Murderers Row (1966) poster

Murderers Row (1966)


USA. 1966.


Director – Henry Levin, Screenplay – Herbert Baker, Based on the Novel by Donald Hamilton, Producer – Irving Allen, Photography – Sam Leavitt, Music – Lalo Schifrin, Mechanical Effects – Danny Lee, Art Direction – Joe Wright. Production Company – Meadway-Claude/Columbia.


Dean Martin (Matt Helm), Ann-Margret (Suzie Solaris), Karl Malden (Julian Wall), Camilla Sparv (Coco Duquette), James Gregory (MacDonald), Tom Reese (Ironhead), Richard Eastham (Dr Norman Solaris)


Secret agent Matt Helm is assigned to stop shipping magnate Julian Wall. Wall has abducted scientist Norman Solaris and forced him to construct the solar-powered Helio Beam death ray. Wall is now using the Helio Beam to eliminate all secret agents as part of his plan of world conquest.

The James Bond films were the most popular cinematic series of the 1960s. They produced an enormous number of imitators, most of which quickly toppled into self-parody. Such was spy film mania that even the imitators spawned their own series. (For a more detailed overview see my essay Spy Films). One of the most inexplicably popular of these were the Matt Helm films starring Dean Martin. Four of them were made – the series began with The Silencers (1966), then was followed by Murderers Row here, The Ambushers (1967) – which received a listing as one of The Fifty Worst Films Of All Time (1977) – and finally The Wrecking Crew (1969).

The Matt Helm character has been written to play to Dean Martin’s lounge crooner persona. However, the lazy way that Martin plays the role – leering with double-entendre, perpetually boozing, filled with smug self-certainty and indifferent to anything that seems to happen – is insufferably obnoxious. Just the way that Martin drives a hovercraft through the streets waving to people or the look of winking-to-the-audience mock surprise when he freezes a guard with the drinks-chilling gun that shows he doesn’t believe the silliness of the gadget either, indicates that he regards the plot and surroundings as beneath him and himself to be the principal source of attraction in the film.

Matt Helm (Dean Martin) and Suzie Solaris (Ann-Margret) in Murderers Row (1966)
(l to r) Suzie Solaris (Ann-Margret) and Matt Helm (Dean Martin)

Murderers Row amplifies the worst aspects of the James Bond films – the machismo male fantasy about irresistibility to women who are shown constantly fawning over, preening in front of and ready to throw themselves at Dean Martin at the drop of a hat. Equally bad are the glories of being a lush that the film celebrates – any secret agent with an alcohol problem like the one Dean Martin has in the film should be drummed out of the service.

And if one thought the depths the puns and double-entendres the later Bond films descended to were atrocious, Murderers Row contains some that go mining beneath that barrel bottom – Dean Martin to one of his calendar girls: “You’re the Spirit of ’76”, “No, I’m only a 44.”

Karl Malden is badly unconvincing as the super-villain of the piece. One could probably not find a less convincing actor to cast as a comic-bookish super-villain than the pugnacious Malden who delivers everything with a rough-hewn working class accent. Ann-Margret, in one of her earliest roles, at least dances with a great deal of energy.

Trailer here

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