Cobra Woman was directed by Robert Siodmak just as he was embarking on his peerless string of black pearls: Phantom Lady, Christmas Holiday, The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry, The Suspect, The Spiral Staircase, The Killers, The Dark Mirror, Cry of The City, Criss Cross and The File on Thelma Jordon. And that's a bitter pill to swallow. The movie harks back to styles of moviemaking which the noir cycle, which Siodmak was so instrumental in creating, was putting blessedly to rest: To Saturday-matinee serials and boys' stories like Treasure Island, to South Seas excursions like Rain and Red Dirt and White Cargo, to gaudy, escapist musicals. And yet Cobra Woman achieves an almost solitary stature; only Vincente Minnelli's Yolanda and The Thief, from the following year, challenges its reputation as a movie so wildly overblown it's unhinged. There's little point in rehashing the plot, which centers on twins separated at birth: Tollea, a sweet native girl engaged to marry an American; and Naja, high-priestess of a snake cult that practices human sacrifice. Rightful heir Tollea is kidnaped so she can depose her evil sister and placate the Fire Mountain (a cheesy back-lot volcano). Supporting parts are taken by Jon Hall, Lon Chaney, Jr., Sabu and a loinclothed chimpanzee. A thickly-accented native of the Dominican Republic, Maria Montez plays, sensibly, both twins (giving Siodmak good practice for Olivia De Havilland's similar dual role in The Dark Mirror). Cobra Island, her domain, in its outlandish costumes and grandiose sets, puts to shame those elephants-and-all productions of Aida staged in the Baths of Caracalla; this Technicolor nightmare gives a sneak-preview, in its prurient take on pagan excess, the cycle of Biblical epics that were just down the road for Hollywood. But neither Cecil B. DeMille (in Samson and Delilah) nor Douglas Sirk (in Sign of the Pagan) nor Michael Curtiz (in The Egyptian) nor even, for that matter, Minnelli (though he came closest) could rival Siodmak's big set-piece: Naja/Montez performing the Cobra Dance. Clad in a snake-scale gown, she shimmies awkwardly for His Undulating Majesty himself, King Cobra, until he strikes at her (a mating gesture? Reptiles can be so ambiguous). She erupts into a frenzied spasm, hurling accusatory fingers at sacrificial victims who will then be made to climb the Thousand Steps to the angry maw of Fire Mountain. It would be reassuring to write off Cobra Woman as some sort of failed allegory, about Fifth Columnists, or Free French vs. Vichy, or something; but no such evidence exists. The movie is what it is, and utterly astonishing.
Upon discovering his fiancée Tollea has been kidnaped, Ramu and his friend Kado set out for a Pacific isle where all strangers are to be killed on arrival and the inhabitants, who are ...
September 27, 2020