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Cobra Woman (DVD Review)

26 Sep, 2011 By: Mike Clark

Manufactured on demand via online retailers
$19.98 DVD
Not rated.
Stars Maria Montez, Jon Hall, Sabu.

Either due to coincidence or some kind of twisted cause-and-effect synergy with global events, the exotic (well, at least arguably) Maria Montez was predominantly a product of World War II moviegoing. This may be the only thing she had in common with writer/director Preston Sturges, though there are those who will tell you she was just about as funny.

Born in the Dominican Republic and dead in a Paris bathtub at 39, Montez had a flair for mangled English equaled only by Carmen Miranda — and the actress who was to Republic what Montez was to Universal: Vera Ralston. At a time when her home studio wasn’t exactly breaking the bank on movie budgets, Universal sprang for Technicolor on the epics for which Montez is best remembered today — wartime treatment otherwise limited to Phantom of the Opera, The Climax, Deanna Durbin’s Can’t Help Singing and not many more. But the irresistibly titled Cobra Woman is more than simply prototypical, in that it recalls the ancient TV Certs commercial that couldn’t decide if the product was a breath mint or a candy mint. It offers, to paraphrase the ad copy, “two, two, two Maria’s in one” (cobra-bite scars on their wrists).

As someone opines of her in Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band, “Maria was a good woman” — and one of the twins she plays here (the one betrothed to Jon Hall) is certainly that. But the other sister, a minute or two younger, has usurped Maria I’s island throne. This one is wont to dispatch of anyone who crosses her without too much debate — and when the good Maria is abducted to her sibling’s domain not long before the scheduled nuptials, Hall takes off to rescue her in a vessel that looks as if it wouldn’t take up much room in a thimble. And yet, there’s somehow room inside for trusty sidekick Sabu (who can kill a leaping panther with a blowgun) to have stowed away. What follows is enough adventure to make you wonder just how gamy the unchanged Hall-Sabu costumes will end up being (and Sabu is wearing white).

For good measure, we also get Lon Chaney Jr. as a flunky named “Hava”; frequent Universal villain Edgar Barrier (another of those ‘40s actors who looked 56 when he was 36) playing the evil twin’s said-to-be squeeze; and comely island attendants who more or less anticipate those cover-girl maidens of Venus who do all the grunt work for Zsa Zsa Gabor in 1958’s immortal Queen of Outer Space. At 67 minutes (which, hmmm, is shorter than any print length I’ve ever seen quoted), there’s not enough time for anything to get too stilted. But if you’re still unfulfilled by seeing Maria’s good and bad sharing a scene (and more to the camp point, dialogue scene) courtesy of early trick photography, it’s tough to deny climactic spectacle that serves up an exploding volcano, St. Vitus choreography and a fake cobra someone must have gotten a good deal on from Goodyear (or maybe the young Ed Wood).

Watching Cobra Woman isn’t as eerie as thinking about what befell the leads of Rebel Without a Cause in real life. But Hall committed suicide at 64, Sabu died of a heart attack at 39 and Montez’s death at the latter age was apparently a combination of heart attack and drowning amid career freefall. (Her actress daughter Tina Aumont would die at 60 of a pulmonary embolism.) For added curiosity, this is not a movie one can easily reconcile with director Robert Siodmak’s quickly imminent ascension to Universal film noir royalty with Phantom Lady, The Killers, Criss Cross and more. It’s more in spirit with Siodmak’s all-timer with Burt Lancaster — The Crimson Pirate — though hardly as much fun. And speaking of skeletons in the resume, the script here is co-credited to Richard Brooks, later of Blackboard Jungle, In Cold Blood and Looking for Mr. Goodbar. Man.

The color replication for this on-demand “Vault” release is more lush than not, though I suspect Warner Entertainment’s coming year-end Blu-ray of Meet Me in St. Louis will take “1944” to a new plane. But to keep this discussion in the Maria Montez vernacular, let it be noted that there’s also a Region 2 Blu-ray of the same year’s Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (with Montez and Hall as well), which I’m hot to see. If anyone has a spare all-region player to send along, I’ll trade you for some cobra venom.

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