“I have a plan, if you’ll only leave and trust me. Can’t you understand why I’m asking you to do this…it’s me. The months we’ve spent together; they’ll take those months from us and spread them across the front page of every newspaper. They’ll make them ugly and cheap, instead of what they were. I’m not asking you to be cowardly. I’m asking you to let me keep the only happiness I’ve ever known. You’ll go, won’t you?”–Nora Moran, The Sin of Nora Moran (1933)
Nora (Zita Johann) is a hard-luck case. An orphan, she was adopted by a good family but left on her own after a gruesome car wreck. She eagerly tries to make it as a dancer, but only finds rejection and loneliness. She joins a circus to help out a lion wrestler (who really wails on the lions) and is happy for a year until she’s drunkenly raped by him.
Rejoining a chorus line back in New York, Nora meets Dick Crawford (Paul Cavanagh), a soft-spoken man who takes her in and gets her her own house over the state line. That latter half is important because Crawford is running for governor, and must keep their affair a secret. When the past comes back in full force, Nora must go to the electric chair to save everything she knows and loves.
It’s a pretty common melodramatic storyline (in fact, I spent much of the movie being reminded of the star-studded and more straightforward Manhattan Melodrama), but the way that The Sin of Nora Moran is told is remarkably unconventional. Three narrative strands that all propel things forward, obfuscating as well as illuminating, each layer allowing us to see different sides of Nora and the mystery that surrounds her. The first is the framing narrative, with district attorney John Grant (Alan Dinehart) explaining to his sister and the governor’s wife Edith (Claire DuBrey) why she shouldn’t rush to confront him about some unsigned love letters.
The story begins with Grant challenging Edith to listen to his story. In one of the signs that we’re in for a treat, Edith is given a few seconds to consider this, and reluctantly takes a seat. Grant immediately sets a challenge upon her, his urge to overwhelm her with empathy beginning straight from the start:
“You said you wanted her to suffer. Did you ever witness an execution?”
“Why, of course not.”
“Did you ever see the preparation for one? The cold-blooded preparation for the disposable, burned out, lifeless thing that a few moments before the execution was a human being…”
He tells the story of the time Nora Moran spent in prison, and through her perspective we’re treated to her life story, told out of order and sometimes even breaking as she violently tries to resist the fate that’s coming at the end of her story. These layers add complications to the story, as we’re getting Nora’s story from Grant’s perspective, a man who eventually has no choice but to send her to the electric chair to protect his own greed and propriety. It turns Nora Moran from conventionality, making it the story of one man coming to terms with his guilt as well as one poor woman whose entire life of misery seems to have been wasted by cruel, masculine forces beyond her control.
The movie itself is edited like jazz, with refinements reconfiguring themselves in loops. Besides a remarkably fluid camera, the film is absolutely kaleidoscopic. Goldstone exploits stock footage to create dizzying montages that take us through years, both forwards and backwards. There’s also constant cutting to the image of a fireplace, used to represent life itself in many ways as it both plagues Nora and consumes her for her titular sin whole.
Rare for 1933, the film is backed by a constant music score. Admittedly, it can sound pretty forced, especially early on. Filmmakers were still figuring how background music worked at this point, and even if it feels canned or even soap-opera-y at several points, but it never, ever lets up. As much as the editing, it’s the drumbeat of doom towards a dizzying and inevitable fate.
One of my favorite moments figures directly into this momentum, as Nora is caught up in her whirlwind romance with Crawford. So overcome with love, she happily recounts the length of their courtship: one week or seven days, seven nights. Each girl in line, as hardbitten as the next, asserts that there are fewer days in the week. Now it’s six days and six nights. Five. Four. Three. Two. One. “The week’s gone,” sighs the last girl in line. Goldstone uses a tracking shot here, pulling us along with the momentum of the conversation, but also zipping us through time, as the days disappear. Time is always doing that to poor Nora, and in one brief, wholly visual moment, Goldstone encapsulates the way the narrative won’t let her escape her own destiny.
