Phil Goldstone’s The Sin of Nora Moran – recently released on Blu-ray in a beautiful 4K restoration – is a melodrama in every sense of the word. The film contains ridiculous plot twists, absurd coincidence, and sky-high emotionality. Some might consider all of this a detriment, but Goldstone’s total commitment to the heightened material allows the audience to get caught up in the over-the-top story until, by the end, we’re in total sympathy with the characters, our hearts right there on our sleeves along with them.
A young woman named Nora (Zita Johann) sits on death row, awaiting execution. As she reflects on the choices that brought her to this place, we flash back. We see her adoption by a kindly Irish couple, the tragedy of the couple’s death, and Nora’s eventual employment by a cruel circus ringmaster. The trouble really begins, though, when Nora enters into an affair with a married governor (Paul Cavanagh), who genuinely seems to love her. This story is told to us via a framing device involving the governor’s wife (Claire Du Brey) and his brother-in-law (Alan Dinehart), who had his own part to play in this scandal and Nora’s eventual fate. By the end, we discover along with the characters that things aren’t always what they seem.
With so many twists and turns, it’s understandable why the writers of the film would rely so heavily on narration and exposition. In fact, most of the dialogue is declarative, with one character or another blatantly stating their status and emotional state. Were the cast slightly less capable, the whole piece could be an eye-rolling affair.
Thankfully, our actors are more than up to the task of not only delivering the often-preposterous dialogue convincingly, but crafting relatable, sympathetic characters. The obvious stand-out is Zita Johann as Nora. Johann, whose film career was abandoned for a life in the theatre, plays our heroine as a woman so accustomed to having no agency in her life that even a choice between two terrible options is viewed as a privilege; it’s certainly better than no choice at all. Johann’s Nora is wounded and vulnerable, but not unaware of the way the world works. Nora is a strong, intelligent woman and Johann is magnetic in the role.
While the visual aesthetic of the film is functional at best – with scenes often playing out in a series of medium two-shots – the narrative structure is invigorating. Rather than simply tell a story-within-a-story, Goldstone chooses instead to swirl past and present, dreams and reality, firsthand and secondhand knowledge all together into a dizzying mystery, keeping the viewer glued to the screen, trying to parse out fact from fiction. While it would be a stretch to describe the narrative as experimental, it is certainly novel. These are the storytelling choices that befit a melodrama; they are dictated by emotion rather than pure, cold reason. What actually happens isn’t quite as important as what the characters feel might have happened, and it keeps the audience on its toes.
Viewing this film reminds me that I am often dismayed at my own attitude about classic American cinema. I too frequently find myself slipping into a condescending mindset about older films, feeling that they are unable to surprise me. It is recency bias, rooted in the assumption that the present is inherently more sophisticated than the past. I hold this view despite having seen one classic film after another that has displayed tremendous narrative, stylistic, and thematic complexity. The Sin of Nora Moran is a film that, like the character herself, would at first appear simplistic, but will ultimately surprise you, first with its flourishes and then with its considerable heart. It is a treasure.