Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Dr. No

Dr No posterAt the opening of Dr. No, the first official Bond film, the famous shot down a gun barrel and signature tune are followed by silhouettes swaying to a generic salsa beat and then a calypso placing us in the film's Jamaican setting. "See that, Captain?" side-kick Quarrel points out early on: "That there's the Caribbean." For the birth of the most famous film franchise in history, and also the location from which Ian Fleming wrote the original Bond novels, was but a hop, skip, and a stuntman's jump away from where Columbus first encountered the New World.

Moreover, in one of the most iconic images ever recorded on celluloid, pioneer Bond girl Ursula Andress literally arises from the sea, washed up from the waters after a life spent drifting around the globe: "The Philippines, Bali, Hawaii, just about anywhere there were shells."

Dr No Ursula Andress
The Caribbean is a global crossroads, where all kinds of people and creatures end up: fishermen, professors, spies; British, American, Chinese; Black, White; crabs, spiders, even dragons. It's a peripheral place of retreat and relaxed retirement, with bridge at the exclusive Queens Club or a beer at the rundown seaside bar. But it's also central, a hub for the geopolitical machinations of Dr. No's ambitious counter-Empire.

For the film's plot pits one Empire against another, in the shadow of a third. It should be no surprise then that it is set at the site of Europe's original colonial expansion, and in the heart of what has always been a cauldron of rivalry between diverse imperial projects.

Dr No's SPECTRE organization is, as Sean Connery's Bond puts it, a vehicle for "world domination. The same old dream." But Bond should know more about this dream than most. His role, after all, is to continue the illusion of British global reach in the wake of the loss of Empire. For the film came out during the heyday of decolonization, and indeed the year of its release, 1962, was also the year that Jamaica left behind crown control and became an independent republic. Soon all the flunkeys in Government House would be put out to seed, getting slowly sozzled over martinis at the Queens Club.

And the real threat to British influence, perilously maintained by its secret service, a few high-tech gadgets, and lone individuals such as Commander Bond, is less an apocryphal underground organization such as SPECTRE than the new Empire whose shadow looms large over Dr. No, personified in the figure of Felix Leiter, CIA agent around town. The British presence in the Caribbean is but a colonial relic, military attachés in khaki short trousers and all. The real power in the region is now the United States.

Hence the significance of the film's final scene. Having dispatched Dr. No and his nefarious sub-maritime base, Bond and Andress's Honey Ryder find themselves stranded at sea, their fuel exhausted. Along comes Leiter, who seems to have commandeered a British naval vessel, to the rescue. Bond insouciantly enquires "Well, well, what's the matter, do you need help?" But the joke hardly hides the real relations of power here.

Dr No final sceneAnd when subsequently, in a further act of rather futile resistance, Bond releases the line with which Leiter's boat is towing his own, his victory is at best Pyrrhic: he may have the girl, and so salvaged some British pride, but he's still going nowhere fast, stuck in the middle of the Caribbean.

YouTube link: the final scene.

Labels: ,