Film

Eastern Meet West: 1944's 'Cobra Woman'

Certain elements of Cobra Woman would have Edward Said turning in his grave like a grimly revolving kebab, a deep-fried stereotype.


Cobra Woman

Director: Robert Siodmak
Cast: Maria Montez, Jon Hall, Sabu
Length: 70 minutes
Studio: Universal
Year: 1944

Cobra Woman operates like a time machine, but it’s completely free of the complicated metaphysical consequences of stepping into one. Offering an insight into the creative processes, techniques, marketing skills, and audience demographics of a time long gone, it is an extraordinary film. Cobra Woman falls into the ‘Eastern’ genre popular in the 1940s. Today, such a concept would demand sensitive, intelligent direction and self-serious script writing. It would demand dusty, clattering, epic character-studies about political disenfranchisement and those characters’ conflicting drives and desires. It would imply a relationship to the Western, in the mold of Giant or Hud, akin to the relationship between the Gothic genre and its southern counterpart.

For Universal in 1944, these films were pure escapism, dragging the collective consciousness of audiences away from the horrors in Europe. For an audience in the 21st century, the ‘Eastern’ is a gloriously unspecific genre, pure exotica gold. A contemporary audience cannot ever be sure where Cobra Woman is set. It could be set in a generic Middle Eastern state, or it could be set in a generic state in the Indian subcontinent. There are hints of both, but they overlap into something unclear. Perhaps we, the 21st century audience, think of ourselves as being more enlightened. We are thus sure that actor Sabu, the son of an elephant driver, ultimately here playing the role of an apprentice Westerner, is not from a Middle Eastern background. Indeed, certain elements of Cobra Woman would have Edward Said turning in his grave like a grimly revolving kebab, a deep-fried stereotype.

It’s a spectacle built of sheer camp. Full of golden thrones shaped like cobras, sparkling dresses designed by Vera Drake, and hyper-religiosity directed towards actual cobras, the film is soundtracked by yowling and occupied by the flailing of its extras. Ordinarily, where films use dialogue and action to further drama or to propel a plot, Cobra Woman is fantastical to the point where these become irrelevant. It uses three central adventure-film archetypes to attempt to achieve thus. First, it relies on the ill-defined need of its hero, Ramu, to travel to a mysterious island. The island in question is called Cobra Island, which is enticing in its obviousness. Second, the film relies on Ramu encountering forbidding, and forbidden, royalty. Here, this takes the form of a Maria Montez double-act, where she simultaneously plays Ramu’s fiancée Tollea and her evil twin sister Naja. The tension between the two Montezs is the central driving force of the film, but it makes unbearably little sense.

A review written by the brilliant Bosley Crowther in the New York Times in 1944 summarizes the plot perfectly. He writes that, while the only discernible plot seems to be extracted from comic strips, the sole piece of clear narrative an audience can gather is that ‘Cobra Island is ruled by a viperous doll who snake-dances in the sacred temple, surrounded by a bevy of night-gowned toots’. It really has to be seen to be believed. Where the acting is blisteringly awful, and Maria Montez remains deadpan throughout, the film is captured in rich, charming, Technicolor. Cobra Woman is tremendous fun. It’s full of very-1940s signifiers, most importantly that we see the film’s romantic leads tangled in a kiss at the center of the screen and the absurd and violent deaths of its villains. By the onset of the action on Cobra Island, Cobra Woman has already sacrificed its opening fifteen minutes to oblivion and irrelevance. Perhaps this is how the film is best experienced: with bleary eyes as the perfect remedy to a blurry hard day’s night, the trembling attempt to smooth out a comfortable Sunday afternoon.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Film

The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.

Music

The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.

Music

Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.

Film

'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.

Music

'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"

Music

Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.

Music

The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".

Music

GLVES Creates Mesmerizing Dark Folktronica on "Heal Me"

Australian First Nations singer-songwriter GLVES creates dense, deep, and darkish electropop that mesmerizes with its blend of electronics and native sounds on "Heal Me".

Music

Otis Junior and Dr. Dundiff Tells Us "When It's Sweet" It's So Sweet

Neo-soul singer Otis Junior teams with fellow Kentuckian Dr. Dundiff and his hip-hop beats for the silky, groovy "When It's Sweet".

Music

Lars and the Magic Mountain's "Invincible" Is a Shoegazey, Dreamy Delight (premiere)

Dutch space pop/psychedelic band Lars and the Magic Mountain share the dreamy and gorgeous "Invincible".

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" Wryly Looks at Lost Love (premiere + interview)

Singer-songwriter Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" is a less a flat-earther's anthem and more a wry examination of heartache.

Music

Big Little Lions' "Distant Air" Is a Powerful Folk-Anthem (premiere)

Folk-pop's Big Little Lions create a powerful anthem with "Distant Air", a song full of sophisticated pop hooks, smart dynamics, and killer choruses.

Music

The Flat Five Invite You to "Look at the Birdy" (premiere)

Chicago's the Flat Five deliver an exciting new single that exemplifies what some have called "twisted sunshine vocal pop".

Music

Brian Bromberg Pays Tribute to Hendrix With "Jimi" (premiere + interview)

Bass giant Brian Bromberg revisits his 2012 tribute to Jimi Hendrix 50 years after his passing, and reflects on the impact Hendrix's music has had on generations.

Jedd Beaudoin
Music

Shirley Collins' ​'Heart's Ease'​ Affirms Her Musical Prowess

Shirley Collins' Heart's Ease makes it apparent these songs do not belong to her as they are ownerless. Collins is the conveyor of their power while ensuring the music maintains cultural importance.

Books

Ignorance, Fear, and Democracy in America

Anti-intellectualism in America is, sadly, older than the nation itself. A new collection of Richard Hofstadter's work from Library of America traces the history of ideas and cultural currents in American society and politics.

By the Book

Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto (excerpt)

Just as big tech leads world in data for profit, the US government can produce data for the public good, sans the bureaucracy. This excerpt of Julia Lane's Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto will whet your appetite for disruptive change in data management, which is critical for democracy's survival.

Julia Lane

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.