Review: Phil Goldstone’s The Sin of Nora Moran on Film Detective Blu-ray

This Blu-ray should prompt a much-deserved rediscovery of Phil Goldstone’s strange and inventive pre-Code melodrama.

The Sin of Nora MoranAs the old adage goes, necessity is the mother of invention, and that’s very much the case with Phil Goldstone’s wildly idiosyncratic The Sin of Nora Moran from 1933. A pre-Code B picture made on the cheap at the short-lived Poverty Row studio Majestic Pictures, it tells a tale common to many a film from the ’30s: A young girl fallen into disrepute shacks up with a powerful man and finds herself wrapped up in potential scandal and, ultimately, murder. It’s the stuff of tawdry dime-store novels that routinely drew the eyes of Hollywood producers, but Goldstone’s approach to the material, while it bears the signs of budgetary limitations, is startlingly inventive, spinning otherwise mundane, melodramatic material into something far stranger and more deeply unsettling than any plot synopsis would lead you to expect.

Employing a nested narrative, with flashbacks within flashbacks, abrupt changes in point of view, and an array of surrealistic flourishes, such as lengthy, multi-layered superimpositions, this narratively and visually complex film proved too modern, and ultimately too vexing, for audiences of the time. Using a framing device in which the district attorney, John Grant (Alan Dinehart), who prosecuted Nora (Zita Johann) tells his sister, Edith (Claire du Brey), of the tragic circumstances that led to the young girl’s execution, The Sin of Nora Moran foretells the knottier narrative structures that would become the norm in ’40s Hollywood, but which were not yet remotely close to being codified into the film grammar of the pre-Code era.

The Sin of Nora Moran’s flashback structure is further complicated by the frequent shifts in perspective from John inside his home to Nora as she awaits her death sentence in prison. These transitions are all the more disorienting, and in fascinating and enlightening ways, as the film weaves Nora’s subjective feelings of grief, guilt, and regret into the otherwise objective, past-tense retelling of her tragic past. The effects of Nora’s psychological turmoil intruding on the manner in which her story unfurls is downright proto-Lynchian.

In one flashback, Nora is suddenly disturbed when her beau, prospective Governor Dick Crawford (Paul Cavanagh), strokes her hair, only for a cut to Nora in prison revealing that her reaction stems from her hair being cut prior to her execution. In another scene, Nora mentions that she’s afraid and doesn’t want to open a door, knowing that it will lead to the murder that will seal her fate. Throughout, the way that her fractured psychological state is reflected in the structure of the film is eerily reminiscent of Mulholland Drive, whose protagonist’s agitations and regrets inform the way that specific events in the film’s flashbacks are portrayed.

The Sin of Nora Moran’s often-playful blurring of the line between subjective and objective truths is made possible by some rather unusual and unforgettable stylistic touches. In perhaps the film’s best sequence, where Dick, now the governor, pines for the woman he can save just prior to her death, Goldstone leaves a mostly still, superimposed close-up of the man’s face on screen as a series of flashbacks to scenes of him falling in love with Nora play underneath his awkwardly frozen expression. Its effect is ominous and disconcerting, much like in Twin Peaks: The Return when a superimposition of Agent Dale Cooper’s face fills the screen for several minutes in the penultimate episode of David Lynch’s series.

Soon after this point, an apparition of Nora appears to Dick in a dark room, angelically assuring him that it’s okay for him to let her die for love. This entire sequence is of the same brand of soapy romanticism that Lynch often toys with, and like his work, Goldstone’s film infuses overt melodrama with a brimming and vibrant sense of dread, transforming what would otherwise be hokey into something oddly, yet overwhelmingly, transcendent. It’s a chilling, strange experience, quite unlike anything else to come out of pre-Code Hollywood.


Sourced from the recent 4K restoration of the film by UCLA, the Film Detective’s transfer is simply gorgeous. With the possible exception of the Criterion Collection’s 2019 release of Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour, this may be as good as any film made by a Poverty Row studio has looked on home video. There’s the occasional flickering of the image and a slight softness that renders the minutest of facial details invisible, but by and large, the picture is sharp and luminous, with a healthy, even grain distribution and a fairly high contrast ratio. The DTS audio, restored from the dual mono original, is free of the hisses, pops, and tinniness one typically expects to hear watching a B picture from this time period.


The lone extra is a 17-minute featurette, “Mysterious Life of Zita Johann,” narrated by film historian and producer Samuel M. Sherman. Some of The Sin of Nora Moran’s stylistic idiosyncrasies and highlights of Johann’s career are briefly touched upon, but the bulk of the time is spent covering Sherman’s own friendship with the actress, including how the two met after he saw a rare 16mm print of the film, then cast her in an independent film of his in the 1980s, and eventually became the heir to her estate. The limited-edition Blu-ray release, unlike the DVD, comes with a booklet with promotional pictures and an essay by Sherman, who discusses The Sin of Nora Moran’s surprisingly lengthy production process and Johann’s preference for the unreleased, and far more traditional, linear cut of the film.


The Film Detective’s Blu-ray release should prompt a much-deserved rediscovery of Phil Goldstone’s strange and inventive pre-Code melodrama.

 Cast: Zita Johann, John Miljan, Alan Dinehart, Paul Cavanagh, Claire du Brey, Sarah Padden, Henry B. Walthall, Cora Sue Collins, Joe Girard  Director: Phil Goldstone  Screenwriter: W. Maxwell Goodhue, Frances Hyland  Distributor: The Film Detective  Running Time: 65 min  Rating: NR  Year: 1933  Release Date: July 29, 2020  Buy: Video

Derek Smith

Derek Smith's writing has appeared in Tiny Mix Tapes, Apollo Guide, and Cinematic Reflections.

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