Hoo-haw, as they say… but the hot reputation of this pre-Code slice of censor bait begins and ends with its astonishing original poster. The movie itself isn’t daring in sex, smut or violence, but is instead a highly cinematic art-piece about a woman taking on the sins of men and society. Director Phil Goldstone fashions a labyrinth of flashbacks, flash-forwards and scenes set in a psychological limbo. The woman under pressure is the sensual Zita Johann; she’s falling in a fatalistic tailspin as bleak as any future loser-Noir heroine. UCLA’s 4k restoration comes from the original camera negative.
The Sin of Nora Moran
The Film Detective
1933 / B&W / 1:37 Academy / 65 min. / Street Date July 29, 2020 / 24.99
Starring: Zita Johann, John Miljan, Alan Dinehart, Paul Cavanagh, Sarah Padden, Henry B. Walthall, Cora Sue Collins.
Cinematography: Ira H. Morgan
Film Editor: Otis Garrett
Original Music: [Heinz Roemheld]
Written by Frances Hyland from the story Burnt Offering by Willis Maxwell Goodhue
Produced and Directed by Phil Goldstone
One look at the famous original poster guarantees that the alluring The Sin of Nora Moran will go on lists of pre-Code sizzlers that one must see. The artwork by Vargas is unrelated to the movie, which is not about a woman with long blonde hair. The church bluenoses that rammed through the code enforcement edict likely fretted over provocative pictures like Baby Face and Design for Living, and personalities like Mae West … but to cinch the vote for repression all they needed to do was to display a poster for Nora Moran.
The show arrived in December of ’33, at the darkest hour of the Great Depression. Viewers lured into theaters by the poster might not have understood the complex film on view. Variety’s review dismissed Nora Moran as ‘clumsy and jumbled.’ The posters stated up front that the film was ‘Presented In A Marvelous New Screen Technique.’ That technique turned out not to be a process or a lens. The Variety reporter called it ‘narratage,’ a descriptor that Fox publicity had applied to a failed Spencer Tracy movie from earlier in the year, The Power and the Glory. That film’s ‘narratage’ technique is writer Preston Sturges’ idea of presenting flashbacks of an important man’s life in a non-sequential order, to place character over chronology. It is now heralded as the structural forerunner of the flashback-happy Citizen Kane.
The ‘narratage’ in Nora Moran also uses flashbacks, but is more convoluted, more cinematically exotic. The story is told in small bits from multiple narrators, that 1933 audiences might have had difficulty following. And some scenes take place in a weird out-of-time limbo in which characters are aware of fated future events. If Nora Moran were signed by Fritz Lang or Jean Renoir, it would likely be lauded as breaking ground in narrative technique. The odd thing is that, in accordance with small-outfit filmmaking of the time, very little happens on screen except people talking. There’s certainly no erotic content as promised by the poster. Viewers uninterested in the strange way the story is told, won’t find a lot to keep their attention.
Here’s just a hint of the storyline. Nora Moran (Zita Johann of The Mummy and Tiger Shark) is the first woman executed in the state in twenty years. She becomes the focus of a discussion between District Attorney Grant (Alan Dinehart) and his sister Edith (Claire Du Brey), who is also the wife of Governor Dick Crawford (Paul Cavanaugh). Edith produces a handful of compromising letters she has found, between her husband and Nora. Grant surprises Edith by showing her his own file of evidence proving that Crawford carried on an affair with Nora for months, and rented a house for her over the state line. Before Edith condemns Nora, Grant asks her to hear him out.
Thus begins a series of flashbacks covering events in Nora’s life. She was orphaned (twice!) and was taken under the wing of a kindly Priest (Henry B. Walthall). Nora found work in the circus, assisting the lion tamer Paulino (John Miljan). Surviving a rape by Paulino, Nora went to New York to become a showgirl. She then became the kept woman of potential gubenatorial candidate Dick Crawford, not realizing that he’s a married man. But the D.A. Grant interceded to break up the affair, which could ruin all his work spent on setting Crawford up for high office. In the middle of this returns Paulino, who has blackmail on his mind.
A murder follows, with an attempt to dump the body; Nora is apprehended and takes the blame. She refuses to implicate either Crawford or Grant, both of whom want the crime to go away without ruining their future plans. Crawford feels guilty, but he doesn’t like the idea of Nora being out there, able to destroy his career whenever she wishes.
