“Women fascinate me–just like that Cobra and its victim.”
The silent film Cobra directed by Joseph Henabery is a perfect vehicle for Rudolf Valentino. In the film, Count Torriano (Valentino) is an incorrigible Don Juan who cannot help himself when it comes to relationships with women. Interestingly, Torriano’s moral redemption finally arrives through his friendship with a man.
The film begins in Italy with the father of a young woman seeking recompense against Count Torriani (Valentino). The father mistakenly confronts American antique merchant Jack Dorning (Casson Ferguson) instead, and this leads to a friendship between the Count and Dorning. While Count Torriani bemoans the fact that women won’t leave him alone, Dorning offers him a job in America. Working for Dorning’s antique business will give the impoverished count an income and steer him away from women. Well that’s the idea, anyway.
The film casts Valentino as the victim of a series of rapacious women, and just like anyone with an addiction, he can’t help himself. At one point the Count compares himself to the victim of a Cobra’s hypnotic stare, and the Cobra represents the alluring female sex. The film plays this idea of Valentino as the victim, the crushed misunderstood hero who is used and abused by nasty women, but Valentino could just as well have cast as a heartless seducer who sees women as disposable objects. This is a splendid vehicle for Valentino as the film allows scope him to appear simultaneously heroic and dastardly, and of course, the idea that he can’t help himself when it comes to women certainly adds fuel to the fire. Dorning’s wife Elise (Nita Naldi) plays the serpentine vamp who tests Torriani’s moral fibre. It’s Valentino’s respect and loyalty for Dorning that causes Valentino to make the ultimate sacrifice.
There’s a pervasive sadness throughout the film, and this tone matches Torriano’s sense of regret–a sense that’s delicately hinted at but never explored. Cobra was made just a year before Valentino’s death, and his acting skills are mature and well honed. Valentino’s subtle glances and facial expressions capture Torriano’s sense of lost possibilities, and the film’s strong moral tone underscores the fact that our actions carry consequences.