Retro Film Report #9: The Ambushers (1967) Part One

To the Atomic Age hipster, the spy was the ultimate bachelor badass. Reckless, yet never ruffled. Daring, yet tender. His Beretta in one hand, his other hand holstering a martini.  He was an epiphany of suave.  For my money, no one personified this better than Dean Martin in his Matt Helm movies.  Indeed, The Ambushers is a celluloid cocktail of cheesecake and Dino mojo, shaken not stirred.

Well known critic,Michael Medved, put this film in his list of the top 50 worst films of all time.  But this movie wasn't meant for squares like Medved. It was meant to entertain, and it more than succeeds in this regard. Medved wouldn't know a Hi-Fi's from a Hi-Ball - and therefore has no business even watching this movie.

The movie begins at the Intelligence Counter Espionage (ICE) Rehabilitation Center where we find spies in training. This is where highly skilled double agents develop the tools of their trade - martial arts, top secret gadgets and the expertise to handle the most dangerous of missions.

Yes, we're two minutes into the film, and I think it's already pretty obvious what kind of movie we're in for. 

Ultra-smooth Helm is just minding his own business taking a stroll at the ICE Rehab Center when a former partner, Sheila, runs screaming into his arms shouting that someone's trying to kill her.  The doctors inform Helm that they found Sheila lost in a jungle, and she's now certifiably batshit insane.

Matt Helm learns from headquarters that he's not at the rehab to brush up on his Judo. No sir. He's there to work with Sheila. You see, Sheila was piloting a government issue flying saucer when she was forced to land in Acapulco..... it's a long story - I'll fill you in later.

BTW Sheila is played by Janice Rule, the former wife of Ben Gazzara and Robert Thom - the writer of Deathrace 2000!

Anyway, ICE wants to take Sheila and get her a makeover by the most flamboyantly gay man in the known universe.


Cut to a scene where Helm is receiving a massage while his miniskirted secretary Lovey Kravesit arrives unexpectedly. They are obviously poking fun at the Bond films and their tendency to give women characters suggestive names.  Lovey was played by Beverly Adams, a former fiance of none other than Erik Estrada.

The next scene takes place at the site of a spy training exercise on a simulated train - except, Helm soon discovers there's nothing simulated about the gun pointed at him. Once the two ladies leave (the older lady played Maude in Harold and Maude), the man demands Helm tell him about the government issue UFO or die!

Thankfully, the boss, Macdonald (James Gregory), saves Helm in the nick of time and takes care of the evil spy by straight up murdering his ass.  You may remember James Gregory from his role as Inspector Luger on Barney Miller.

Macdonald takes a moment to enlighten Helm.  He explains that Sheila is the key to discovering the whereabouts of the UFO.  The only problem is Sheila is, as I stated earlier, batshit insane.  It's going to take a very special man to crack this crazy chick - if Helm can't do it, no one can.

Helm also raises a salient point:  How'd this evil spy infiltrate the ICE rehab center? There's obviously a threat from inside the organization!

Of course, Sheila instantly takes a liking to Helm; however, in her deranged state, she thinks Helm is her husband.  This fits the plan perfectly because the two are to travel to Acapulco (near where the UFO went down) incognito as husband and wife photographers. 

Notice in the next image how both Helm and Sheila are smoking - it's hard to believe there was a time when you could smoke on airplanes (I still remember the little ashtrays in the armrests).

Helm and Sheila wind up at a fancy schmancy pool party when they notice the sinister, Jose Ortega.  ICE suspects Ortega is somehow involved in the disappearance of the flying saucer and Sheila's bizarre brainwash.

It becomes evident that ol' Sheila hasn't exactly forgotten everything when she storms Ortega's mansion and blows his ass away. Of course, you can't kill the sadistic villain this early in the film - Ortega survives because the gun was loaded with blanks.

What's disturbing about this scene is that Ortega is played by Albert Salmi.  In 1990, Salmi and his wife were found dead from gunshot wounds. It is believed to be a murder-suicide; however, the facts of the incident aren't exactly clear, and there are still a lot of unanswered questions.

Sheila flees the scene in a stolen car, is almost raped by a stranger who emerges from the backseat (WTF?), and escapes on foot.

Meanwhile, Helm is making headway with, Francesca, a wealthy woman he's met, played by the Austrian beauty, Senta Berger. Francesca has ties to Ortega, of which Helm would like to explore. 

Unfortunately for Helm, Francesca isn't so easily wooed by his charms. She drugs him using a special kind of lipstick.  This, of course, immediately reminded me of that episode of Gilligan's Island which had the long fantasy sequence where Gilligan is a secret agent.  In once scene Ginger attempts to poison him with a poison lipstick kiss, but secret agent Gilligan survives by wearing a pair of wax lips.

