by Allan Fish
(USA 1933 65m) DVD1
Let me die because it’s my destiny to die
p Phil Goldstone d Phil Goldstone w W.Maxwell Goodhue, Frances Hyland ph Ira H.Morgan ed Otis Garrett m Heinz Roemheld
Zita Johann (Nora Moran), John Miljan (Paulino), Alan Dinehart (D.A. John Grant), Paul Cavanagh (Governor Bill Crawford), Henry B.Walthall (Father Ryan), Claire du Brey (Edith Crawford), Sarah Padden (Mrs Watts), Ann Brody (matron), Otis Harlan (Mr Moran), Aggie Herring (Mrs Moran),
In a poll The Sin of Nora Moran’s poster was rated the no 1 poster of all-time, but if you saw a list of the top 100 films in that poll, chances are it would be the only one you’d not recognise. One look at the poster is all you need. On it, a young woman, with seemingly curly strawberry blonde hair is sitting semi-upright on the floor, one leg pulled back so her head rests on her knee, the other flat on the ground but pulled back into a kneeling stance. Her arms are brought round into a sort of protective position, one over the back of the head, the other resting on her lower leg. We can’t see her face, but it’s what we can nearly see that hypnotises us. Through what seems a flimsy, translucent material, we see her breast almost popping out of her nightdress. It’s all very pre-code, very racy, and designed to pull in the punters, but forgive me when I say it has absolutely no bearing on the melodrama that follows. Even the title promises something we don’t actually get.
Nora Moran is told in flashback as we witness how the eponymous 21 year old got to the unenviable position of being the first woman sent to the electric chair in her state for twenty years, for killing a man she used to work with. It tells of her orphaned childhood, of her protection by a kindly Catholic priest, Father Ryan, of her losing her adoptive Irish parents in a car crash, and of her dreams to become a dancer turning to desperation when she couldn’t find work and having to work in a circus. There the lion tamer Paulino attempts to rape her and she makes a quick exit stage left, eventually finding work in a chorus and attracting the attention of the would-be governor Bill Crawford. They set up a clandestine affair, but he is found out by his brother-in-law, the ambitious D.A. John Grant. He persuades them to split, not knowing that Nora receives another visitor later that night, Paulino, who tries to blackmail the governor into not betraying their affair, and who Nora seemingly kills.
The story itself is one we have heard a thousand times, of a woman making the ultimate sacrifice for the man she loves, but it’s the way the film unfolds that seems so remarkable. Not just the flashbacks so favoured of the B-movie noirs of the following decade, or indeed the flashback within a flashback, but that the first half of the film takes place in what could be described as a dream state, or even an alternate reality. We don’t merely see Grant telling Nora’s story, we see Nora reliving her own experiences in the form of delirious dreams while in prison waiting to have her head shaved for her fatal appointment with Old Juicy. Thus, during several scenes, she’s conscious of reliving the experience and those in her life are also aware of it. She constantly tells herself to do something different so what happens later doesn’t happen. What we see is not what happened, but what happened through the eyes of hindsight, thus giving us not only the idea of what occurred but the effect of the events on Nora in the interim. It’s a strange, almost avant garde conceit, but it works tremendously, and seems all the more ingenious when we find out, in the last act, that things didn’t quite happen as planned and that Nora wasn’t the only one who paid with her life.
The performances may not be Oscar material, but they more than suffice, with Johann a million miles away from The Mummy as the unfortunate Nora (though getting to wear one rather pre-code outfit in the murder scene), but it’s Goldstone who deserves the most credit for managing to bring his ship into harbour in just over an hour. Known more as the producer of cult horrors like The Vampire Bat and White Zombie, he shows enough to make us seek out any other examples of his work behind the camera.