadays, it’s a wise father that knows his own son.” Granted, it’s a typical stale generation gap gag from the era, but still amusing to me nonetheless.

By giving his son’s band some play in the film, Martin simply followed in the footsteps of his former partner, Jerry Lewis, who featured his musician son, Gary Lewis, as the leader of a band in Lewis’ film, THE FAMILY JEWELS (1965), a film I’ve seen although I don’t recall that scene.

The film, written, produced and directed by middle-aged men, all Hollywood veterans, has a view of contemporary youth culture (at least as practiced in a studio recreation of Monte Carlo) that was pretty far from the reality of 1966. Yet, as a 13-year-old watching it, I didn’t mind at all. I was never terribly enamored of “youth culture” as a youth. I always preferred Henry Fonda to Peter Fonda, THE WILD BUNCH to EASY RIDER, and the Rat Pack to the Rolling Stones.

I was always a bigger fan of Dean Martin than Frank Sinatra and I think it was this film that solidified that position. I liked his casual style, his ability to look “cool” in the midst of supposed danger (although we never actually felt much fear for him) and his comfort and confidence in the midst of so many beautiful women. (Why couldn’t I be like that?) I loved the Sean Connery James Bond films, which had real suspense in them and a greater sense of impending doom and catastrophe. When I was in the mood for something harder-edged and more intense, as I often was, I could always check out the Connery Bonds. The Matt Helm films were like a vacation from that. You had the wisecracks and the beautiful women and a little of the action, but without the Cold War tensions and the weight of real world politics.

I did see the subsequent Matt Helm films in theaters, but didn’t like either one of them. They did have funny song parodies, though. (“If your sweetheart puts a pistol in her be-ed/You’d do better  if you sleep with Uncle Fre-ed.”) I haven’t seen them since, although I soon will now that I have the box set.

I didn’t see THE SILENCERS in a theater but instead caught up with it on TV a few years after it came out—in 1971 or 1972. I didn’t like it at the time (watched on a b&w TV, cut for broadcast standards, pan-and-scan, with commercial interruptions). I re-watched it on DVD this week just before re-watching MURDERERS’ ROW and it’s no better now, even uncut, in color and widescreen. The script is just a bored rehash of DR. NO (complete with an “oriental” villain mastermind played by Victor Buono) and the film manages the difficult task of making Stella Stevens look unattractive by turning her into a redhead and making her a klutz. (What was the point?) I remember the film critic, Judith Crist, giving her ten best and ten worst of 1966 and including OUR MAN FLINT, the best of the Bond spoofs, in her top ten and THE SILENCERS in her ten worst. Can’t say I disagree.

2 Responses to “The Art of the Film Still, Pt. 1: MURDERERS’ ROW (1966)”

  1. kentsmokerguy March 20, 2012 at 6:28 PM #

    Hey pallie, likes thanks Mr. Camp for puttin’ the accent on what I also consider to be the bestest of the best of the Helmer capers. My fav scene is that one between our Dino and his boypallie Dino Jr….simply loves the patter between ’em. Never was, never will be anyone as cool as the King of Cool…oh, to return to the days when Dino walked the earth. Know that your reflections are bein’ shared this day with all the pallies gathered ’round ilovedinomartin.

  2. TC November 21, 2019 at 11:19 AM #

    Dino: “Now you”re swinging, Dad!”

    Helm: ” ‘Dad’ !?”

    Suzie (Ann-Margret) (giggling): “He calls everybody ‘Dad.'”

    Helm: “Don’t he know?”

    Suzie: “It’s a wise son who knows his own father.”

    Helm: “The way they wear their hair these days, it’s a wise father that knows his own son!”

    It was impossible for the Helm series to have much suspense, or for the audience to have “felt much fear for him,” for the same reason we never worried about Bond, Tarzan, Batman, or Wonder Woman. We know the lead character won’t get killed off, since they have to come back in the next episode. And the Helm films were so tongue-in-cheek that even Helm himself usually treated everything going on around him as a joke. It was the 1960s, the same decade that gave us Adam West as Batman and Jane Fonda as Barbarella.

    And, yes, Paris Hilton does look a lot like Camilla Sparv.

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