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January 03, 2020

Cobra Woman

cobra woman mm.jpg

Robert Siodmak - 1944
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

Cobra Woman has packed in its seventy-one minute running time an exotic beauty and her evil twin sister, an open shirted hero with his short "native" sidekick who brings along his chimpanzee sidekick, dancing maidens, shenanigans in a forbidden queendom, a live volcano, and Lon Chaney, Jr. as a blind and mute wandering musician. No time is spent attempting to make any of this meaningful, other than creating a Technicolor fantasy beautifully rendered in this new blu-ray release.

The only way to enjoy Cobra Woman is on its own terms. The film was produced at a time when Hollywood studios would regularly churn out stories that took place in a highly fictionalized and exotic location, somewhere in the Middle East or an island in the South Pacific. Cobra Woman follows the established template of the hero, a wandering sailor and adventurer, and white savior, who falls in love with a young woman who is of the island but is played by an attractive caucasian or Latina actress. In this instance, the native clothing and religious practice, which involves the worship of an actual cobra, are a grab bag from the imagination of the screenwriters. From a contemporary perspective, much of Cobra Woman might be dismissed as insensitive or ignorant. To some extent, one of the credited screenwriters, Richard Brooks, might be said to have made amends with his own socially conscious films when he ascended to the director's chair.

The short running time might also be attributed to the casting, as the three leading actors were all taking roles familiar to audiences of the time. Maria Montez' reputation primarily rests on her appearances for Universal as a royal ruler or a servant, in any case a forbidden love interest. After several false starts and name changes, Jon Hall's career took off with The Hurricane in 1937, with several South Seas adventure films to follow. The Indian born Sabu was also similarly well established with audiences, a star in his own right.

Maria Montez might not have been much of an actress when expressing herself verbally, but her legs and hips do most of the work. As the evil queen Naja, she first appears wearing a gray and silver lame bathing suit with matching cape, leading a parade of attendants, the whitest brunette chorus girls available on the Universal lot. Montez is the only one with her legs exposed, so there is no way one can not pay attention to anyone else. This queen of the conveniently named Cobra Island later sways her hips in some kind of of ritualistic dance in front of the ceremonial cobra, a combination of a close-up of a real snake and an obvious fake. Don't assume that anyone making Cobra Woman was unaware of any sexual innuendos here. While Montez is wearing a form fitting dress in this scene, it still anticipates the scantily clad snake dance performed by Debra Paget in Fritz Lang's The Indian Tomb filmed fifteen years later. (Coincidentally, Siodmak directed Paget's film debut, Cry of the City.)

While released after Phantom Lady, Cobra Woman was Siodmak's second film as a contract director at Universal. The two other films starring Montez, Hall and Sabu were directed by the more established Arthur Lubin. That Siodmak got the assignment may well be due to Lubin's commitment to the Claude Rains remake of Phantom of the Opera, and, I am guessing here, that while making films in France, Siodmak had previously directed Montez' husband, Jean-Pierre Aumont in Le Chemin de Rio. In any case, Siodmak was in no position to argue, and in interviews would discuss how he would try to improve upon the scripts he was given.

Phillipa Berry's commentary track points out several of the locations where Cobra Woman was filmed, plus provide brief summaries of the careers of the stars. It should be noted that every reliable source states that Siodmak was probably not born in Memphis, Tennessee. Berry does make some connections with Siodmak's later noir films, particularly The Dark Mirror with Olivia De Havilland as rival twin sisters. There is also discussion of Cobra Woman as a camp classic, especially as the inspiration for Jack Smith's Flaming Creatures starring drag artist Mario Montez.

To reduce Cobra Woman to the status of camp classic is a mistake. Siodmak described the film as "silly". The melodramatic intrigue, the pidgin English, and the elaborate costumes are all easy targets of parody. But there is also the sheer craftsmanship and dramatic use of color and shadows, a very effective scene of Hall and Sabu climbing the steep side of a mountain cliff, and the kind of straight-faced performances that would allow less sophisticated audiences to enjoy the film at face value. Sometimes, just being a physical presence is all that is really needed. Prior to making the kind of films that his reputation is based on, Robert Siodmak understood what was required when he was assigned to film "the Queen of Technicolor".

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at January 3, 2020 07:46 AM