By this time we’re a full hour into Nora Moran’s weird storytelling technique. More like a ’60s drug trip than a straight narrative, it is framed by the Crawford-Edith conversation in the D.A.’s office. For flashback transitions the camera trucks in and out of the hearth, which sometimes places Nora in dissolves to the hearth fire, as if her ‘sin’ were already being repaid. The flashback scenes are mostly oddly-directed snippets, with telling conversation. One unusual shot expresses Nora’s first romantic getaway, a week she spends with Crawford. But there’s no love scene: the camera instead trucks down a line of showgirls at their mirrors, each counting the fleeting days of the week Nora spends with her lover… they are gone so fast. When Crawford sets Nora up in a little house of her own, she sits next to her new stove (the burner tellingly aflame) and cries for happiness as only a homeless girl can: “It’s so lovely to have a house with things that work.” But her blissful time with Crawford won’t last.
Director Phil Goldstone was also one of the managers of ‘Majestic Pictures’ and clearly intended to make Nora Moran an artsy masterpiece, suspended somewhere between theatrical and cinematic technique. The eccentric filmmaking style had to be written into the screenplay. When Grant first asks Edith to consider Nora’s experience as she’s being readied for the electric chair, elaborate impressionistic shots show the matrons serving her a last meal and the barber preparing to cut her hair. We see a close-up of a hypodermic — soon to be a Production Code no-no — as Nora is drugged to relax her before the execution.
Nora instead slides into an unreal dream state. When Grant began narrating a flashback, a gauze scrim moved across the frame, darkening the image; we can see the texture of what might be a nylon stocking. Now the same thing happens to Nora, as she begins a flashback within a flashback. Her impressions are less like Citizen Kane than an Alain Resnais art film about the distorting qualities of memory. Taking the place of Nora’s bedside nurse is a kindly circus lady who gave her money to flee her rapist, Paulino. When Nora sits up in bed, she’s wearing her old circus costume.
Nora Moran has become unstuck in time, like Kurt Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim. Her drug-induced flashbacks may look like events in the past, but the characters are talking about what happened before and what will happen in the future. Talking about one event, Nora simultaneously expresses fear for what she might do, and regret for what she’s already done. She recalls her own execution. She’s fully aware that she’s in a cyclic trauma… she says she’s happy she sent Crawford away, “because she won’t have to do it again.” The repetition of dialogue bits reminds us a little of Invaders from Mars. Nora re-thinks horrible events searching in vain for a clue that will ‘make it all better.’
Two more scenes push the experimental continuity even further. An ‘impossible’ funeral takes place outside of logical reality. Crawford and Grant hover over Nora’s corpse and talk about her as if she’s still alive. It’s like Our Town’s ’twas-ever-thus continuum of existence, crossed with House of Usher. What has already happened will be ‘happening’ forever: “the warden didn’t like the way she died.” The wages of sin are Hell on Earth — repeating one’s psychic torment forever. The cruel irony is that Nora is not guilty of murder, just of loving a man out of wedlock.
Near the end a dark scrim comes over Governor Crawford as well, as he balks at phoning the prison to pardon Nora. Crawford now becomes a third out-of-body spirit narrator. He’s anguished because he knows he has permitted Nora to die for self-serving reasons. Now Nora manifests herself as a genuine ghost, not for revenge but to urge Crawford to do nothing. When she tells Crawford not to fear death, her weird smile is not unlike that of the possessed Sybile Schmitz in Dreyer’s Vampyr: “Eternal rest and perpetual light — is that frightening? The fatalistic spirit reminds us of the suicidal Jacqueline Gibson in Val Lewton’s The Seventh Victim. Nora is ‘running to death’ in a similar way… albeit with considerably less subtlety.
‘Narratage,’ you say … is that for better digestion?
Editorially speaking, The Sin of Nora Moran is certainly creative. Dozens of stock shots are superimposed in flowing optical montages, some of which have five or six elements running at a time. The montage effects are used to advance the story, as Nora goes from home to the circus to a stage show. We get the feeling that we’re seeing outtakes from other Majestic Pictures — stage shows with lines of chorines, etc.. Some shots were likely repurposed from silent movies. In between cutaways to model trains, circus and show-biz scenes and the bright lights of New York, we see fewer than maybe a dozen interior sets: offices, circus dressing rooms, train compartments, etc.. The dialogue and acting are not always very good, but the way the story is told is highly unusual.
