Cobra is my favorite Rudolph Valentino film. Directed by Joseph Henabery, with a screenplay by Anthony Coldewey from a play by Martin Brown, this was Valentino’s finest moment. He is at the height of his beauty, impeccably shot by J. D. Hennings and Harry Fischbeck – despite the glare from the gallon of pomade in his hair.
In Cobra, Valentino plays Rodrigo Torriani, a dissolute, debt-ridden playboy living in a mansion inherited from his likewise randy ancestors. Rodrigo’s problem is that he is an irresistible magnet for women. They stick to him like white on rice, flies to sugar, ants at a picnic … You get the idea. And like the prostitute with a heart of gold, Rodrigo is the gigolo with a conscience. The character fits Valentino perfectly.
In Italy, Torriani befriends an American antiques dealer, Jack Dornan (Casson Ferguson), due to a case of mistaken identity. Torriani agrees to leave his “female trouble” behind and come to America to work in Dornan’s antique shop. But instead of reforming, Torriani gets in further trouble with the opposite sex.
First, there’s the ever-virginal secretary, Mary Drake (Gertrude Olmstead), and then the vamp, Elise (Nita Naldi), for him to deal with. Mary’s wholesome values makes her one woman immune to Torriani’s charms, but oh, that Elise! She does everything to get him in the sack.
When Elise visits Torriani and Jack’s bachelor pad, her hormones go into overdrive. She promptly marries the naïve, plain-looking Jack for the money, but continues to pursue Torriani for the sex. Lust results in tragedy, and it’s Torriani who suffers the most guilt for betraying his friend. (I said this gigolo had a conscience.)
Something must be said for the Cobra sets. Designed by William Cameron Menzies, they look sumptuous with their high ceilings and tasteful arrangements – made even more impressive by Hennings and Fishbeck’s crisp cinematography. As a plus, the DVD release has a lush musical score by the Mont Alto Theater Orchestra, which complements the drama with romantic themes.
The most credit for the film’s success, however, goes to Valentino, whose gigolo displays a series of nuances and shades. There’s one particularly touching moment near the end, when Torriani realizes that Mary loves Jack. When he leaves the room and slowly closes the door behind him, his face expresses grief, sorrow, and a sense of loss. Tears fill his eyes, as he gently turns away.
The cobra imagery is explained as the victim’s fascination when confronted by a reptile coiled up to strike. Valentino’s character is the perfect example of a wounded creature, bitten once too often by a predatory female viper, but unable to turn away.
On the surface, Cobra revolves around Torriani’s sexual misadventures with women, but the film goes much deeper than that. In fact, it is actually about a friendship between two men who happen to be polar opposites. Rodrigo, the self-confident lady’s man, and Jack, an ordinary-looking guy with no sex appeal, who ends up getting the girl in the end.
As the title card says: “There are times when friendship becomes the most important thing in a man’s life. Stronger than love.” Their relationship, devoid of jealousy, is Cobra‘s true love story.
© Danny Fortune
Cobra (1925). Dir.: Joseph Henabery. Scr.: Anthony Coldeway; from Martin Brown’s play. Cast: Rudolph Valentino, Nita Naldi, Casson Ferguson, Gertrude Olmstead, Eileen Percy, Lillian Langdon, Hector Sarno.