‘The Sin of Nora Moran’: a Pre-Code ahead of its time

If the film title “The Sin of Nora Moran” is familiar to you, chances are that you know it from the exquisite poster by Alberto Vargas, not necessarily from seeing the movie.

The 1933 Pre-Code film hasn’t been as easy to see as the famous poster that is often lauded as one the greatest in film history (it ranked No. 2 on a Premiere magazine list).

So when “The Sin of Nora Moran” premiered on Turner Classic Movies in May as part of an evening of Pre-Code films, it blew up the classic movie Twitterverse with praise, awe and bewilderment. (It was to be shown at the canceled 2020 TCM Film Festival and I can only imagine how extraordinary it would have looked on the big screen.)

The Film Detective has released “The Sin of Nora Moran” on DVD and Blu-ray with the exquisite poster image by Alberto Vergas on its cover.

Now we can watch this Poverty Row film in a new 4K restoration on DVD and limited-edition Blu-ray from The Film Detective. (Both have the Vargas artwork on the cover.) The restoration is by the UCLA Film and Television Archive and it looks and sounds great, unlike the generally fuzzy public domain copies and clips previously available online.

The Blu-ray comes with a mini booklet that includes a short written  appreciation by film historian and producer Samuel M. Sherman, who played a key role in getting this film in the public eye.

Sherman narrates a 17-minute featurette that includes rare photos and film clips as he tells how he was introduced to the film in the 1960s, “traded” for a rare 16mm print of it (he doesn’t remember what he traded, saying “It’s lost in antiquities”) and ultimately obtained a 35mm camera negative that helped with the restoration. He also secured a television deal for the film in the 1980s by renaming it “Voice from the Grave” (a fitting title) and packaging it with sci-fi and horror movies. “It played coast to coast on syndicated television in the 1980s, which was an amazing thing,” Sherman recalled.

Most remarkable: Sherman forged a lifelong friendship with star Zita Johann (who he first saw in Universal’s “The Mummy”) to the point that she made him a heir to her estate. In fact, Sherman was the one who showed Johann the final version of “Nora Moran”; until then, she had only seen a working print that didn’t have the “fancier” techniques added during editing. She told Sherman she preferred the earlier version. Information like that is gold to classic movie fans and I would love to hear more from him on what Johann said about making the film.

A familiar story told in an unfamiliar way

“The Sin of Nora Moran” is a lean, 65-minute movie from the Poverty Row studio Majestic Pictures. The plot is nothing out of the ordinary and, in fact, was quite familiar at the time: girl falls for the wrong guy and has to pay for it.

So why the fuss over “The Sin of Nora Moran”?

It was a film ahead of its time in both filmmaking and storytelling. It is not presented in a linear fashion, instead it jumps – often dramatically – between different times, characters, perspectives and even reality and dreams (or nightmares as it may be).

The look of despondency is clear on Nora’s face as she searches for a job as a dancer in this shot that superimposes images to show her state of mind.

The heavy use of montages, superimposed images and hallucinations –  unusual at the time – added to the storytelling. (My favorite technique  is a diagonal “wash,” usually used as a transition, but here it literally adds another layer of darkness over a  character.)

People seeing “The Sin of Nora Moran” for the first time speak about it with such adjectives as revolutionary, dizzying, bizarre and my favorite, kaleidoscopic used in a review on Pre-Code.com that I highly recommend reading.

An unlucky life

The film opens in the home of District Attorney John Grant (played by Alan Dinehart) as his sister Edith (Claire Du Brey), the wife of Gov. Dick Crawford (Paul Cavanagh), storms in to show him unsigned love letters to her husband she has discovered from another woman. The letters are loving and sincere, but Edith is so poisoned by hate and ambition that she can’t see it, instead labeling the relationship a “cheap, back street affair.”

Edith wants to find the woman and make her suffer, to which her brother asks: “Did you ever hear the name Nora Moran? You said you wanted her to suffer. Did you ever witness an electrocution?”

