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Sin of Nora Moran, The

D: Phil Goldstone / 65m

Cast: Zita Johann, Paul Cavanagh, Alan Dinehart, Claire Du Brey, John Miljan, Henry B. Walthall, Sarah Padden, Cora Sue Collins, Aggie Herring, Otis Harlan

Edith Crawford (Du Brey), the wife of a state governor, goes to visit her brother John Grant (Dinehart), the District Attorney. She shows him several letters that prove her husband, Dick (Cavanagh) has been having an affair. She wants to know the woman’s name, but her brother tries to reassure her there could be other explanations for the letters, but then he lets slip that he knew what was going on. Pushed to reveal the woman’s name he hands his sister a newspaper cutting that reports the imminent execution of a woman named Nora Moran (Johann). At first, Edith doesn’t see the connection, but then her brother begins to explain.

He tells her of an orphaned child called Nora (Collins) who is adopted by an elderly but loving couple, the Morans (Herring, Harlan). When Nora is twenty-one the Morans are both killed in a car crash. Using her inheritance, Nora determines to be a dancer and seek her fame and fortune in the theatre. But she encounters disappointment after disappointment, until, almost broke, she gets a job working in a circus as the assistant for lion wrestler, Paulino (Miljan). Paulino proves to be a sexually abusive boss; with the aid of one of her co-workers, Mrs Watts (Padden), Nora flees the circus and heads to New York where she finds work in a nightclub. There she meets Dick Crawford, and their romance begins.

Grant becomes aware of his brother-in-law’s affair and pays the lovers a visit at Dick’s country hideaway. He confronts the pair; Nora pretends to have “known” several men during her time at the circus. This causes Dick to leave, and after she assures Grant she won’t hang around anymore, he leaves too. Later, Nora telephones Grant and asks him to return to the hideaway, where she shows him the dead body of a man, a man she has murdered. Fearing a scandal, Grant helps Nora dispose of the body, and she leaves town. Later, Nora is arrested for the man’s murder, and at her trial, and with Nora refusing to give any evidence to save herself, she is sentenced to be electrocuted.

Sin of Nora Moran, The - scene

A somewhat surreal, non-linear drama, The Sin of Nora Moran is a strange, visually inventive movie that resists easy categorisation – it has elements of murder, mystery, romance, redemption and sacrifice – and gives Johann her best role by far. It’s also a far cry from the more usual romantic dramas of the period, and doesn’t shy away from showing the terrors of pre-execution incarceration.

Dark and brooding, this adaptation of W. Maxwell Goodhue’s story Burnt Offering, features a narrative that begins in the office of the District Attorney and then flits about from place to place – and from time to time – in its efforts to tell a very plain tale and infuse it with some flair. At one point, Grant makes Dick look at Nora in her coffin; it’s a fantasy sequence but unsettling all the same for not being signposted. Or there’s the shot of Nora’s head being encased in imaginary flames (a none-too blatant example of how badly she’s being treated, as well as being indicative of her expected post-mortem destination). With imagery such as this, the  movie has a vivid, sometimes hallucinatory quality that perfectly complements the more melodramatic twists and turns of the script.

Full credit for this must go to the director, as well as the screenplay by Frances Hyland that, together, forge a significantly darker tragedy than perhaps even audiences of the time might have expected. Faced with the man she loves being exposed as a love cheat in the press, and his reputation tarnished irrevocably, Nora does what every lovestruck young woman would do: she keeps quiet, and by doing so, keeps him safe. The theme of self-sacrifice is given probably its best expression when Grant’s intrusion leads to Nora’ almost immediate, and selfless, decision to withdraw from Dick’s life; she believes with all her heart that his reputation and character mustn’t be sullied. (Of course, these days, Dick would probably be left to fend for himself, and would probably be asked to do whatever fun things someone could come up with.)

With all the symbolism on display, and no end of metaphors for those viewers who aren’t quite up to speed on the visual clues, The Sin of Nora Moran features several broad acting performances from the likes of Dinehart and Miljan, while sadly confirming what contemporary audiences must have known all along: that Cavanagh was an actor with the range of a large piece of wood. As the titular heroine, Johann gives an assured, sympathetic performance as the young woman looking for some fleeting happiness to make her life all the more worthwhile.

Rating: 7/10 – shot in an unfussy yet often severe style by DoP Ira H. Morgan, and with a suitably intense score by an uncredited Heinz Roemheld, The Sin of Nora Moran is a cautionary tale of love gone awry that is often enthralling, and visually arresting; Johann shines in the title role, and the expected sentimentality is given short shrift thanks to the script’s determined sobriety.