Kado (Sabu Dastagir) is out walking in the forest one day when he meets a blind beggar (Lon Chaney Jr) who he tries to engage in conversation until he finds out the man cannot speak, his tongue having been cut out. But he is no beggar, he is Hava, and he has been trusted with a mission from the island kingdom across the sea, something Kado only discovers later. That mission is to kidnap Tollea (Maria Montez), who is due to be married to sailor Ramu (Jon Hall) tomorrow - but why did this happen? And can Ramu and Kado save her?
This being the movie where Maria Montez speaks the immortal line, "Gif me that cobra jool!", Cobra Woman is probably the best recalled of her exotic fantasies which served to spirit World War II audiences away from their troubles for a while. These Arabian Nights-styled entertainments were exactly what the suffering public wanted in those days, but after the war ended Montez saw her career falter, and she moved to Europe where she sadly died while still in her thirties. She was not forgotten, however, as she was rediscovered by a generation of underground moviemakers in the sixties.
When the famed Kenneth Anger named Cobra Woman as his favourite movie, and Andy Warhol was a fan as well, it led some audiences to return to these works to see what the fuss was about, though the truth was you had to have a high tolerance for unintentional camp to really appreciate them - perfect for those with that sensibility of deliberate artifice. Oddly, this particular instalment was manufactured by one of the prime movers behind the film noir genre, Robert Siodmak, whose usual stock in trade was shadowy mood pieces disguised as suspenseful thrillers, but if you looked a little harder at this, you could identify the darkness within.
Although the overriding tone was swooning romanticism, Siodmak was quite happy introducing such elements as murder, torture and human sacrifice into the mix. The global conflict outside of this escapism loomed as well, with Tollea's twin sister Naja (also played by Montez, and just as terribly) a tyrant who demands slavish obedience from her subjects, obviously a Nazi-inflected character, and in the surroundings of this plot, just as vital that she be overthrown. So this might not have been as escapist as it appeared on the surface, although there were enough ridiculous trappings for it to be enjoyed as an example of perfect kitsch without worrying about the pressing outside world.
For example, there was a chimp here, possibly as a rival to the Tarzan series, which at one point distracts a guard by threading a needle, not something you often see in the movies, never mind real life, although it's never explained how the animal gets to the island as we don't see him on Ramu's boat. There's more: Montez, whose allure rested solely on her beauty and accent, does an awkward dance with a cobra puppet as part of her rituals, deliriously pointing at her next sacrifices in the crowd, and Sabu, whose life story was even more fascinating than Maria's, wields a blowpipe which takes down a panther launching itself at Hall (who claimed later never to have enjoyed being a movie star, and didn't exactly throw himself into his portrayals anyway). With sets and props all designed around the snake motif, and in glorious Technicolor, here was certainly a treat for the eyes, yet you couldn't exactly call this any kind of pinnacle of quality; but it was a lot of fun. Music by Edward Ward.