Cut to prison where we see Nora for the first time. She’s lying still in bed, a quiet tear running down her face. She looks barely alive. And we learn, minutes into the film, that 21-year-old Nora is on Death Row.

The first time we meet Nora Moran (Zita Johann) is when she is in a prison bed with a single tear falling down her cheek. (Courtesy The Film Detective)

The prison matron Mrs. Watts (Sarah Padden) is pleading with Nora to tell why she did “it” so she will have a chance to live. “No!” Nora screams. She won’t explain or defend herself even though it would save her life.

Cut to Nora’s childhood. Cut to her teen years. Cut back to prison. Cut, cut, cut. Where are we as a viewer? We’re everywhere it seems as quick flashbacks tell the story of Nora’s unlucky life.

She was orphaned twice: first at age 5 (when she’s played by the adorable Cora Sue Collins), again eight years later when her adoptive parents die in a car accident.

Nora (Zita Johann) is so desperate for work that she pleads for a job at the circus.

Nora trains as a dancer, but can’t find a job and finally begs for one at a circus where she’s told she is too young. “I’m not too young, I’m old,” she pleads with large, dark eyes that will haunt the viewer through the film. She speaks the truth, though: At that moment, she seems very old.

Enter circus performer Paulino  (John Miljan) who we uncomfortably watch punch and beat his lion for the circus audience. That tells us all we need to know about the guy who will soon commit an unspeakable act against Nora. Later, a kindly circus worker gives a suicidal Nora money to get away from Paulino and start a new life.

At a New York City night club, Nora meets a wealthy out-of-town businessman with political aspirations. Despite their differences – age, class, the fact that he’s married – they fall for each other and she travels across the country to be with him.

You can see the happiness on Nora’s (Zita Johann) face when she’s with Dick (Paul Cavanagh).

They live a blissful life together – well, each Monday and Friday that is – until Paulino and the circus come to town. Tragedy follows.

Again, all of this is told in flashbacks but we’re led to wonder who is telling the story. Are we watching reality? A dream within a dream? A hallucination – or something else?

The answer is closer to all above, especially as we realize Nora – in her desperate, dreamlike state – is reshaping memories to change her life and grasp her rare moments of happiness.

At one point in prison, Nora thinks she’s back at the circus with Sadie, the woman who gave her money after the rape. “If I didn’t give you the money, you wouldn’t be here in jail waiting to be electrocuted,” an apologetic Sadie tells her, offering to take back the money to change Nora’s destiny. (This and similar conversations about changing fate are fascinating.)

But Nora doesn’t care about dying. She reasons if she doesn’t take the money and leave the circus, she never meets Dick and experiences love.

“I’m asking you to let me keep the only happiness I’ve known,” Nora pleads at one point, underscoring just how miserable her life was.

The reality behind this loving gesture by Dick (Paul Cavanagh) of stroking Nora’s (Zita Johann’s) hair becomes one of the film’s most startling moments as you can see by the expression on Nora’s face.

In another scene Nora recoils as Dick lovingly strokes her hair, leading to one of the film’s most heartbreaking revelations: at that moment in reality, her head is being shaved for electrocution as she sleeps in prison.

In a dream depicting the guilt felt by John (Alan Dinehart), left, and Dick (Paul Cavanagh), both men stand over Nora’s coffin.

This film is relentlessly grim and we especially feel it with a shocking revelation toward the end. Nora is a sacrificial lamb of those around her who, for various reasons, won’t help her even though they could. They eventually face their own guilt in not only destroying her life, but that of Dick as well.

But Nora won’t help herself either because she is terrified of returning to a life that brought her such suffering.

Why? What was the sin of Nora Moran?

Only that she loved.

On home video

“The Sin of Nora Moran”

$24.99 Blu-ray, $19.99 DVD through The Film Detective


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