Dean Martin as Matt Helm, smooth secret agent
New Mexico to French Riviera, Summer 1966
Film: Murderers’ Row
Release Date: December 20, 1966
Director: Henry Levin
Costume Designer: Moss Mabry
Tailor: Sy Devore
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
Today is National Wear Red Day, observed the first Friday of February to raise awareness of the dangers of the heart disease. In recognition, I wanted to feature an example of a movie or TV character prominently wearing red beyond just the usual red shirts, sweaters, or ties. Enter Matt Helm.
After Columbia Pictures acquired the rights to produce loose adaptations of Donald Hamilton’s Matt Helm spy novels, they quickly got to work developing a film franchise focused more on spoofing the Bond-mania that was sweeping the world, starring Dean Martin reprising his lounge lizard stage persona as the American counter-agent. In 1966 alone, the two first two entries—The Silencers and Murderers’ Row—were released back to back.
The quartet of Matt Helm movies eventually produced never garnered much critical acclaim but they were relatively well-received by audiences at the time and, despite following in 007’s footsteps, ostensibly established the more lighthearted, gadget-focused tone that would be aped by James Bond movies during the following decade.
Murderers’ Row even shares a similar premise with You Only Live Twice, the Bond adventure that would be released six months later, as Matt Helm fakes his death at the start of the movie… though Helm’s faked death is played for considerably more comic value, to the extent that a sham wake is held in Helm’s honor at a bar called Chez When, attended by a wealth of past loves. Of course, Helm is alive and well, meeting his boss “Mac” MacDonald for a covert rendezvous at a service station, where Mac assures Matt that he needs to stay “dead” to more effectively complete his next mission:
Mac: Matt Helm is dead, and he’s gonna stay dead.
Matt: Now just a darn minute-
Mac: Direct from the White House, Matt.
Matt: Well, I ain’t votin’ for him again.
The next day, Matt lands via Pan Am flight at Nice-Cote d’Azur airport, still wearing the same clothes as the day before. As Mac assured him, there was an identical Thunderbird waiting for him… as well as a bottle of Scotch to deliver his briefing.
Helm’s task? To track down Dr. Normal Soleris (Richard Eastham), a scientist who has been kidnapped by a secret evil organization led by Dr. Julian Wall (Karl Malden). His “investigation” brings him into contact with Dr. Soleris’ vivacious daughter Suzie (Ann-Margret), first outside a dead lead’s bungalow and again in a dizzying discotheque where he’s wrongly arrested for murder!
Matt: Now, just a doggone minute, I got some rights too. I’m an American citizen.
Police caption: We will play “The Star Spangled Banner” when you’re in the electric chair.
Matt: Ah, then I have to stand up.
What’d He Wear?
When we first see Matt Helm in Murderers’ Row, he’s dressed for comfort during a photo shoot in a matching powder blue knit short-sleeved shirt and elastic-waisted pants. It isn’t until he greets Mac in his Thunderbird that Martin is dressed in Matt’s usual outfit of a tailored jacket and turtleneck.
Matt Helm’s sport jackets were typically made from bolder colors and unique cloths, so this coral red single-breasted jacket made from a lightly napped cloth suggestive of cashmere would have a very fitting place in Helm’s wardrobe. While the costume design is credited to the prolific Moss Mabry, I’m not sure if Martin’s clothing was tailored by Sy Devore, the “tailor to the stars” who dressed Dino and his Rat Pack pals in real life up until his death in July 1966.
This red sports coat is fully cut and styled in accordance with the era’s fashions with slim notch lapels and low two-button stance. The jacket has double vents, two-button cuffs, and patch pockets: one on each hip and one on the left breast, dressed with a rich gold satin silk pocket square worn in a rakish puff.
Our turtleneck-loving hero doesn’t let us down, wearing the first of three under his red jacket. This light canary yellow roll-neck is knit from a lightweight material, possibly merino wool or an acrylic blend, and worn untucked.
Matt’s slacks are a shade of rust brown that nods toward maroon to coordinate with his red jacket. Likely cut similarly to his other trousers, they are single reverse-pleated with buckle-tab side adjusters, slanted side pockets, and plain-hemmed bottoms.
Matt completes the look with a pair of brown sueded leather Chelsea boots, a style embraced and popularized by mods of the mid-1960s despite its relatively staid origins a century earlier when Queen Victoria’s shoemaker J. Sparkes-Hall had developed his “patent elastic ankle boots.”
