Intermittently this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: the finest scene in Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time ...in Hollywood finds Sharon Tate raptly watching herself in the final movie released before her brutal murder. Why not do as Tarantino has, and celebrate Tate's life and career through that very same movie?

[Because it fucking sucks, is why]


Of all the many James Bond clones and knock-offs to explode into pop culture in the 1960s, Matt Helm sure is one of them. Invented in 1960 by novelist Donald Hamilton, Helm was a governmental assassin in the employ of the United States, the character was turned into a generic retired superspy for a series of four movies produced by Irving Allen (who had just missed out on the Bond train, severing his business relationship with Albert Broccoli shortly before that man acquired the rights to Ian Fleming's character - against Allen's advice, no less) for Meadway-Claude Productions, the company owned by pop music star turned actor Dean Martin. Martin also played the character, and I don't know if that triggered the decision for the Matt Helm movies to be genial, goofy comedies with a touch of action, or if that was a decision made to help distinguish the series from Bond, and then Martin turned out to be available; either way, that's the casting choice that got made, and that's the casting choice we're stuck with.

By general acclamation, the worst of the Matt Helm films was the last, 1968's The Wrecking Crew, and I take some solace in that. For I have never seen the earlier pictures - The Silencers and Murderers' Row, both from 1966, and 1967's The Ambushers - and it would horrify me to learn that this franchise somehow managed to scramble its way to four whole entries if all of them were this bad. It's charmless and witless - two dire, fatal flaws for what amounts to a frivolous sex comedy that's obviously bored at the thought of being a spy thriller, even as a parody. This is clear right from the level of the plot, which brazenly announces, "You've seen Goldfinger, right? Okay, good. Here are pretty women". In this particular case, an Italian count, Massimo Contini (Nigel Green, putting not a second's thought into pretending to be anything other than a full-blooded Englishman), has captured a train carrying a billion dollars in American gold to the United Kingdom, somewhere around Denmark. Any hopes that this weird chain of ownership is an excuse for some exotic globetrotting are quickly thwarted when we realise that Denmark will be played by the Hollywood Hills, and they're looking particularly Hollywood Hill-ish at that. Anyway, Contini's plan is to destroy the anglosphere economy, and the U.S. agency ICE - a different & fictional ICE, but boy does it make for a weird viewing experience in 2019 - sends their top man to find and stop him. That man being Helm, of course.

That might have made things sound far more action-packed than they are. By which I mean, possessed of any action whatsoever. A far better plot summary of The Wrecking Crew might be to say that Matt Helm infiltrates the chambers of a gorgeous woman whose clothing appears to be held on by tape and the power of prayer, and attempts to ask them questions about Contini's whereabouts, except that they're so anxious to seduce him that he keeps forgetting to press them. Press them about the count, that is! Goddammit, I am sorry for that one. After they fail to have sex, he spends about 75 seconds dicking around until he finds the next gorgeous woman. Rinse (your eyes with bleach), repeat. It is frequently extremely difficult to tell whether the woman in any given scene is actually turned on by Helm, or merely using sex to distract him from his mission, because of course storytelling wasn't the priority here; letting Martin canoodle with a rather substantial list of beautiful women was.

There are plot scenes, of course, probably more in total than there are sex scenes; I won't even swear that the sex scenes have a longer average running time, or if it just feels this way. This not not, by the way, some kind of principled declaration against '60s sexism; I have too openly established a love for the Bond franchise among other things to ever pretend I could make that fly. The wretched thing about The Wrecking Crew is that, even by the standards of '60s male fantasies, it just doesn't fucking work. The whole point of these Bond-style movies is that they're lifestyle porn. They present visions of masculinity that are meant to be erotically charged in a way that will appeal both to straight men (who want to live in the body of the hero) and straight women (who want to fuck him). Hence Sean Connery, with his muscular, ready eroticism as Bond. Hence Our Man Flint and In Like Flint, the two films I was most stuck thinking about as I watched The Wrecking Crew: they feature James Coburn at his most relaxed and handsome and debonair, such a charming, sexually insinuating figure that I sort of wonder how all the 12-year-old boys watching his movies didn't instantaneously turn gay. Just about the only Bond knock-off who wasn't first and primarily sexy was Patrick McGoohan's John Drake in the British TV show Danger Man, and that's more because McGoohan wanted to actively avoid that sort of characterisation than because he wasn't a very, very attractive man.

