Thursday, January 07, 2021

Cobra Women Offers a Montez Adventure with Bite

Watching Universal’s extravagant 1944 Technicolor adventure Cobra Women made me once again ponder the value of art versus entertainment. It goes against the grain to label Cobra a great film, but with the story’s pseudo-exotic locale (it was filmed in one of the more beautiful areas in L.A.), colorful characters earnestly enacted by an attractive cast, boldly outrageous plotline, and gorgeous Technicolor, for me the movie provides a richer, more satisfying experience than many a Best Picture Oscar winner. Just as the Academy has a bias towards drama with important, timely themes over comedies that sometimes endure with audiences in a much more prevalent manner, it’s unfair that an incredible adventure that captures the imagination and provides an uplifting experience can’t be considered on the same critical level as a film with a more serious theme, as bringing an abundance of laughter and excitement is just a profound experience as making an audience ponder over a moral issue. Cobra may not lean towards any deeply intellectual topics, but in my opinion Maria Montez, Jon Hall and Sabu cavorting in their makeshift South Seas paradise proves to be just as moving and satisfying in a positive manner as Schindler’s List is in a slightly more dire fashion.

Director Robert Siodmak, famed for his string of now-classic Film Noirs (including The Killers, Criss Cross and Phantom Lady, released shortly before Cobra) helms the proceedings with flair, maintaining a fun, energetic tone and a strong camp sensibility throughout the film (and Siodmak knew to not overplay the film’s fantastic premise, as the movie runs a swift 72 minutes). Nowhere is Siodmak’s considerable craftsmanship more apparent than in the film’s centerpiece, which finds evil High Priestess Naja beckoning for “King Cobra,” before, in an entranced state, she performs a withering, erotic kind-of dance around the serpent (or at least the pseudo-serpent that stands in for the genuine article in the long shots), climaxing with Naja choosing victims from the understandably increasingly frenzied crowd to be sacrificed at a later date, while the music builds to a crescendo. It’s a one-of-a-kind happening for sure, and Siodmak maneuvers his camera around the florid scene with style and skill.

Although stars Montez, Hall and Sabu received scant plaudits during their careers regarding thespian abilities, in Cobra and elsewhere during their 1940’s reign as Universal’s go-to stars whenever an exotic locale appeared in a script, the attractive trio provide a vacuous earnestness and unique flavor that is a distinct, invaluable component of these florid extravaganzas (the only aspect missing from this stalwart team in Cobra is the irreplaceable presence of Turhan Bey, who might have been sowing some Dragon Seed over at MGM). Montez, gowned in some fabulous, overwhelming creations by Vera West, possibly reaches her glamorous “Queen of Technicolor” peak in Cobra, portraying the good island girl Tollea and her aforementioned nefarious twin Naja with admirable ultra-serious intent and a fair level of conviction; Montez is clearly whole-heartedly invested in this fantastic project, thereby capturing the audience’s imagine and attention and making it easy for them to suspend disbelief in the film’s many improbable events and good-naturedly go along for the lively ride, including the peerless, famed moment during the climax wherein Tollea demands Naja to “give me that Cobra jewel.”

Hall, with his calm, unfazed demeanor and suitably beefcake physical attributes aptly serves the heroic requirements of his role as Ramu, matches up nicely with Montez and his agreeable stoicism grants a touch of sanity to the hyperbolic proceedings surrounding him. As Ramu’s young friend who aids and abets him through multiple adventures, Sabu performs with his standard spirit, simplicity and eagerness-to-please that marks him extremely likable as he cavorts around Cobra Island. Rounding out the principals, Lon Chaney takes a break from the horror genre to beneficially put his imposing stature to good use as Hava, the somber and imposing accomplice who joins forces with the hero and heroine as they battle against the island’s ominous (but entertaining) adversaries.

Technicolor has rarely looked as impressive and vibrant as on the current Cobra Blu-ray disc from Kino Lorber. With one exception wherein a tiny piece of green flutters around Sabu’s face for a few moments (and this may have been on the original negative), the print is consistently sharp and pristine. Cobra Woman, with an overbaked but irresistibly juicy plot and characters put over with inventive style and flair by a cast completely in sync with the story’s fantastic elements, provides a perfect antidote to and escape from trying times, for both WWII-weary audiences and viewers today looking for diversion from an oftentimes cumbersome reality. This exotic potboiler may not be high art, but something better instead- a robust, fanciful entertainment with no pretense to do anything but provide an inventive, satisfying piece of escapism.


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