Thanks to countercultural stars like Elvis, The Rolling Stones, and The Beatles—who commissioned Anello & Davide to modify them into the iconic “Beatle boots”—Chelsea boots were revived by trendsetters on both sides of the pond and remain a mainstay of major shoemakers. My particularly favorite Chelsea boots are the rugged, comfortable, and stylish Blundstone 550, which I own in “antique brown” leather with black outsoles and side gussets.
Issued inside Matt Helm’s Thunderbird is a gun case for this new equipment, a Hy Hunter Bolomauser modified AR-7 pistol with a delayed trigger that you can read much more about in this post about the blue double-breasted blazer he wears when using the pistol to greater effect.
Matt finds himself far more interested in…
What to Imbibe
… a fifth of Ballantine’s Finest hidden in a secret compartment within the gun case. The boozehound at the wheel is delighted, until he realizes that the bottle is merely a vessel for his tape-recorded mission briefing.
Dean Martin often incorporated bottles of Scotch into his stage act, particularly his preferred J&B Rare which he drank on the rocks in the first Matt Helm movie, The Silencers. Only Ballantine’s returned as the prominently seen on-screen bottle for Murderers’ Row, perhaps signifying a shift in Dino’s tastes.
The Ballantine’s brand traces its history back to 1827, when George Ballantine opened a small Edinburgh grocery that included a selection of whiskies for sale. George slowly but steadily grew his clientele over the next thirty-odd years until handing over the reins of the store to his son Archibald and focusing more on the spirited spirits trade, eventually creating his own whisky blends. The family name remained over the generations to follow through sales and acquisitions as Ballantine’s continued to grow in popularity in the world market.
Teased by the empty Ballantine’s bottle, Matt pulls out his flask. It isn’t the first we’ve seen him drinking in a car, having brought highballs to his initial front seat briefing with Mac.
I can’t stress enough that not only is drinking and driving a bad idea but Helm’s need to actively take pulls from his flask or glass while behind the wheel—played for laughs—is extremely not recommended by this author… even when you’re given a bottle in your government-issued Thunderbird.
…and let’s talk about that government-issued Thunderbird, shall we? After Matt and Mac toast with highballs in the front seat of Mac’s coupe and get briefed from a sliding TV panel on the dash, Mac reassures Matt that “there’s a car just like this waitin’ for you” at the airfield in Cannes. Indeed, Matt deboards to find a pea green 1966 Ford Thunderbird Town Landau just steps away.
The Ford Thunderbird was already closing out its fourth generation when Matt Helm’s 1966 model rolled off the production line. The marque was introduced for the 1955 model year as Ford’s response to the sporty Chevrolet Corvette, though Ford wisely positioned its new two-seater Thunderbird as a “personal car” that offered performance-oriented luxury and comfort in a uniquely styled package. The approach worked, and Thunderbirds actually outsold Corvettes by more than 23-to-1 in 1955, the T-Bird’s first year on the market. The Thunderbird underwent some design revisions (including the famous Continental-style spare tire over the rear bumper) and performance upgrades over the next two model years. When the last 1957 Thunderbird rolled off the line following a banner sales year of more than 21,000, it was the last two-seat car that Ford would offer for a quarter century.
The next two iterations of the Thunderbird saw the addition of a back row of seating and, in 1961, a bullet-like redesign that emphasized Space Age sleekness and was only powered by the new 390 cubic-inch V8 engine, mated to a three-speed automatic transmission. The Thunderbird had risen from a boutique novelty to a visible icon of American success, serving as the Indianapolis 500 pace car, composing part of JFK’s inaugural parade, and heavily featured on TV shows like 77 Sunset Strip. The bullet-like third generation gave way to a more squared appearance for the fourth generation, which began with the 1964 model year, as the big three U.S. automakers tried to find their footing in an increasingly performance-focused era.
This fourth generation of the Thunderbird was a transitional period as Ford determined how to balance its initial vision of luxury, the car’s increasing weight, and the trend toward performance-oriented muscle cars. From the start, the Thunderbird had always opted for luxury rather than performance, allowing its GM and Mopar competition to show off at the drag strips. While Ford was unveiling its sprightly Mustang for 1964, it also pushed out a new, even heavier Thunderbird model that required approximately 11 seconds to accelerate from 0 to 60 miles per hour, even with the considerably powerful 390 V8 that remained standard. With curb weights topping 4600 pounds, at least 100 more than the prior generation, Ford determined that the Thunderbird would need some added boost if it wouldn’t be totally left in the dust, and—for only $86 more—drivers could upgrade to a 428 cubic-inch V8 offering 345 gross horsepower and a slightly reduced 0-60 time that at least stuck to single digits.