In history, I know that many people have found Dean Martin sexy, but I have to wonder how many of them still felt that way when he was the sozzled 51-year-old we have in The Wrecking Crew. The two adjectives that leap to mind to describe him are "brown" and "puffy". The former owes to the absolutely dumbfounding amount of obvious spray tan he's wearing in every shot, enough to almost qualify as a hate crime in some moments. The latter is the mixed effect of age and hard living, and they in bags under around the actor's eyes so pronounced that he seems to be squinting even when he's opening his eyes wide open for comic effect. I mean, I'm sorry for bagging on the man's looks, but watching one woman after another sucking on his chin and cooing is so off-putting that it actually breaks the narrative: this is a man irresistible to women? Even as parody, that doesn't fly, and of course with Martin's money going into the project, they were never going to handle him ironically, anyway.

This only becomes such a problem because The Wrecking Crew is so disinterested in actually following along with its plot. Martin isn't hiding his disinterest with the material in any way; he tosses off lines without any weight or emotion, his bariton voice to clear to fairly call it "mumbling", though I can't think of a better word for it. He can only come up with one thing to do in the film's many gags, which is to look with a mildly pained look of annoyance at whatever annoyance life throws at him. These mostly come in the form of Freya Carlson (Sharon Tate), a hapless incompetent who exists to trip over things, make Helm's life harder, and then stubbornly insist that she is very good at her job. Also, to look with peevish irritation at Helm as he makes goo-goo eyes at the rest of the female cast. For she is quite ugly, you see, by which I of course mean that she wears large glasses and has her hair up. Thus does her obvious lust for Helm go unslaked, though we all know the formula, and of course we know that it's only a matter of time till our doom arrives, and we must watch Martin put his meaty orange paws all over Tate's face.

Since the reason I've gathered us here is to celebrate Tate's performance, I am extremely happy to report that she's good - one of the very few actively positive elements of the film, and the only one centered on its humans. This was Tate's biggest role to that point, and it's very clear that, whatever she thought about the clown show all around her, she really wanted to take it seriously and invest something into the nonexistent part. And it somehow works. In all the grim comedy, there is only one intentional joke that works: Freya getting a big eye-roll at some damn thing or another Helm says. And Tate nails that eye roll in every way. Meanwhile, she brings such earnestness to Freya, such a commitment to the idea that she really wants to succeed and prove herself as an agent, that she's proudly chagrined by her non-stop pratfalling, that it's kind of eerie. Like, this character doesn't have an inner life. And yet there she is, in front of us, feeling and thinking and somehow actually convincing us that she's horny for Martin, though she is utterly incapable of suggesting why. Compare that to Elke Sommer's performance as the femme fatale: she obviously clocked right away what kind of movie this was, and hammily sinks down to its level, creating a plummy, campy love of wickedness that kind of, almost works (Green's performance also kind of, almost works in much the same direction, though of course Green doesn't have the luxury Sommer has of being a full-on vamp). Tate struggles instead to pull it up with her, and the fact that she fails doesn't mean that the effort isn't appreciated.

It's precious fucking little, and it has a lot to contend with: Martin's palpable disinterest, and director Phil Karlson (a very fine film noir director in his prime) clearly staging for clarity and exposure rather than rhythm, comedy, or action - the action is deliriously bad, in the way that only a film with a chain-smoking 51-year-old star could have - and the terrible jokes in the screenplay, and especially the terrible-and-also-racist jokes about the Chinese villains who end up in there somehow. One is another femme fatale called Yu-Rang (Nancy Kwan), and the film extracts all the joyless anti-humor you would expect from such a name.

On the flipside we have... well, Tate. And also some terrific costumes, which bask in the weird lines and bold colors of '60s women's fashion. The film opens with Helm napping in a veritable nest of sexy women, dreaming of photographing them (he's a fashion photographer when he's not a spy, a plot point that feels like a vestigial organ left from one of the earlier movies), and with such shockingly surreal get-ups, it's not surprising why: the woman in what amounts to a black cylinder around her breasts, a black-cylinder around her crotch, and a telephone stretching between them - with a hat that's at least three feet in diameter topping it all off! - is enough to justify the whole movie by herself, and she's not even necessarily wearing the most batshit costume in that scene. Those little touches of surrealism keep clinging to the movie like dandruff (another showy gesture that's strange enough to be amusing: every time Helm spots another woman, we hear about six seconds of a Dean Martin hit spill across the soundtrack as he looks to the heavens), and prevent it from ever being totally boring, no matter how much the plot, stakes, acting, and comedy try to insist otherwise. It is very much a film produced in '68 by people who gave no shits about about good sense; that ludicrous vibe is by no means enough to make it worth anybody's time to track down and watch The Wrecking Crew, but for a sufficiently dedicated student of the most extreme odd touches of post-Mod pop culture, it has its weedy charms.