Dean Martin as Matt Helm, smooth secret agent and photographer
New Mexico to Phoenix, August 1965
Film: The Silencers
Release Date: February 18, 1966
Director: Phil Karlson
Costume Designer: Moss Mabry
Tailor: Sy Devore
Dean Martin infused his lounge lizard persona into a James Bond-like spy for his four-film portrayal of Matt Helm, a playboy whose love for turtlenecks, womanizing, and drinking above actual spying may make him more of an antecedent for the character of Sterling Archer than of 007 himself.
With a bossa nova score by Elmer Bernstein and a hip mid-sixties sartorialism styled by costume designer Moss Mabry and the Rat Pack’s go-to tailor Sy Devore, the Matt Helm series serves as a swingin’ time capsule to the waning heyday of hi-fis and hedonism. Though it may be dated, the series—particularly this first film, The Silencers—seems perfectly content with that and, in fact, it may be an intentional way for the 1966 zeitgeist to remain intact for modern audiences. Never taking itself too seriously, packed with decent talent, and sticking to a tight, quick-paced plot, The Silencers differentiates itself from its contemporary spy spoofs like Casino Royale in that it can still entertain 50 years later.
No longer an active agent in the employ of the American agency Intelligence and Counter-Espionage (ICE), Matt Helm spends his days as a philandering photographer more comfortable with shooting photos than shooting bad guys. An early scene in The Silencers finds Matt returning from a shoot one evening, dropping ice cubes into his J&B—Dean Martin’s preferred Scotch in real life—when he spots a woman’s discarded clothing leading to the bedroom and comments to himself: “Treasure hunt!” The hunt leads to his discovery of Barbara, a heavily made-up blonde bombshell clad only in one of his tuxedo shirts, who claims to have been sent by his former boss at ICE to try to convince him to report back to duty instead of heading to Acapulco the next day as he had planned.
Barbara: What’s in Acapulco that you can’t find here?
Matt succumbs to the woman’s charms, but—luckily—exotic ICE agent Tina (Daliah Lavi) is there to save him from Barbara with three .22-caliber rounds to the blonde’s back. She reveals that Barbara was a potential assassin sent by the “Big O” organization, proven by the signature bullets in the .38 packed in Barbara’s purse.
Matt succumbs to the woman’s charms, but luckily the exotic .22-wielding ICE agent Tina (Daliah Lavi) is there to save him from Barbara, revealed to be a potential assassin sent by the Big O organization, proven by the trademark bullets in the .38 packed in her purse.
Tina convinces Matt—here invoking his code name “Eric” from the original Donald Hamilton novels—to return to working for ICE rather than just putting it in his drinks. After the two subdue even more enemy agents outside Matt’s home, the two are on the road to Phoenix in his big Mercury Colony Park “woodie wagon” while we’re treated to a non-diegetic version of Dino crooning “South of the Border” with modified lyrics lamenting that he most postpone his trip to Mexico.
What’d He Wear?
Dean Martin’s first on-screen outfit as Matt Helm, aside from the red turtleneck and gray slacks from an earlier dream sequence, is a pink raw silk sport jacket over a beige roll-neck jumper with brown trousers and brown suede boots.
While many gents may be insecure about wearing a pink silk sports coat, Dino pulls it off with the self-assured confidence of anyone else in a sharp gray suit or a classic navy blazer. It helps that the jacket is nicely tailored, no doubt a product of Sy Devore, the legendary “tailor to the stars” who was Hollywood royalty up to his death in 1966. The jacket has khaki shank buttons on the cuffs, pockets, and front, where the top of the two buttons fastens perfectly where his tucked-in turtleneck meets the trouser waistband.
Distinctive for its nubby matte finish and light-wearing open weave, raw silk is a luxurious warm-weather alternative to shinier, heavier silks and more resistant to wrinkling than linen or cotton, making it an ideal fabric for a swingin’ cat like Matt Helm who spends his days and nights in the warm southwest climate and always needs to look his best should a woman sneak into his apartment and leave her discarded underwear lying around.
Matt’s double-vented jacket has four external pockets, all closing with a single button through a rectangular flap. The two breast pockets are set-in, the lower hip pockets are billows-style.
The elbows are reinforced with khaki suede patches that coordinate with the buttons on the front, pockets, and two-button cuffs of the sport jacket.
Matt wears a beige turtleneck in a soft, lightweight fabric, likely a fine gauge silk knit or a cashmere blend. The jumper has a full polo neck and is elasticized at the cuffs.
Matt wears a pair of chocolate brown flat front trousers. The plain-hemmed bottoms are slightly flared to accommodate his brown suede boots, which fasten with a brass zipper on the inside of each boot.
Sadly, Matt’s luxurious leisure outfit gets ruined upon encountering the klutzy Gail Hendricks (Stella Stevens) at the Phoenix hotel pool, first when she dries off in front of him and splashes him his water and—more definitively—when she spills her Bloody Mary all over him.
