Zita Johann was a willowy, slouching figure with dark circles beneath her wide eyes. In a brief Hollywood career, she seemed—like silent-film miracle Renée Falconetti—cornered by forces outside comprehension, but with a canny dignity that situated the audience in her corner, too. In her most iconic role, as the reincarnation of an Egyptian princess opposite Boris Karloff’s mummy, she’s an odd kind of Universal horror heroine: languid and self-possessed, with an atavistic yearning for her past lives that threatens her place in the present. The actress herself studied spiritualism and the occult; in the 1920s, by some reports, she levitated.
Despite melodramatic trappings, The Sin of Nora Moran (1933) weaves a logic as supernatural as any resurrection—and features Johann’s finest film performance. This Poverty Row picture, given second life through a UCLA restoration, begins at the end: Nora Moran has met the electric chair. Yet the film hastens to revive Nora through the contrite voiceover of the district attorney who convicted her, and she appears in a jail bed, bleary-eyed and anguished. What follows is a dreamlike structure of nested flashbacks that tracks her tortured life: orphanages, circuses, chorus lines, a house kept for her by a married man. But in a way that bends time, this past seems haunted by the future. Nora Moran appears to know, sometimes remembering with a start, what will happen and angles endlessly for a different outcome: “Did I do it better that time?” In one scene, her paramour’s hand in her hair sets her squirming and she spurns his touch. When she stands and breaks the glass coffee table in front of them, the image fades to her cell where a pot of shaving cream—her hair shorn to help the electric current pass through—lies smashed on the floor. Movies can help the past commune with the future, even if they can’t alter it. As for whether her sin is a crime or in placing her faith in an unworthy man, I’ll let you decide.