The final scenes unwind with Crawford alone in his office the night of Nora’s execution. Through flashbacks, it’s revealed that he was actually Paulino’s killer, and Nora will take the rap for him in order to keep their love affair quiet. She begs to let him do it, and even appears as an apparition in his office, begging for him to stay strong. But he can’t, and when it almost seems like he’s ready to do the right thing, Grant’s voice echoes through his head, urging him to think of his career. He begs for Nora to ignore it, but like Peter betraying Jesus, it’s obvious that for all of the love that he has, he’s still internalized his brother-in-law’s ambitious desires.
Crawford finally overcomes his cowardice of losing his position and the scandal that will ensue just when the clock strikes. He tries to call, but the line’s dead. It’s too late. He writes one last letter and pulls a small pistol out of the desk.
The use of first person here– well, slightly to the right of first person– is a fascinating decision. It’s not Crawford’s perspective, so is it Nora’s, standing over his shoulder and watching his final moments? Or is it Grant’s, the narrator and manipulator, picturing himself seeing the results of his handiwork in the most intimate way?
So much of the movie is tainted by Grant being the narrator, filtering this tragic story through a cacophony of his own inner turmoil and how the simple knowledge of how he sacrificed an innocent woman to save Crawford, an embodiment of his own ambitions and manipulations. Both Crawford and Paulino come across as ciphers in many ways, figments of Nora’s fevered imagination and idealized as either a monster or a hero. But that’s how Grant sees it, too. It’s Nora whose dynamism haunts him.
We see the gun put to his head and hear the body crumple, but what really happened? If Crawford killed himself, was this really the most appropriate way for Grant to tell his wife Edith? Answer: no, not at all. Or is the way the letter trailed off just Grant defining Crawford’s love dying being the same as a suicide, that his choice to listen to his demons killed him spiritually?
Who can say. “It’s over now,” frowns Grant in his final lines. “Or maybe it’s just the beginning.” They burn the letters and documents– all of them– and return to their comfortable, stable lives, knowing that it’s all theirs at the low cost of one sweet, innocent girl.
Zita Johann has a chipmunk face and an odd-looking body–-kind of a svelte Helena Bonham Carter of sorts. I know that’s not nice to say, but it factors heavily into building audience sympathy for her: we certainly wouldn’t buy the movie if it happened to Myrna Loy or Miriam Hopkins. There’s something inherently sad built into Zohann, a melancholy that permeates her appearance, so the brief moments of happiness that happen to her are doubly effective. Her tears when she proclaims, “It’s so lovely to have a house with things that work,” is simply heartbreaking.
If you’ve heard of this movie before, odds are good it’s because of its famous poster–shown at the top of this article–by Peruvian-born artist Alberto Vargas (You can read about Vargas’ life here as well as see other examples of his NWS work.). This is doubly funny since the woman on the poster looks nothing like Zita Johann, but whatevs. The poster is beautifully composed, with the title hanging heavy over the scantily clad woman hiding her face. It’s very evocative for sure.
The Sin of Nora Moran is a remarkable little gem, an oft-told story filmed with urgency and care, and deeply sympathetic to the horrible cards dealt to the women of the early 30s. It’s remarkably ambitious, coming from a poverty row studio or not, and is well worth a watch for any intelligent film fan.
Danny’s Rating: Like
Proof That It’s Pre-Code:
•Nora is called “a common cheap hooker,” which is surprisingly blunt for the time.
•Nora goes through a lot of misfortunes, not the least of which is a rape that transforms her life.
• “Damn” or “Damnit” is muttered several times.
• Moran becomes a kept woman.
Danny Reid lives outside Tokyo, Japan, with his lovely wife and two yappy dogs. He blogs bi-weekly at pre-code.com, a website dedicated to Hollywood films from 1930 to 1934.