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Film / The Sin of Nora Moran

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The iconic Vargas poster.

The Sin of Nora Moran is a 1933 film directed by Phil Goldstone.

The story is told through a fractured, layered narrative that is highly unusual for the era. As the story opens, Nora Moran (Zita Johann, who previously starred in The Mummy) is on death row, with her execution imminent. Meanwhile, a society wife named Edith confronts her brother, John Grant, about a stash of letters indicating that her husband Dick is having an affair. John reveals that Dick's mistress is in fact Nora Moran, the woman on death row.

John turns out to know quite a bit about Dick's affair and Nora's life. He recounts to Edith the whole story of Nora's difficult childhood, her traumatic rape when she was working for a circus, her tender romance with Dick, and its tragic conclusion.

This film is possibly best remembered for the advertising poster, drawn by Alberto Vargas of "Vargas Girl" fame, named the #2 film poster of all time by Premiere magazine.


Compare The Power and the Glory, a higher-budget film (it had Spencer Tracy and Colleen Moore, rather than this cast of nobodies) also released in 1933, also with a disjointed Anachronic Order narrative and multiple points of view.


  • Alcohol Hic: All four of the carnies who are interrogated after Paulino's murder are disheveled drunks, but one of the women is particularly gross, drunkenly burping throughout the interview.
  • All for Nothing: Nora tells Dick that she is willingly sacrificing herself, not just because she loves him, but because she doesn't want their romance to become tabloid fodder, and because he's an important man who is meant to do great things. So what does he do, right after the execution? He shoots himself in the head, that's what.
  • Anachronic Order: The narrative skips wildly back and forth between the Framing Device, the flashbacks to Nora in prison, and the even earlier flashbacks relating Nora's life story.
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  • As You Know: Edith makes sure to address John as "you, my own brother" when yelling at him for not telling her of Dick's affair.
  • Covers Always Lie: The iconic poster shows a voluptuous blonde wearing a clingy bit of lingerie and nothing else. Zita Johann was attractive but certainly not that curvy, she stays fully clothed throughout the movie, and she was a brunette.
  • Diabolus ex Machina: Things start going downhill for poor Nora when her adoptive parents are killed in a car wreck when she's thirteen.
  • Extra! Extra! Read All About It!: The newspaper boys report that Nora Moran will not be getting a pardon from the governor.
  • Flashback Within a Flashback: Much of the film is John narrating Nora's story. As he describes Nora's experiences on death row, a drugged-up Nora starts dreaming about her life. So more like dreams within flashbacks. In one sequence John specifically says that Edith (shown in her cell) is dreaming, before the film cuts to the beginning of Nora's romance with Dick.
  • Floating Advice Reminder: The last of many weird shots in the movie comes at the end, when John, stricken with guilt as Nora is about to be executed, decides that he will pardon her after all. Suddenly Nora's floating disembodied appears and starts talking to him. With a creepy air of calm, Nora tells him to let her fry: he's an important man with a lot of good to do, she doesn't want to see their love turned into a tabloid scandal, and if she were freed it would just be to return to a life of pain and struggle.
  • Framing Device: John telling Edith about Nora's life in prison and her story.
  • Idiosyncratic Wipe: Nora sees a want ad for a circus. The ad rips in half, revealing Nora begging for the job.
  • Killed Offscreen: Nora calls John back to the love nest, and reveals to him that she's killed Paulino, who is lying behind the couch. This sets up the ending where we learn that it was actually Dick who killed him.
  • Lovely Assistant: Nora is the lovely assistant to Paulino the lion tamer at the circus. He tells her all she has to do is look pretty.
  • Match Cut:
    • There's a cut from a cook cleaning a knife, to a doctor cleaning a syringe after giving Nora a sedative.
    • Nora knocks over a bowl in the love nest, which is matched to the doctor knocking over a bottle in the jail cell.
  • Medium Awareness: On several occasions the characters seem to realize that they are in a story.
    • John is weirdly omniscient about everything happening in Nora's life, describing in detail to Edith things he wasn't present for and couldn't possibly know.
    • At least one instance is clearly Nora's dream. As she's tripping on the morphine they gave her to calm her down, she hallucinates the old lady at the circus, who gave her $100 so she could escape Paulino. The old lady says she wishes she hadn't given Nora the money, so what followed wouldn't have happened.
    • In the scene where Dick shows up in the middle of Nora's confrontation with John, she says "if we don't see him, it won't happen!" John answers "It's too late; you must answer it," and that's when a defeated Nora opens the door to let Dick in.
    • Shortly after that, Nora plays along with John's accusations, pretending that Dick is just one in a long string of men. The scene gets weird when Dick stalks out moments later, and Nora looks at John and says "Did I do it right that time?"
    • And soon after that, Nora tries to leave the love nest in a hurry, telling John that if she leaves right away, "it won't happen." John answers "But it did happen! You killed him!" This is, within the scene at least, before Paulino shows up and gets killed.
    • Near the end, as Dick is having his weird conversation with Nora's Floating Advice Reminder head, he hears the voice of John saying that if he pardoned her and they went away together he'd always wonder when or if she'd turn him in. It seems like it's part of Dick's Inner Monologue, except that right after it happens, Dick tells Nora "That was Grant's voice!"
  • The Mistress: Nora becomes the kept woman of Dick Crawford.
  • Narrator: John narrates the story over Nora's dreams/flashbacks.
  • Puppet King: Dick Crawford, candidate for governor, is eventually revealed to be a weak-willed empty suit. He was pushed into politics by his wife and brother-in-law, who are the ones grasping for power.
  • Rape Discretion Shot: Paulino's rape of Nora is shown as him entering her cabin uninvited, her looking terrified, and him walking in front of the camera, before the scene cuts away.
  • Shaking the Rump: An unbelievable closeup shot of the butts of all the women in the chorus, as they kick their legs in line.
  • Sympathetic Adulterer: Dick and Nora are deeply in love and care about each other a great deal. Compare Dick's wife Edith, who can't stand him.
  • Time Passes Montage:
    • A montage shows dancing legs, walking fight, the neon lights of Broadway, and signs saying stuff like "No Casting Today". Nora is unsuccessfully hunting for a job.
    • Another montage shows repeated shots of Nora's trunk opening, the train chugging, and the circus, demonstrating Nora's life on the road as a Lovely Assistant.
    • A stranger one later in the film. Nora is in the chorus dressing room. Blissfully in new love with Dick, she says "A week has seven days and seven nights." Then as the camera pans down the row of chorus girls at the mirror, they count down the days: the one after Nora says "six days", the one after that says "five days", until the last one says "Week's over, time's up!" It seems a week has passed in Nora's whirlwind romance.
  • Trauma Conga Line: Well, let's see...the story opens with Nora a five-year-old orphan, with no explanation of what happened to her parents. Then her adoptive parents are killed in a car wreck. Then she gets a job as the Lovely Assistant in a lion-taming act, only for the lion tamer to rape her. Then she falls in love—except that her lover is not just a married man but a candidate for governor, and his brother-in-law and campaign manager cruelly separates them. If that's not fun enough, the lion tamer shows up, the politician kills him, Nora takes the blame, and she's executed.
  • Traveling at the Speed of Plot: Somehow, apparently just a couple of hours later, the suicide note that Dick left on his desk is in John's possession.
  • Video Credits: Clips of the main players at the start of the film, as was quite popular in that era.
  • Voiceover Letter: Dick's letter to John at the end, which is revealed to be his suicide note. It starts out with John reading it, before cutting to Dick reading it himself.
  • The X of Y: The Sin of Nora Moran