The 1960s was the Golden Age of spy films. After the first James Bond film, Dr. No came out in 1962, theaters as well as television screens became flooded with spies. Films like The Liquidator, The Spy who Came in From the Cold, In Like Flint, Funeral In Berlin, and The Deadly Affair were popular on the big screen but television had even more spies to offer fans of the genre. During the 1960s, series like Danger Man, The Avengers, The Saint, I Spy, Mission: Impossible, The Prisoner, and Get Smart dominated the airwaves.
This week in From the Vault we’re taking a look back at two of the more popular Spy series of the 60s, one from television and one from films. While they were both extremely popular with fans, they were very different in style and tone. Best of all, both are available on DVD.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
NBC 1964 – 1968, 105 Episodes
Cast: Robert Vaughn, David McCallum, Leo G. Carroll
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was one of the most successful spy shows in history running 4 seasons and 105 episodes. UNCLE stood for the "United Network Command for Law and Enforcement", essentially an international law-enforcement agency. The show starred Robert Vaughn as American Agent Napoleon and David McCallum as Soviet Agent Illya Kuryakin. The British head of UNCLE was Alexander Waverly played by Leo G. Carroll.
The series premiered in 1964 on NBC and quickly became one of the top shows on TV and made huge stars out of Vaughn and McCallum. UNCLE was one of the first shows to truly take advantage of mass merchandising and licensing of its name. By 1965, the toy shelves were littered with model kits, games, die-cast vehicles, figures, and all sorts of other toys. The series also spawned a spinoff, The Girl from U.N.C.L.E, as well as comic books, two dozen novels, and a handful of theatrical films which were expanded versions of episodes from the series but done in color which was a major attraction at the time.
One of the big fan attractions was the shows use of so many high tech (for the 1960s anyway) gadgets including the pocket radios that were disguised as cigarette packs or ink pens that were the forerunners of our modern day cell phones. And perhaps most fan’s fondest prop was the UNCLE special gun. The Gun (one of the most popular of the 1960s toys) was a Walther P38 that could be converted into a rifle.
Uniquely hip was that every episode title ended in the word "Affair" such as "The Arabian Affair" or "The Foreign Legion Affair". The main nemesis of UNCLE was the international criminal and terrorist organization known as THRUSH. The series kicked off with "The Vulcan Affair" as Solo is assigned to prevent THRUSH agents from assassinating a new African delegate. One of the most memorable episodes from season one is "The Deadly Games Affair". Solo and Kuryakin are after a Nazi scientist who has Adolph Hitler in suspended animation and is looking for the correct blood type to revive him.
Also unique about the show was its pairing of an American and Russian agent together, which was a pretty radical concept during the era. After all, it was only two years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, the incident that nearly sparked a nuclear war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. But fans did not seem to mind. The two actors enjoyed a wonderful chemistry together and the banter between them is still fresh today.
In 2008 Warner Home Video released the complete series on DVD. Coming packed in a neat little briefcase the series comes on 41 discs which includes two discs filled with bonus material. The bonus material includes new interviews with Vaughn and McCallum, featurettes on the show’s gizmos and gadgets, the specially designed Piranha car; and a tribute to the series’ fans as well as original TV spots.
At around $130 on Amazon, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. complete series is well worth the investment
The Matt Helm Lounge (Released on DVD 2005)
Columbia Films/Sony Home Entertainment
Cast: Dean Martin
Dean Martin was already one of the most popular singers and actors of the 1950s and 1960s when he was tabbed to play Matt Helm in the first of four films in 1966. The Matt Helm series was based on a successful series of over two dozen spy novels written by Donald Hamilton. But while the books were mostly serious, the films were campy spoofs of the spy genre. While James Bond took time out from saving the world to romance women, Matt Helm too time out from romancing women to save the world. Bond may have had his “Bond Girls” but Matt Helm was no slouch when it came to beautiful women. The series starred some of the most beautiful starlets of the 1960s including Stella Stevens, Sharon Tate, Ann-Margaret, Elke Sommer, Tina Louise.
The plots of the four films are almost secondary to Martin's scenery chewing, and that's just how I like it as he brought humor and charm to his role as Super Spy Matt Helm.
The Silencers (1966) – Matt Helm, a former agent for ICE (Intelligence and Counter Espionage) is coaxed out of retirement to stop the criminal organization The Big O from detonating a nuclear bomb and starting world war III. The gorgeous Stella Stevens is along for the ride as is dancer Cyd Charisse. Victor Buono best known as Batman TV series villain King Tut, plays a Chinese baddie!
Murderer’s Row (1966) – Big O is back and this time it’s Karl Malden playing new Big O villain Julian Wall who is assassinating ICE agents around the world. Helm has to fake his own death in order to stop Wall from using the powerful heliobeam to destroy the United States Capitol. Ann-Margaret is the love interest.
The Ambushers (1967) - "The Ambushers" is up next and is generally regarded as the weakest entry in the series. First, unlike the two previous films, there isn’t a true top female lead and love interest. Janice Rule was a minor star and simply not on the same level as either Stella Stevens or Ann-Margaret. There also isn’t a strong villain this time around. An experimental U.S. space ship has been stolen and it's up to Matt to get it back...in-between drinking and lusting after the ladies!
The Wrecking Crew (1968) – The final entry in the series might be the best one yet. While The Ambushers was weak in female co-stars The Wrecking Crew features a trio of 1960s hotties including Sharon Tate (in her second to last role before being murdered by The Manson Family), German pin-up queen Elke Sommer, and Tina Louise, best known for playing Ginger on Gilligan’s Island. Helm is sent to Denmark to bring down an evil Count who is trying to sabotage the world’s economy by stealing a billion dollars’ worth of gold. As usual the plot is secondary to the hi-jinks of martin's character. Bruce lee choreographed the fight scenes. And in a trivia note, Chuck Norris had his first screen appearance in a bit role and Bruce Lee choreographed the film’s fight scenes.
Released on DVD2005, anyone who goes into the Matt Helm films trying to take them seriously is in for trouble. These were pure, tongue-in-cheek spoofs of spy films and a vehicle for Dino to romp with a lot of beautiful women. Expect anything more and you will be disappointed. But if you love Dean's 60's cool then this is a great set to have.
Tim Janson is a columnist and reviewer for Mania Entertainment. He writes Level Up, the weekly look at videogames, From the Vault, a dig into genre films of years gone by, and the horror dedicated column, Tuesday Terrors. Tim has written for Fangoria, Newsarama, City Slab Magazine, Twitch Film, and Cinefantastique. He is a member of the Horror Writers Association (HWA). Be sure to follow him on Facebook and Twitter.
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