Matt Helm is driven psychotic by the drug, thrashing around, ripping off Francesca's clothes, and then passing out.  That never happened on Gilligan's Island! (I wish it had)

Stay tuned for part two to the Retrospace review The Ambushers. Glad you dropped by!


  1. "The Ambushers" is one of the all-time great films of the 60's; it's got everything! Let's see, there's:

    - Lots of drinking & smoking
    - Super evil bad guy
    - Flamboyantly gay hairdresser
    - Curvy, sexy women
    - Cheesy one-liners
    - Unadulterated wackiness

    I ask you, what is there not to like?

  2. You forgot to mention the machine guns in the bras which Mike Myers swiped for Austin Powers.

    I could never figure out why the drugged lipstick never affected the woman who was wearing it, only the guy she kissed.

    One small point: the old woman on the train is not Ruth Gordon as you suggested. I believe her name is Edit Angold.

    1. The answer to why the drug didn't work on her is in the movie...she took an antidote before putting on the lipstick.

  3. I thought that guy in the lab coat with the sunglasses chasing Sheila was the most flamboyantly gay man in the universe!

  4. Woops. Thanks for the correction Neal.

  5. Love it! Can't wait to watch it. I've had it in my netflix queue for a long time, but it's instant play only, on we only last week got the ability to play those.

  6. To the Editor:

    While I have not seen this particular film, I am familiar with the Dean Martin oeuvre, particularly his Matt Helm films. I love the opening photo, of the woman threatening the Dino with a capped foil: "One more step, and I'll give you a nasty bruise. Maybe. But I'll give it my best shot..."

    Second, some time ago, I was watching one of the numerous retrospectives of Gilligan's Island, with some cast members and Sherwood Schwartz. Schwartz complained of all the headaches he had, from censors upset about Dawn Wells belly button, and Tina Louise's knockers. If you look closely, you can see Mary Anne's shorts have some weird, out of place patch sticking up in the front, just covering up her belly button. As for Ms. Louise, she'd want her character to be more sexy, complaining "I'm not a boy." So, she'd wait until the director yelled "ACTION!" and then yank down the front of her dress, right before the camera caught her--showing (then) a risque bit of "cleavage."

    Which is why, in the immortal trio from back in the day, I'd have to go 1) Jeanie 2) Ginger (in a virtual tie), with Mary Anne a distant third. Heck, I'd probably score Marlo Thomas and Sally Field ahead of Mary Anne.

    Finally, I feel compelled to correct another error in Mr. Gilligan's post. When Mr. Gilligan says "Michael Medved...has no business even watching this movie," Mr. Gilligan is certainly correct. However, the statement implies that there are movies that Mr. Medved *does* have business viewing--and conceivably writing about. That simply is incorrect. If it were possible, Mr. Medved (for the good of humanity) would be exiled to an island where watching films (or even possession of writing implements) are illegal.

    I remain:
    Bill Abendroth
    Samsara Samizdat

  7. AnonymousMay 04, 2010

    Francesca puts the antidote in her drink, and later, slips it to Sheila just before putting on her lipstick.

    The bra guns were single shot, "double" barrels. That would hurt having recoil on your nipples.

  8. The old poison lipstick trick, eh? They used it in 'Get Smart' too - you'd think Matt would be hip to it.

  9. Senta Berger was drinking the antidote, that's why her poison lipstick didn't effect her.

  10. Never saw it, but looks like I am missing out.

  11. Hey pallie, dude as our Dino sez to Miss Lovey in the steam bath..."There is takin' care, and there is takin' care." Kudos to you Mr. Gil for such a groovy "takin' care" review of Helmer numero 3....loves meetin' others who truly "get Martin." Never was, never will be anyone as cool as the King of Cool....oh, to return to the days when Dino walked the earth....

    btw, is stellar Dino-review is bein' shared with the readers of ilovedinomartin this very Dino-day....

  12. AnonymousMay 11, 2010

    The woman giving Dean a massage is Alena Guest (she was Alena Johnston then) and she lives in Mendocino, CA now. She's a hypnotherapist. I know her. Wow. My respect for her just notched up a thousand points.

  13. AnonymousJune 29, 2012

    do you have a review fot the wecking crew?

    1. AnonymousJune 30, 2012

      Sorry I will type that again ...."a review for the wrecking crew" ....see above.

  14. i have seen the movie many times. Great movie. I love Albert Salmi acting as the nasty villain but he was cute though. very recommendable spy movie.

  15. Who's the pretty brunette who is in the train sequence?