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.

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less
6

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image