Thursday 9 January 2020

On Blu-ray - David Hare draws attention to COBRA WOMAN (Robert Siodmak, USA, 1944)

Surely an ideal fantasy movie family, Ramu (Jon Hall), Kado (the divine Sabu) and Koko the chimpanzee (above). Here is the fourth and best of the Universal Jon Hall-Maria Montez adventure pictures. Cobra Woman from Titanic Noir Mensch, Robert Siodmak, has a delicately nuanced anti-fascist screenplay by Richard Brooks and is photographed in hallucinatory three strip Technicolor by Howard Greene and George Robinson. 
Second screen (above) delivers the cause of all this trouble, evil twin Naja (la Montez) about to launch into the cinema's greatest choreographed camp, the Dance to King Cobra to appease the Fire Mountain. Montez' movements are appropriately filmed in wide shots to allow the camera to capture every unplanned swing, tilt, lurch and gyration as Montez fingers Virgin after Virgin for human sacrifice to the Fire God (" Fires-of-the-faith-Fire-Mountain-grows-more-angry" read as a single word monotone line by Maria before the dance.) 
To compensate for so much ham and prime campery, Siodmak relies on the oldest trouper in the picture, Koko the Chimp (above), to occasionally give us highly skilled and performed diversions, in the screen below transfixing a hunky guard (no shortage of prime beef in this picture) with his needle and thread routine. The sequence is something Buñuel would have killed to do. (And may well have copied for the shot of Arturo de Cordova doing his needlework in the 1952 El.)
The picture is irresistible and comes from Universal, a studio who manifestly pioneered the translation of silent era Weimar expressionism into their 30s and 40s horror unit with staggering skill and beauty. It seems fitting that perhaps one of the greatest German expats to Hollywood, and one of the three greatest masters of Noir, with Lang and Ulmer, Siodmak should here make his Technicolor debut in an action fantasy picture with a movie so resonant of other genres and new directions without which the American cinema would never have later realized the likes of fifties gay infused avant-garde with Jack Smith and Kenneth Anger. 
As I’ve said before about Universal horror, anyone who can't connect with the Universal fantasy genre and the reservoirs of talent and genius that went into it simply doesn't understand American cinema itself.
Cobra Woman is a certified masterpiece, not only as exotica camp, but for hidden intentions, the guiltiest of pleasures, and the exercise of sheer delirium of a genre nobody can resist.
Kino Lorber have just released the title on Blu-ray from what looks like the same source as an older German BD from Alive Media. But with double the file size and twice the bitrate to deliver more grain, depth and detail to one of the greatest Technicolor movies of the three strip era.
Robert Siodmak

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