Cobra

US (1925) Dir. Joseph Henabery

No doubt your initial mentally recognition from seeing the title Cobra was the 1986 Sly Stallone action flick; disavow yourself of that notion as this silent film, which turned out to be the penultimate outing for iconic 1920’s heartthrob Rudolph Valentino, is substantially different in every way.

Count Rodrigo Torriani (Valentino) may have a noble title but not the wealth to match it but this doesn’t stop women from throwing themselves at him, which he finds impossible to resist. Wanting rid of his playboy image, it is with some luck that Rodrigo is offered a lifeline by American tourist Jack Dorning (Casson Ferguson), an antiques dealer in need of an Italian antiques expert.

Upon arriving in New York, temptation immediately thrusts itself upon Rodrigo via Jack’s secretary Mary Drake (Gertrude Olmstead), who harbours unreciprocated feelings for Jack. As a reward for impressing rich client Mrs. Porter-Palmer (Lillian Langdon), Rodrigo is introduced to her niece Elise Van Zile (Nita Naldi), but she ends up marrying Jack instead. However Elise still wants Rodrigo, just as he and Mary begin to get closer.

If you know your cinema history and the how audience expectations of the stars during the first thirty years meant that straying from the status quo was usually career suicide, it should come as no surprise that Cobra was not a huge box office hit. Cinemagoers during the silent era – more accurately the women – wanted their male heartthrobs to make them swoon, not turn a love interest away, even if the intentions are noble.

To that end we are left with an ironic watershed moment for dashing lead Rudolph Valentino who turns in a career best acting performance as a man conflicted by his own desires and his loyalty to a friend who helped him turn his life around. Instead of scooping fair maidens into his arms and taking them to heaven via his lips, Rudolph is preoccupied with instances of soul searching and internal torment over his decisions.

Based on the play by Martin Brown it is quite remarkable the film was made at all, as its production was marred by in-fighting, budget issues and potential sabotage. It was the first production for the company set up by Valentino and his wife Natacha Rambova, the latter taking it upon herself to re-write the script (perhaps to stop her hubby doing less on screen smooching?) after filming began.

Apparently Rambova made such a hash of it that screenwriter June Mathis was called in to fix it, whilst Rambova switched to set design before leaving the project after getting bored. Elsewhere, conflict between director Joseph Henabery and cinematographer Harry Fischbeck saw Fischbeck quit midway through shooting, whilst Henabery later confessed that he didn’t approve of the cast and could have a better film with different actors.

It seemed Paramount wasn’t thrilled about the film either and noticing that Valentino’s box office appeal was beginning to decline, kept Cobra on the shelf until business picked up again, eventually released shortly after The Eagle rejuvenated Valentino’s career. Sadly, whilst this didn’t work no-one could have foreseen that there would be just one more Valentino film to come before his death a year later.

Despite being a little slow, even for a 75-minute film, the morality thread prevalent in the second half is subtly weaved into the main plot and provides a few surprises along the way. Rodrigo isn’t immediately cured of is libidinous ways in New York, avoiding an awkward narrative jump in having him become instantly pious that often occurs in such melodrama.

This enables Rodrigo to grow before our eyes and make us believe in redemption, yet when Mary seems to take a shine to him, we want them to get together as it was Mary’s crush on Jack that was the nominal panacea to Rodrigo’s womanising. Admittedly, Jack and Elise marrying was rather hasty since their union was an innocent one following Rodrigo gallantly denying his own instincts to spare Elise.

So it comes as a surprise that while Jack is still on cloud nine, Elise is in fact the one attempting light the touch paper between her and Rodrigo and not the other way round – after all, he is the one with the reputation. But it is this reputation that Mary finds hard to overcome when she realises that she might be falling for Rodrigo, who for once is genuinely in love.

We’ll leave the plot discussion there as the story takes a few sharp and unexpected turns to really spice things up, tormenting Rodrigo into choosing between personal sacrifice in the name of friendship or reverting back to his old ways. Nowadays people carry on with nary a blip on their conscience but in 1925 this was the stuff public scandals were made of, making it very much a product of its time.

As a vehicle for Valentino he doesn’t dominate the film as much as he should, working comfortably in the ensemble setting to allow all the main characters to establish their importance to the story. Nita Naldi vamps it up to eleven as Elise in stark juxtaposition to the chaste Gertrude Olmstead as Mary, whilst Casson Ferguson’s Jack is a suitably sappy yin to Rodrigo’s stud muffin yang.

For Valentino this would rank as one of his strongest acting performances, and his looks do become incidental in the grand scheme of things in favour of the aura his title propagates. To prevent things from being totally po-faced, a flashback scene featuring Rodrigo’s Casanova ancestor provides some comic relief, amusingly satirising Valentino’s entire cinematic raison d’être!

Once you get to grips with the plot and the characters there is a fertile tale driving Cobra told here in a quietly compelling manner. The seeds for something much bigger are clearly present and had the film’s production been less tumultuous, it might have fulfilled its potential. Valentino fans should still get a kick from this though.