Following the latter calamity, Matt drapes himself in a colorfully striped serape, though it isn’t enough to cover his underthings as Tina escorts him back to her hotel room, prompting Tina to comment: “I must say, she got you undressed a lot faster than I ever did.”
Not only does Matt expose his white cotton boxer briefs, but we also see his knee-high dress socks made from a thin dark brown silk to coordinate with his trousers and boots.
What to Imbibe
At the hotel pool, Gail recovers herself and offers to buy both Matt—and Tina—a drink, so he orders for them both:
Gail: Can I buy you a drink? I feel I owe you one. (to Tina) I’m sure I owe you one too. I’d really feel better if you’d accept.
Matt: Thank you very much, I’ll have Scotch and soda, and she’ll have aquavit on the rocks.
Gail: (eyes her own Bloody Mary) Hm. I’ll have to try that.
Based on an earlier scene, there’s little mystery surrounding what Scotch he would have preferred, as—like Dino himself—Matt heads straight for the bottle of J&B Rare upon his return home. This blended Scotch whisky was introduced after the repeal of Prohibition in 1933 as Justerini & Brooks had been perfecting their product for the American market. (Truman Capote, also a fan, would refer to it only as “Justerini & Brooks” rather than the shortened and more familiar “J&B”; if a storekeeper didn’t understand the request, Capote would refuse to elaborate and would simply look elsewhere for his chosen nectar.)
Unpretentious, timeless, and smooth, J&B is a fitting choice as Dean Martin’s favorite. He was reportedly a lifelong Scotch drinker, having favored mainstream brands like Black & White or Haig & Haig during the early days of his fame, according to Ciro’s nightclub proprietor Herman Hover in Iain Russell’s profile for scotchwhisky.com. However, Dean followed the fashionable set in the late ’50s and, by the time he was a full-fledged member of the infamous Rat Pack, a bottle of J&B and accompanying rocks glass were an ever-present part of Dean’s stage act.
Of course, it’s now well-known that his act was just that… an act. The glass of booze served as an effective prop for Dean to build his laidback stage persona, though there were many occasions where the glass itself was reportedly full of apple juice rather than Scotch. He certainly imbibed off-stage, but not with the recklessness of his fellow Rat Packers like Frank Sinatra or Sammy Davis Jr.
Instead, it was Dean’s fondness for smoking that led to his end. Loyal to his Kent King Size cigarettes—naturally, also Matt Helm’s choice—Dino was diagnosed with lung cancer when he was 76. Just over two years later, on Christmas 1995, Dean Martin died of emphysema in his Beverly Hills home. The lights of the Las Vegas Strip were dimmed in the entertainer’s honor.
The Guns…and Camera?
Upon seeing that he’s marked for death by The Big O, as Tina points out that the blonde had four additional assassins waiting outside in a black sedan, Matt heads to his gun cabinet and swings open a private door… revealing more guns, prompting Tina to joke: “Who designed this house, Smith & Wesson?”
Despite Tina’s comment, none of Matt’s considerable gun arsenal seems to include any firearms from that venerated Massachusetts-based manufacturer. Next to his shotguns and long guns, we see:
- a Type 14 Nambu service pistol, fielded by the Japanese military during World War II and the inspiration for the Ruger .22 Standard
- a unique insurgency pistol that appears to be the grip of a full-size pistol with a trigger and short barrel on top
- a nickel-plated Colt Detective Special with walnut grips and a classic two-inch barrel
- a large riot gun/grenade launcher with a brass trigger guard and skeleton stock
Matt also grabs a second snub-nosed .38 revolver for himself, tucking it into the left side of his trouser waistband.
Although Matt arms himself with a .38, the first weapon that he actually uses is a customized Richomatic 225 camera, modified with a double-barreled dagger-shooting action that would make Q proud.
The Richomatic 225 6×6 TLR camera was introduced by Ricoh in 1959 as an evolution of their earlier Richoflex Diacord L.
How to Get the Look
While we’ve seen James Bond in pink shirts and pink ties, Matt Helm is the ’60s spy with enough moxie to attempt—and successfully pull off—wearing a pink sports coat. Dino’s also wise enough to let the jacket be the flashiest of his garb, neutralizing it with a beige roll-neck and plain brown pants as well as a pair of cowboy-inspired boots that reinforce his position as the all-American alternative to agent 007.
- Pink raw silk single-breasted two-button sport jacket with notch lapels, two set-in breast pockets (with button-down flaps), two bellows hip pockets (with button-down flaps), two-button cuffs, and double vents
- Beige fine gauge silk knit turtleneck jumper
- Chocolate brown flat front trousers with flared plain-hemmed bottoms
- Brown suede boots with inside zippers
- Dark brown thin silk dress socks
- White cotton boxer shorts