Here's another in Universal's wartime cycle of exotic Technicolor adventures featuring Maria Montez, Jon Hall and sometimes Sabu. The whole cycle, which began with Arabian Nights and thus was presumably inspired by The Thief of Bagdad, is considered a milestone of camp cinema within the Hollywood studio system, while Cobra Woman in particular is often considered the campiest of them all. Future director Richard Brooks co-wrote it, having taken sole credit for a previous film in the cycle, White Savage, while Robert Siodmak directed. Siodmak was in the middle of an interesting run of films for Universal that included the proto-noir vampire film Son of Dracula, the noirish Cornell Woolrich adaptation Phantom Lady, and the still more noirish Deanna Durbin-Gene Kelly musical, Christmas Holiday. There's nothing noirish about Cobra Woman, but Siodmak's straight-faced direction, apart from scenes with a chimp in a kilt, no doubt enhances the film's camp qualities. To the extent that Siodmak takes the material seriously, the film probably looks less campy today and more like the typical studio fantasy blockbuster of our own time, within the limits of a Universal budget.
Ramu (Hall) and Tollea (Montez) are mission-educated natives on a south sea island who are about to get married. Ramu's wingman, or third wheel, is Kedo (Sabu), who on his way to the wedding has an odd encounter with a blind, mute mendicant who plays some reed instrument in the minor key that indicates that the man, despite his handicap, is up to no good. This unfortunate person is Universal's Master Character Creator, Lon Chaney jr., who is done dirty here by not being allowed to speak. Perhaps he couldn't be trusted to remember lines for this particular picture, but it's more likely that someone thought his distinctive husky honk of a voice would break Cobra Woman's delicate illusion of ethnographic realism. But I digress.
On her wedding day, Tollea vanishes. Evidence left behind indicates that the mendicant kidnapped her, and that he came from nearby Cobra Island. Ramu embarks on a rescue mission, with Kedo tagging along as a stowaway. Meanwhile, Tollea wakes up to find herself not quite a captive. The mendicant, Hava ("hey-va"), who only feigned his blindness but still can't talk, is one of the good guys of Cobra Island, a servant of its dowager queen (Mary Nash). The old lady explains that Tollea is a twin who was removed from the island early in life for her own safety, but must return to take the mantle of high priestess from her identical sister Naja, who under the influence of the evil counselor Martok (Edgar Barrier) has gone mad with power.
It might have been helpful for the old queen to have sent someone who could explain the situation to Tollea's friends. Instead, Ramu and Kedo reach the island and promptly discover who they take to be Tollea taking an elegant walk, attended by numerous ladies-in-waiting, to her afternoon swim. Knowing no better, and not exactly curious about his girl's change in condition, Ramu promptly dives in to join the high priestess. His assumption of privileges eventually gets him into trouble and before long he's tossed into a dungeon. Luckily, he overpowers Martok, steals his clothes, and is back on the loose. Unluckily, Kedo, wondering what's become of his buddy, breaks into the dungeon, sees a body in Ramu's clothes, and helpfully frees Martok.
Kedo is promptly put to the torture, but is rescued by Hava and the aforementioned chimp after a tense scene in which the ape virtually hypnotizes a guard by threading a needle, giving Hava, who clearly has a rapport with the precocious primate, time to sneak up and snap the man's neck. Kedo is barely reunited with Ramu before they're both recaptured. The pair are slated for sacrifice and are sure to be fed to the resident angry volcano unless Tollea can screw up the courage to confront her evil twin and usurp Naja's power. Fortunately, Naja never had to fight her way to power, and it shows. 75 years later we no doubt would get an elaborate, CGI-enhanced back-flipping fight to the death between the sisters. In Cobra Woman, Naja manages to topple backwards out a window after chucking a spear at Tollea and missing by a mile. It won't be enough, though, for Tollea to claim Naja's authority. She must prove herself as high priestess by performing the King Cobra dance we'd seen Naja do earlier in the picture.
That earlier scene is the highlight of the film. As high priestess, Naja's main responsibility is selecting people to be sacrificed to the volcano. The King Cobra dance starts the selection process. Once the priestess gets the snake's attention and dodges its strike, she's empowered to carry out the selection. Maria Montez does this with gusto, sashaying down the temple runway to point her finger of doom at the predestined victims. Once she points the finger, each pointee tries to run for it -- oh they of little faith! -- only to be nabbed by the rest. We see her select several victims, putting different english on the finger point each time -- Zap! You're going to die! And bam! You're going to die! -- clearly enjoying the hell out of herself. This scene probably had a special resonance for its original wartime audience, since Naja's is the sort of nightmare fantasy of absolute power in a lunatic's hands that Americans were fighting against in Europe. Even now, there's a guilty giddiness about it that tempts you to share in Naja's pleasure, even if you excuse your pleasure as unintended laughter.
The scene repeats itself at the climax, except that innocent Tollea faints before the cobra, somehow more phallic now than during Naja's turn, can strike at her presumably virginal self. This is bound to disappoint the modern audience since it makes Tollea look weak, but we couldn't have the real swashbuckling finish, with Ramu and Kedo swinging all over the place on convenient ropes and Hava tossing Martok into a pit of spears to put the island's tyranny to a definitive end. There's also more stuff with the chimp, proving again that Cobra Woman is a film for the whole family and not just for the gay men who presumably canonized it as a camp classic. I guess I can see what they saw in it, from the beefcake courtesy of Hall and Sabu to the fantastic costumes of the Cobra Island folk, but I assume that the film had, pun intended or not, more universal appeal back in the day. It's definitely silly stuff, but it's also an eye-grabbing spectacle and a comforting allegory of liberation in the midst of war.