Cobra Woman (1944): Cult Movie Starring Maria Montez

Universal

Robert Sidomak’s “Cobra Woman,” starring Maria Montz, has become over the years both a cult item and a high-camp gay movie.

This bizarre extravaganza is considered by many to be the quintessential work of Maria Montez (1919-1951), stra of many exotic adventures.

Consider the details of the plot: Montez plays Tollea, who, on the eve of her wedding to Ramu (Jon Hall, another campy actor), is spirited away from her South Sea island to the mysterious and forbidden place of her birth, Cobra Island.

Unfazed, Ramu follows and, with help from his young friend Kado (Sabu, who would later appear in “Black Narcissus”) and their chimp Coco, land on the island at great risk.

We learn that Tollea is the high priestess of Cobra Island, the first born of twin daughters. Tollea was not immune to the venom of the king cobra, however, so she was taken out of the island as an infant to avoid death.

Her grandmother-Queen (Mary Nash) secured her return, but Tollea’s twin Naja (also played by Montez), has become cruel and greedy; she kills, tortures, and torments people, not ot mention violating their religion.  In other words, Naja must be deposed for her perversions.

But Naja lusts after Ramu, and her confederate, the evil Martok (Edgar Barrier), assists her in her schemes to reamin in power.

Ramu has to decide if he’s willing to give up the woman he loves so that she can save her people; Tollea must choose between love and duty, fate and her birthright.

One of the most ridiculously plotted campy costume adventure of all time, “Cobra Woman” came out in 1944, in the midst of WWII.

The script, co-penned by Richard Brooks (who would become a noted director) long before he wrote “The Brick Foxhole” and helmed “Blackboard Jungle” and “In Cold Blood.”

The spectacle contains harem dancers, prop snakes, and eye-popping dances.

“Cobra Woman” is directed by Robert Siodmak, a Nazi refugee, who would make some great noir thrillers in the late 1940s, such as “The Killers,” in 1946. (See biography below)

Some critics (not me) see parallels between Cobra Island and Nazi Germany, but the movie is enoyable as a curiosity item, preposterously scripted and acted by all involved.

It doesn’t help that Sabu is given such lines as “I are,” instead of “I am,” or that the bad Montez has to proclaim “I am de law here!”

“Cobra Woman” is cited as a major influence on Jack Smith’s “Flaming Creatures,” which stars female impersonator Mario Montez.

Viewers also like the torture screnes of Sabu, specifically the shot of his butt (the film’s final image), with a chimpanzee, using needles and threads, mends a hole in his pants.

Released on May 17, 1944.

DVD: March 29, 2005

About Robert Siodmak

Born August 8, 1900, Memphis, Tennessee; died in Germany in 1973.  The son of a Leipzig banker in the U.S. on a busi­ness trip, he was brought to Germany while still an infant. After graduating from the University of Marburg, he began acting in repertory, but financial pressures forced him into a job as a bank clerk and several unsuccessful business ventures.

 

 

In 1925, he entered the German film industry as a title writer for imported American movies. In 1928, he became a film editor. In 1929, he made his directorial debut, co‑directing with Edgar G. Ulmer the seminal feature documentary “Menschen am Sonntag” (“People on Sunday”). This film also marked the starting point of the careers of Curt Siodmak, Robert’s brother, of Billy Wilder, who collaborated on the script, and of Eugen Schfiff­tan and Fred Zinnemann, who collaborated on the photography.

 

 

Siodmak went on to direct several German sus­pense thrillers, but being Jewish, he was forced into exile in Paris after the Nazi rise to power in 1933.  He left for Paris just before its occupation and in 1940 heading for Hol­lywood.

 

 

 

After some B pictures, Siodmak attracted attention in 1944 with a succes­sion of atmospheric psychological thrillers for Universal, which were aptly described by critic Andrew Sarris as “more Ger­manic than his German ones films.”

 

 

 

He cast of Ella Rraines to excellent effects in “Phantom Lady,” “The Suspect,” and “Uncle Harry,” and then successfully cast Deanna Durbin and Gene Kelly out of character in “Christmas Holiday.”

 

 

He drew an interesting performance from Burt Lan­caster in the actor’s screen debut, “The Killers,” a taut adaptation of the Hemingway short story, which also co-starred Ava Gardner, at her most erotic and beautiful.

 

 

 

“The Killers” was nominated for four Oscars, including Best Director for Siodmak.  But the winner was William Wyler for “The Best Years of Our Lives,” which swept most of the awards in 1946.

 

 

 

Siodmak’s Holly­wood films of the early 1950s were less interesting, except for the lively costume adventure comedy “The Crimson Pirate.”

 

 

Siodmak returned to France in 1953 and then to Germany the following year.