Phil Goldstone’s flashback structure is more complex than that of John Brahm’s The Locket, which also has flashbacks within flashbacks, but at least tries to arrange them for clarity’s sake. Here we must pay attention to understand what’s going on. The fragmented bits of ‘existence’ emphasize Nora’s isolation, her status as a ‘lost soul,’ etc.. The writer-director must have been a big follower of self-consciously artistic European cinema.
Nora Moran can’t have been very expensive, as Ms. Johann didn’t blossom in Hollywood as she had on Broadway (although I think she’s better than good in Tiger Shark.) She’s suitably intense when projecting anguished defeat, followed by an eerie acceptance of fate. For iconic Depression-era femme depressives, I’d nominate first and foremost Sylvia Sydney (Fury, You Only Live Once), then Helen Mack (The Son of Kong, His Girl Friday). Zita Johann falls slightly behind those two, but she has all the right qualities.
The other actors are seemingly whatever Majestic Pictures could afford. The unexciting Alan Dinehart carries the bulk of the movie. Dinehart also doesn’t hold up his end as a diabolical villain in the same year’s Supernatural, opposite Carole Lombard. Paul Cavanaugh just looks sad and slack, while the villain John Miljan has no trouble sketching drunken malice, with just three scenes.
In the final analysis The Sin of Nora Moran comes off as a melodramatic downer about a girl with terrible luck, who really hasn’t sinned yet takes the punishment for the lust, irresponsibility and ambition of others. The film in no way backs up its salacious poster. There are no ‘hot’ scenes as in a scorcher like Baby Face. People barely kiss and the illicit sex is so off-screen, it might as well be just a rumor. Nora doesn’t get a chance to be a ‘bad girl’ but goes directly from bliss to soulful regret. Interest in Nora Moran today will be for pre-Code fans eager to admire / disbelieve the movie’s bizarre ‘narratage’ conceits. Attentive viewers will find it a cross between pre-Code sordidness, and a ghostlike reverie from beyond the grave.
The original Variety reviewer had no patience for such artsy games: he simply asked why the ethics-challenged Governor Crawford couldn’t simply commute Nora’s sentence. The movie’s most despairing moment may be a throwaway detail: two of Crawford’s secretaries leave work on the night of Nora’s execution, not even bothering to leave him a phone line patched to the prison, in case he wants to send a last-minute pardon.
The Film Detective’s Blu-ray of The Sin of Nora Moran is a fine restoration by the UCLA Film and Television Archive. We wonder where the excellent film element came from, until we watch the disc’s extra featurette.
The picture is in fine shape. As befits the film stock of 1933 the image has grey-ish tones, with appropriately dark night scenes and ‘spooky’ moments. The story isn’t helped by its almost wall-to-wall music score, which feels more like a silent movie accompaniment. We’re reminded that Max Steiner more or less perfected the integrated music score in this same year. Other pictures either limited music tor transitions, whereas this meandering track often seems detached from events on screen. Either that, or we expect Grant or Crawford to break off their talk to go turn off the radio.
Daniel Griffith produced the informative 17-minute featurette The Mysterious Life of Zita Johann, which illustrates an audio interview with Sam Sherman of Independent-International pictures — yes, the same producer and company that brought us the Al Adamson films. I’ve heard previous Sherman commentaries, and he’s a genuine film connoisseur. He came across a collector’s 16mm print of Nora Moran around 1960, and later merged business interests with the owners of Majestic Pictures, which is how Independent-International came to possess this vintage movie.
Sherman’s commitment to Nora Moran is total: around 1985 he hired the elderly Zita Johann to play a scene in one of his I-I exploitation pictures. The mini-docu yields just enough information about the show to better appreciate Goldstone’s odd gem of a movie.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Sin of Nora Moran
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: featurette The Mysterious Life of Zita Johann; illustrated insert pamphlet.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (extra featurette too)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: August 12, 2020
Text © Copyright 2020 Glenn Erickson