For the 1966 model year, the Landau style option that had been introduced in 1962 was refreshed and replaced by the blind quarter formal-roofed Town Landau that would become the year’s best-selling model, accounting for just over half of 69,176 Thunderbird sales in 1966.
WIKI: “For 1964 the Thunderbird was restyled in favor of a more squared-off appearance, which was mostly evident when viewing the car from the side or rear. Hinting at its roots in the previous generation Thunderbird that it evolved from, the new model retained a similar grille design with quad headlights and a 113.2 inches (2,875 mm) wheelbase. As before, the new Thunderbird continued to be offered in hardtop, convertible, and Landau versions. The 300 horsepower (220 kW) 390 cu in (6.4 L) FE V8 continued as the standard engine for the Thunderbird. It was paired with a 3-speed automatic transmission. For 1965, sequential turn signals were added, flashing the individual segments of the broad, horizontal tail lights in sequences from inside to outside to indicate a turn. Also new for 1965 were standard front disc brakes, and doubled sided keys. Even though it was the last year of the generation, 1966 saw a stylistic revision for the Thunderbird highlighted by a new egg-crate style grille with a large Thunderbird emblem at its center and a single-blade front bumper. The rear bumper was restyled to include new full-width taillamps. Engine choices were also revised for 1966. The standard 390 cu in (6.4 L) V8 equipped with a single four-barrel carburetor produced 315 horsepower (235 kW). Newly optional and taking the top position for performance was a 345 horsepower (257 kW) 428 cu in (7.0 L) FE V8. The 428 cost only $86 over the base engine, and was a popular option. This would be the last year for the convertible until the “retro” models of 2002-05.”
1966 Ford Thunderbird Town Landau
Body Style: 2-door hardtop coupe
Layout: front-engine, rear-wheel-drive (RWD)
Engine: 390 cid. (6.4 L) Ford FE V8 with Ford 9510 4-barrel carburetor
Power: 315 bhp (235 kW; 320 PS) @ 4600 RPM
Torque: 427 lb·ft (579 N·m) @ 2800 RPM
Transmission: 3-speed Ford “Cruise-O-Matic” automatic
Wheelbase: 113.2 inches (2875 mm)
Length: 205.4 inches (5217 mm)
Width: 77.3 inches (1963 mm)
Height: 52.7 inches (1339 mm)
Feeling rightly confident that the Mustang was the brand’s contender against GM and Mopar muscle car competition, Ford wisely kept building the Thunderbird in the luxury personal car segment, moving its design upmarket more in line with its Lincoln models. Unfortunately, the convertible option that had been available from the beginning was dropped for 1967 when the even larger fifth generation of the Thunderbird was introduced. Sales would steadily drop until 1971, the last year of the fifth generation which leaned in heavily to the luxury offerings with Neiman Marcus offering a pair of “his and hers” Thunderbirds for $25,000 total.
As usual, each generation of the Ford Thunderbird meant a massive design overhaul until production was quietly discontinued in 1997, closing the tenth generation. A five-year hiatus gave Ford time to refresh, and a retro-influenced eleventh generation of the Thunderbird was introduced in 2002, returning to the original formula of a futuristic two-seater with the first convertible option in more than 35 years. The new Thunderbird was an instant hit with more than 31,000 sold in 2002, but the novelty soon wore off and—after sales failed to break 10,000 in 2005—the Thunderbird was again discontinued with no new models on the roads in the last fifteen years.
How to Get the Look
While Dean Martin’s trademark tuxedos often made their way into the final scenes of his Matt Helm adventures, Dino’s attire as the American counter-agent was not surprisingly as laidback as the entertainer himself, consisting of simple items like a sport jacket, turtleneck, trousers, and boots in eye-catching colors that would get Helm maximum attention with minimal fuss.
- Coral red napped cashmere single-breasted 2-button sport jacket with slim notch lapels, patch breast pocket, patch hip pockets, 2-button cuffs, and double vents
- Yellow turtleneck with ribbed-knit neck, cuffs, and hem
- Rust brown single reverse-pleated trousers with buckle-tab side adjusters, slanted side pockets, and plain-hemmed bottoms
- Chocolate brown sueded leather Chelsea boots
- Chocolate brown socks
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie or the whole four-film Matt Helm series.
I’m sorry I missed my funeral. How’d it go?