Cobra Woman

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Robert Siodmak’s technicolor extravaganza Cobra Woman (1944) is a film more widely known than seen. Since its release in 1944, Cobra Woman and its star Maria Montez have been venerated by filmmakers and critics as the artful epitome of camp. Queer cinema icons Kenneth Anger and Jack Smith both favored Cobra Woman, considering it one of the greatest pictures of its day.

Cobra Woman is a South Seas adventure that propagates jingoist attitudes towards Eastern cultures and celebrates Western imperialism; Cobra Woman is a boiler plate adventure spectacle. There are two reasons why this Universal Pictures production has been elevated to the status of art. One reason is its director, Robert Siodmak. Though best known for his film noir pictures, Siodmak also excelled at high octane adventure films. Siodmak’s sensibility for fast paced, punchy pulp narratives and his economic approach to visual storytelling made him as adept with crime films as swashbucklers. Though Cobra Woman isn’t strictly a swashbuckler, it does utilize many of the same narrative devices and a generally similar structure. In Siodmak’s hands Cobra Woman rips through the screen at a rapid clip, jettisoning the viewer full tilt into the fantastic world of the twin sisters Tollea and Naja (Maria Montez).

The expressionist impulse that defines films like The Killers (1946) also has a place in Siodmak’s earlier film Cobra Woman. As the plot races along, Siodmak frames his images dynamically, reflecting the unfathomably over-the-top narrative beats. The camera in Cobra Woman, under Siodmak’s direction, renders compositions with the kineticism of comic book panels. Cobra Woman is a veritable feast for the eyes between Siodmak’s cinematographic stylings and the sensationalist production design.

The “look” or design of Cobra Woman is a direct antecedent to Fritz Lang’s masterworks The Indian Tomb and The Tiger Of Eschnapur (1959). Cobra Woman is a typical affair for “the queen of technicolor” Maria Montez made extraordinary by the artists who worked on it. The dance of the cobra sequence in particular stands out as an exemplary instance of camp as high art. In an improbably ornate cavern, wearing a sparkling gown and gold headdress, Montez dances sensually with the phallic rubber snake, titillating audiences with her movements (just as Debra Paget would some fifteen years later in Lang’s films). It’s at this intersection of visual technique and performance that we come to the second component that elevates Cobra Woman, Maria Montez herself.

Maria Montez plays twin sisters who have been separated at birth. Tollea is the good sister who is in love with Ramu (Jon Hall) and has a sibling like friendship with Kado (Sabu). Naja, on the other hand, was raised as a sorceress princess and heir to their mother’s throne. Naja’s sexual snake dance is all the keeps her island kingdom from going up in a volcanic eruption. There’s clearly no getting around the fact that Cobra Woman is a ludicrous film that makes practically no sense. And yet, when Montez is on screen nothing else matters. Montez’s charisma and her raw energy as a physical force makes her inability to act totally inconsequential. Montez gives the ultimate in campy performances as these two sisters and it is one of the great treasures that the cinema has to offer.