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Cobra Woman

Year: 1944
Studio: Universal
Director: Robert Siodmak
Writer: Gene Lewis/Richard Brooks
Cast: Maria Montez, Sabu, Jon Hall

There are some old movies that are quite expansive, including the granddaddy of old movies, Birth of a Nation. But the interesting thing about most movies made during the studio era that you expect to be huge and lavish is how compact and cheap they actually are – especially compared to the movies of today where they shoot on locations instead of sound stages and give movies the sense of scope they need.

Cobra Woman depicts an island populated by devotees to a snake-worshipping cult, oppressed by the spoiled, evil princess who rules their society with cruelty and brutality. You can imagine scenes with throngs of extras in some bizarre snake worship ceremony, huge and cavernous sets depicting their homes and public spaces and at the very least, a couple of snakes.

Instead, the exteriors of Cobra Woman appear to have been shot in the director's backyard, the huge worshipping chamber is the size of a living room stuffed with a few dozen people, and the high climatic point of the movie is of the single snake on screen throughout the whole thing striking at the heroine and missing (in fact, the only real snake is the one shown with the camera facing it under very controlled conditions – when it's shown with people, it's the most ridiculous wire puppet thing you've ever seen).

On his wedding day, the square-jawed hero finds his girl has been kidnapped and taken to the nearby island home of the snake worshippers. The reason is because the girl – an orphan – is the twin sister of the evil ruler, and the people figure if they can reinstall her as their mistress and depose their tormentor they'll have an easier time of it.

Along with his cute/charming/irritating sidekick Kado (Sabu, of The Jungle Book 'I have my tooth!' fame) – the Jar Jar Binks of the day, I'm sure – the hero sets out to rescue her.

When the pair are captured, the girls' mother and the former queen tries to convince them to stay and join the fight, and the mistaken identity between the sisters (and the evil one wanting to get the hero in the sack) doesn't help.

Probably quite epic and affecting in the 1940s, the staging, sets and matinee-idol performances show the film's age too much to take seriously today.

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