Dean Martin as Matt Helm, smooth secret agent
New Mexico, Summer 1966
Film: Murderers’ Row
Release Date: December 20, 1966
Director: Henry Levin
Costume Designer: Moss Mabry
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
Happy birthday, Dean Martin! The charismatic entertainer known for his laidback charm and boozy, breezy persona was born June 7, 1917, in Steubenville, Ohio. Having established himself as a singer and actor, first in his partnership with Jerry Lewis and then among the swingers of the Rat Pack, Dino set out on his own direction in the mid-1960s, first with his variety series The Dean Martin Show on NBC and then his starring role as easygoing counter-agent Matt Helm in a multi-film franchise based on Donald Hamilton’s espionage novels. Unlike their more straightforward and serious source material, Martin’s Matt Helm movies followed the decade’s zeitgeist for spy parodies in the spirit of Carry On Spying and Our Man Flint. If you thought James Bond was a womanizer, lounge lizard Matt Helm proves that you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.
While the Rat Pack image may have been sharply tailored Sy Devore suits, Dino’s characterization of Helm preferred a more casual style consistent with his easygoing characterization, invariably wearing turtlenecks or soft knitwear unless the situation called for one of Martin’s signature dark dinner suits, though even this was still dressed down with button-down shirt, of course. Martin and team quickly followed the success of The Silencers with another Helm adventure, Murderers’ Row, released within the same year. This sophomore—and occasionally sophomoric—outing introduces us to Helm in his desert bachelor pad, conducting a photo shoot with a nearly nude blonde:
Well, you’re supposed to look cold, you’re Miss January… and what a way to start the year!
What’d He Wear?
Unwittingly marked for death by Karl Malden’s evil organization, Matt Helm easily succumbs to the undressed charms of “Miss January” (Corinne Cole), who—of course— turns out to be an assassin. She lures the sleepy ex-agent into bed and, with Helm distracted in mid-coital embrace, into his own swimming pool, which she rigged to explode with a “heliobeam” device, and…you know what? Let’s just cut to the clothes.
Bemoaning his extended efforts the previous evening with Miss November and Miss December, Matt dresses solely for leisure, outfitted in a sky blue “walking suit”, a soft-knit precursor to the leisure suits that would be popularized during the following decade.
The top of Matt’s walking suit is a short-sleeved sport shirt with a ribbed collar and placket, which fastens via five light blue plastic sew-through buttons from below the collar to the edge of the straight waist hem; Matt leaves the highest button undone over his chest, providing occasional glimpses of the gold necklace he wears under his shirt. The short, set-in sleeves are banded at the ends above his elbows, and the shirt is detailed with a slim-welted set-in pocket over the left breast.
Matt’s pocketless bottoms are a hybrid between tailored trousers and pajama pants. When his untucked shirt covers the waistband, we observe the soft if straight-legged structure of these trousers, from the creased flat front down to the plain-hemmed bottoms that break clean and high over his boots. Removing his shirt for an amorous interlude with Miss January, we observe the fully elastic waistband with only a squared tab to connect the hidden hook closure suggesting any sort of adjustable fit.
Matt Helm may be dressed for comfort, but he’s still on the clock and at least appoints his feet accordingly, sporting a pair of tan napped leather low ankle boots with low, gently slanted heels. These short plain-toe boots are slipped on with the ease of elastic over the instep, stylishly concealed by the long vamps. Matt Spaiser of the estimable The Suits of James Bond identified this as a specialty style of London luxury bootmaker John Lobb Ltd. in his expert analysis of James Bond’s varied slip-on footwear. As Dean Martin was notably a John Lobb customer in real life, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that they crafted this pair for the crooner. Helm wears them with black socks, a jarringly high-contrast choice of hosiery for this light-colored outfit.
What to Imbibe
Oblivious to the potential detriment of letting his guard down in front of his murderous model, Matt Helm fixes himself a libation, pouring a drop of orange juice into a rocks glass and filling the rest with gin.
While Matt’s morning pick-me-up doesn’t exactly appeal to me, I do envy his rotating bar setup, consisting of glass tumblers filled with his favorite spirits and mixers—namely whiskey, rye, gin, and orange juice, to name a few—rotated and poured with the press of a button. Apropos our hedonist’s smooth, booze-centric lifestyle, it’s hardly a necessary or efficient alternative to keeping a few of his favorite bottles neatly arranged on a bar cart as seen in The Silencers, but to argue for efficiency is to miss the point of Helm-style hedonism altogether.
It lacks the mid-century elegance (and automation) of Matt Helm’s example, but imbibers can affect their own dash of Dino drink-slinging with rotary dispensers like this.
Despite the simplicity of its name, Helm’s concoction isn’t quite the celebrated “Gin and Juice” (in fact, it’s hardly juice!), but it does hearken back to the popularity of gin-and-orange juice cocktails during the pre-Prohibition era, namely the Bronx and the Orange Blossom. As it lacks the vermouth or the simple syrup required for each of these cocktails, respectively, Helm clearly isn’t making either of these, though his straightforward combination does resemble a simple cocktail, The Abbey, that takes this to the next level.
According to Mr. Boston Bartender’s Guide, the Abbey is made by shaking an ounce and a half of gin, an ounce of orange juice, and a dash of orange bitters, strained into a chilled cocktail glass and garnished with a maraschino cherry.
How to Get the Look
I had been considering one of Dean Martin’s dressier, tailored looks from the Matt Helm series for his birthday post, but the months on lockdown during the COVID-19 epidemic had me thinking about comfortable leisurewear. While Helm’s look at the start of Murderers’ Row may not appeal to most, it certainly illustrates a more stylish alternative to sweatpants and slippers.
- Sky blue soft-knit sport shirt with ribbed collar, five-button ribbed placket, set-in breast pocket, and straight hem
- Sky blue soft-knit flat front trousers with elasticized waistband (with hidden hook closure) and plain-hemmed bottoms
- Tan napped leather elastic-on-instep low ankle boots
- Black socks
- Gold necklace
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie or the whole four-film Matt Helm series.