Short Takes: The Sin of Nora Moran (1933) - Blu-ray Review

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A stark 180 degree turn from the kind of material that she'd been hired to write in 1926 as the first female comedy gag writer for Universal Studios, screenwriter Frances Hyland's 1933 pre-Code tragedy "The Sin of Nora Moran" was initially intended as a straightforward chronicle of the events leading up to the execution of its twenty-one-year-old titular main character.

Over the course of a (then-shocking) five-month production schedule, director Phil Goldstone's small poverty row studio picture was shot and chopped as "Woman in the Chair" in one early incarnation before it was shot and chopped again into its experimental final cut.

Not content to color inside the lines of the B grade productions being made at the time, Goldstone and company wove everything they shot into a nonlinear tapestry of flashbacks within flashbacks, designed to shake up the novel-on-film style status quo. A decidedly new approach to storytelling, the unorthodox techniques used in layering together multiple plotlines and points-of-view help hide the otherwise pretty standard depression-era formula about a woman who's led astray by happenstance, misfortune, and of course, love.

Brought vibrantly to life by the acclaimed Austrian-American Broadway actress Zita Johann, who used a spiritual, pre-Stanislavski Method like process to get into character, which called on mysticism and the occult, Johann's performance as a woman who becomes something close to a martyr for love is utterly riveting. 

Taken in tandem with Hyland's strong female-centric narrative as well as the then scandalously sexual image of a slip-clad woman curled up in a ball as if getting ready to be thrown in the trash (which was captured for the poster by Peruvian painter Alberto Vargas), Johann's complex portrait of a woman still fascinates. Caught between a rock and a hard place halfway between hypocrisy and contradiction, Johann never loses our interest, even though the same cannot be said for the movie overall.

Still, ideally suited to film scholars curious to dissect Hyland and Goldstone's adventures in nonlinear storytelling as well as those eager to explore the range of the '30s star perhaps most famous for her role opposite Boris Karloff in "The Mummy," "Nora Moran" has never looked better than it does in this new Blu-ray Film Detective presentation of the UCLA restored pre-Code.

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