‘No drug-soaked brain could dream up the horrors of Cobra Island!’
Sometimes, popular culture is incomprehensible. In the future, people will look back at Michael Bay movies and be just as befuddled – if perhaps less entertained – as we are by the inexplicable stardom of Maria Montez, ‘queen of Technicolor’. Universal Pictures, and devoted audiences, reckoned her among the greatest beauties of the 1940s (especially in colour) but she now looks like just a reasonably pretty redhead starlet. Montez wouldn’t trouble a ‘hundred sexiest screen sirens’ list today whereas many 1940s contemporaries (Hayworth, Gardner, Bacall, Tierney) are still admired. Her thick hispanic accent (she was Dominican) supposedly suited her to South Sea Islanders and Arabian Nights princesses, and her thickening waistline required canny costuming in a genre (exotic adventure and romance) which demanded skin-tight sarongs, bare-midriff two-pieces and (as here) a shimmering cobra-patterned high priestess sheath (augmented by extraordinarily silly headgear). Kenneth Anger proclaimed Cobra Woman his favourite film, and Montez retained a camp appeal for gay diva fans well after he star had fizzled out with regular people – but this is only bearable because it crams all its sillinesses into such a short running time. Director Robert Siodmak and screenwriter Richard Brooks (working with Gene Lewis, from a story by W. Scott Darling) were men of taste and ambition, ready in 1944 to latch onto film noir and create movies we still relish six decades on. They can do nothing with Montez (in a dual role, yet) or her held-over supporting cast (stiff hero Jon Hall, roguish Sabu in yet another reprise of his Thief of Bagdad role), not to mention Lon Chaney Jr (who had played Son of Dracula for Siodmak) as a tongueless brute or (worst of all) Koko the sarong-wearing chimp (whose party piece is threading a needle and who takes a proprietory interest in Sabu’s ass in the fade-out joke).
In some nebulous region of the globe where island cultures offer a melange of India (snake worship and turbans), Polynesia (a touchy ‘fire god’ in the volcano) and a Beverly Hills nightclub (a rite which requires the high priestess to shimmy up to a big cobra), sweet Tollea (Montez) is kidnapped from Harbor Island just before her wedding to local clod Ramu (Hall) and spirited off to Cobra Island. Ramu crosses the seas, along with stowaways Kado (Sabu) and Koko, to get her back. In an odd twist, sinister thug kidnapper Hava (Chaney) is a good guy (though he kills a guard with a cobra-venomed stabber disguised as a flute in the process of his exploit) in the employ of the just and wise queen (Mary Nash). The elder stateswoman wants the exiled rightful heiress to replace her evil sister Naja (Montez, narrowing her eyes) as the power on the island. Naja and baddie Martok (Edgar Barrier), who sports a turban which makes him look a complete dick (phallic symbols abound), are extorting gold from the people, and pettishly decreeing that more and more folk walk up the steps and jump into the volcano to appease the fire god. The film isn’t lavish enough to show us this spectacle, making do with Naja’s snakedance (which is quite a stunner) and the congregation’s cobra salutes (the best made-up salute in the movies until the wave of The Wave).
Montez is barely present as the good girl and isn’t good as the bad girl, and their encounter is no triumph of special effects – especially since the wicked high priestess is one of those villains stupid enough to step backwards out of a high window after she’s missed throwing a javelin at the girl at point-blank range. In the busy climax, the good Montez bungles her take-over of the island because she’s too scared to do a proper cobra dance – Kado uses his blow-gun (yes, another phallic symbol) to kill the snake, which so angers the fire god that the volcano blows and everyone panics until Hava tosses Martok into a pit of stakes which appeases the fickle deity. After all that, Tollea doesn’t even stick around to be queen (Martok offed the old one, who never quite admits she’s the mother of the twins) but runs off with her doltish fiancé, leaving the task of setting up a new government and belief system to – get this! – a teenage handmaiden (Lois Collier) with no experience or claim to the throne.
The Technicolor is gorgeous in a chocolate box sort of way – with white marble sets to show off the garish costumes and glowing skin-tones (and that red mane) – but the stuffy look compares poorly with anything from Jack Cardiff and Michael Powell in the same process. Still, in 1944, audiences – rubes and cynics alike – loved these movies (Montez made over ten of these, from Arabian Nights in 1942 to Siren of Atlantis in 1949 via Gypsy Wildcat, Sudan and Tangier). Now, they would look like artifacts from a lost civilisation, except the art direction is so tasteless that it’s plain no real society ever dressed up like this or stuck serpent candlesticks on the temple-execution-block-catwalk-throneroom in just the right way for Hall, Sabu and that bloody chimp to do their acrobatics on.