For many years, the 1933 Poverty Row flick “The Sin of Nora Moran” was primarily known for its appropriately Pre-Code lurid poster by Alberto Vargas of a barely-dressed blonde in a coiled state of emotional angst. Never mind that no such person resembling the poster subject appeared in the film – the eponymous character was a brunette with short hair who remained fully clothed at all times. But the provocative poster failed to attract audiences back in the day and the film was mostly forgotten for too many years.
Mercifully, there is a new DVD/Blu-ray release on The Film Detective label with a handsome 4K restoration from the original 35mm camera negative. And while the Vargas poster art decorates the packaging, the real surprise is the production itself.
On the surface, “The Sin of Nora Moran” covers several topics that were ripe in the Pre-Code era: the physical and emotional degradation of women, corruption and very obvious class divisions with penalties for those who aspired for a station above their current level. But where the film stands out is in its style: a mix of visual effects that seem more at home in 1920s Soviet experimental works than 1930 Poverty Row B-movies and a wildly complex narrative structure with flashbacks told from multiple perspectives and dream sequences where the characters acknowledge their temporary existence out of reality.
Director Phil Goldstone, whose earlier works were undistinguished silent movies, never showed any inkling of being able to helm something of this nature, which makes its creation all the more astonishing. Critics in 1933 were not supportive, either dismissing the work as muddled or comparing it unfavorably to “The Power and the Glory,” another 1933 release with a much ballyhooed “narratage” structure that also used multiple flashbacks. However, “The Sin of Nora Moran” is actually the superior film, as it brilliantly peels away layers of memory to reveal a strange and compelling tragedy that the viewer will not be able to detect in advance.
Detailing the film in depth would ruin the endless plot twists that keep “The Sin of Nora Moran” so entertaining. What can be said is the title character is on death row awaiting her fate, which the district attorney who prosecuted her and the governor who refuses to grant her a pardon have more than a professional awareness of the circumstances that will bring her to the electric chair.
Nora Moran is played by Zita Johann, the Hungarian-born Broadway star who is best known as the object of Boris Karloff’s obsession in “The Mummy.” Her melancholy beauty and sense of dramatic control made her the perfect choice to capture her character’s strange mix of stoicism and despair. Johann only appeared in a few films, and this new release is accompanied by the documentary short “The Mysterious Life of Zita Johann” that details film historian Samuel M. Sherman’s friendship with the elusive star.