Gangster Tony Gardner (Giorgio Ardisson) receives news that his brother Johnny, has been murdered. Returning to New York to investigate poses a risk, as he was banished from the city by the mob and is still hunted by his enemies. Duty calls, however.
Classic double images; Johnny and Tony are also apparently identical looking
Watched at every turn by a mysterious figure, Tony manages to make contact with his brother's wife, Leslie, who was with him when he was shot with a sniper rifle whilst attending a football game, and uncovers evidence that a man by the name of Mortimer (Luciano Pigozzi) may be behind his brothers death.
Receiving the mob's permission to go after the small-time figure – “we're not going to bother you if you don't bother us," they suggest, although obviously suspicious of the motives behind this seeing altruism – Tony tracks him down.
Mortimer indicates that he was approached by Johnny about a year ago on a visit from Kenya, and that the two men had formed a profitable drugs smuggling operation, his own innocence in the affair being effectively demonstrated by his murder shortly afterwards. The assassin – the same man who has been almost manages to slash Leslie’s throat with a straight razor before making his escape.
A clue left by Mortimer leads Tony and Leslie to Nairobi, Kenya and Johnny's other business partner George MacGreves (Alberto De Martino), against whom the weight of evidence soon piles up, most notably in his facility with a hunting rifle and a flight log indicating his own crossing the Atlantic.
But is all as it seems?
More a crime thriller than a giallo per se, Human Cobras (the Italian title literally translating as more like 'The Man More Venomous Than the Cobra') emerges as one of those films which it is more interesting to ruminate on than watch, as one attempts to account for its curiously inconsistent lack of affect.
The scene where Leslie receives a threatening phone-call and then thinks she spies Johnny lurking outside, before signs of his – or at least someone’s – presence are found inside the house is exemplary in this regard. While well-mounted by the director and suitably suspenseful at the time, it emerges as all too contrived in retrospect. Viewers familiar with the work of co-scenarist Ernesto Gastaldi will also note a similarity to the scenario in The Whip and the Body, as a pair of muddy boots and a bloodstain inexplicably appear. Unfortunately the supernatural reading, that Johnny has returned from the dead, does not carry the same weight as its counterpart as in Bava’s masterpiece of sadomasochistic amour fou, simply because here we are operating in the realm of the mundane, not the Gothic imaginary.
In this regard it’s also worth noting that while the Kenyan setting and extended safari sequence in particular certainly allow for the anticipated exotic and touristic images, Tony nevertheless finds himself moving through much the same milieux of bars, nightclubs and casinos and responds to his new environment in much the same way as the old, Note, for instance, how a scenic waterfall proves a convenient location for disposing of a body, not really all that different from a landfill back home; he is here on business and merely commutated the urban jungle for the savannah whilst his quarry remains the same.
On safari, but who is the hunter and the hunted?
There is a general disinterest shown in the characters and their psychological make-up, again more reminiscent of the crime film more generally. Tony wants to avenge his brother’s death pure and simple, with he and the film-makers failing to concern themselves – or us – in exploring whether Johnny’s death was in any sense justified or what the wider codes of this world are. Likewise for those conspiring against him it is a simple case of business, no more and no less. While the same could be said of some of Bava’s films, the difference is that not only do we not have an exploration of psychosis (an Argento signature) but we are also not presented with the expectation of a psychosis to be explored, the way in which financially motivated killers may give their crimes the appearance of a sexual psychopath at work in order to throw their investigators off the scent, as per the likes of Blood and Black Lace.
This absence of subtext also makes one more aware of the plot contrivances, insofar as each time Tony meets someone who is about to tell him something they meet an untimely end at exactly the right / wrong moment, with the effect of not only making the identity of the figure pulling the strings that bit too obvious to the viewer attuned to the rules of the game – i.e. suspect everyone, but discount the most likely suspect as red herring in favour of those you least expect; here with a more limited set of alternatives than usual – but also making you wonder, in the end, why the Scott Evil approach wasn’t applied to Tony at the outset.
The performances are adequate, although hardly stretching the capacities of the leads. If Ardisson does not make for a particularly engaging or likeable protagonist, this is less his failing than that the role he has been given. Likewise, while De Mendoza does not exactly stretch his range as MacGreves, that signature charm that makes his every gesture seem suspect, which is precisely what the film needs. Blanc is, you feel, essentially too good for the film. It does not deserve her; she did deserve thankless roles like this. She does, however, fare better than Janine Reynaud, in what amounts to a show-up-and-die cameo as Johnny’s ex-girlfriend.
Stelvio Cipriani’s score is a mish-mash of recycled pieces and motifs. The opening theme sounds like something Lalo Schiffrin might have penned, complete with funk / jazz flute, while elsewhere there’s a obvious take off on Cream’s Sunshine of Your Love riff and Cipriani’s own Femina Ridens theme, one of those pieces which is so infectious and charming in its broken English way I actually don’t mind hearing it again.
Albertini’s direction – he is credited under the name Albert J Walker on the Spanish-dubbed version of the film from Video Search of Miami that I watched – is unexceptional, coming alive in some of the set pieces but otherwise largely a combination of functional set ups and predictable shock / time saving zooms.