Moment to Moment, Mervyn LeRoy

Melodrama and Mystification from ‘Moment to Moment’

Made as a lush vehicle for Jean Seberg, Moment to Moment is an eye-catching, brain-teasing, and utterly bonkers melodrama that draws comparisons to Hitchcock’s Vertigo.

Moment to Moment
Mervyn LeRoy
Kino Lorber
11 April 2023

Among many Hollywood obscurities of the 1960s missing on video for decades (or never released) is the final film directed by the illustrious and prolific Mervyn LeRoy. Made as a lush vehicle for Jean Seberg, Moment to Moment is an eye-catching, brain-teasing and utterly bonkers melodrama. Kino Lorber has just issued a 2K master on Blu-ray for our wondering eyes.

To the romantic title song by Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer, sung by a dreamy chorus, the opening credits inform us that the two co-stars, each listed on her own separate card, are Jean Seberg and Honor Blackman. The men in the film are listed afterward. This is already a fascinating detail, and we’ll come back to it.

A Mediterranean mistral blows at the shutters and roof slates of a quaint little house in a quaint little (expensive) Riviera neighborhood at night. As a window’s light blue shutter swings in its hinges, the camera peeks through to a man lying on the kitchen floor. At the front door, a woman we’ll learn is Daphne Fields (Blackman) leaves in a stylish brown coat and gets as far as next door before she’s summoned back by a distraught Kay Stanton (Seberg) in a vibrant red plush bathrobe.

Inside the house, Kay directs her to look in the kitchen. We wait with Kay until Daphne returns and announces in dismay, “He’s dead!” Apparently, she hasn’t quite recognized him in the dark kitchen, for she asks if it’s who she thinks it is. “Yes,” Kay answers, and then she tells the story of the last ten days in flashback. This story occupies the first half of Moment to Moment.

At this point in film history, Hollywood hadn’t fully digested the unreliable flashback or narrator concept. Examples were rare, though they were starting to occur. This same year, for example, the screenplay of Ronald Neame’s Gambit fooled the audience with its first act. Stirrings were afoot to teach us that visual presentations may be lies (as we always know they are in a sense), although such storytelling tricks wouldn’t become standard in films until late in the century.

Still, the ’60s produced many chic thrillers based on flim-flamming the viewer, so we at least had to study what we saw carefully. The poster and trailer for Moment to Moment promise “One moment of surrender, then a thousand moments of shock and suspense!” Not quite a thousand, but perhaps a doozy or two. Despite all this, the evidence implies viewers are intended to take Kay’s flashback as “the truth”, although it proves sufficiently wacky and ambiguous to befuddle us. If it’s indeed the truth, she’s done some colossally dumb stuff and will do even more. If not true, maybe she’s been even dumber.

Kay’s tale involves meeting an American naval ensign, Mark Dominic (Sean Garrison), a rare male creature whose beauty matches hers. For audiences watching in a 1966 theatre, there were probably no two more stunning specimens on the entire block. This is far from irrelevant since it’s a primary part of what Moment to Moment is selling.

Kay is supposedly on vacation with her psychiatrist husband, Neil (Arthur Hill), and their boy Timmy (Peter Robbins, the first voice of Charlie Brown). Alas, Kay is what they sometimes call a grass widow, speaking to Neil only in hectic phone calls while his lectures take him farther away without advance notice. He’s not taking care of business at home, and she’s a bit frustrated just being stuck with the kid on their big vacation.

Regarding Moment to Moment‘s visual information, when Neil is presented at the other end of a phone call, the only other handsome young male in the scenario hovers behind him, telling him the cab is ready. He’s probably a hotel clerk or lackey. Or a colleague. Or something. Neil is more attentive to this young man next to him than to his wifey on the phone. But leave that aside.

Meanwhile, Kay’s next-door neighbor, the vivacious Daphne, is getting over a bad marriage by holding open-house parties with naval officers and wearing sparkly pins on low-cut cardigans. An ensign would be below her class, though she’d certainly make an exception for Mark. Instead, she does what she can to throw Kay and Mark together, wink wink, by suggesting artsy outings for them in between popping over to borrow more bottles of whiskey. Oh, she’s a caution.

Filmed along the French Riviera, except when on Universal’s lots and stages, Moment to Moment traces many a gorgeous romantic excursion for Mark and Kay, with Kay, now hesitant and guilt-ridden, now going for it with this dashing, sweet-sounding, arty guy who properly appreciates her parade of Yves Saint Laurent outfits and shows off one heck of a breathtaking physique while swimming in the ocean. Then, framed against a phallic ruin, they play a game called Blockhead about stacking odd pieces of wood in tall constructions. Sadly, the yellow heart-shaped piece is missing. The viewers fan themselves.

Well, the opening scene has given us some idea that things come a cropper in this tale about creeping toward adultery, so yeah, something finally happens, as conveyed by the editor cutting discreetly to the mistral winds. Then this episode of desperate housewifery goes to hell immediately with recriminations, nasty comments, and drunken gunplay. Spots change quickly.

The flashback ends. Abruptly, the action jumps forward several days, and we gather that Kay and Daphne have made a certain decision. That the screenplay skips over what most other films would turn into a major sequence is a wise choice for at least two reasons. First, the already fragile credibility might snap to the breaking point if we witnessed the event. Second, avoiding this depiction also means avoiding calling the viewer’s attention to any similarities with one of the era’s defining twisty thrillers, a film driving many imitators.

That film is Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1955 crime and horror drama, Diabolique, which Alfred Hitchcock wished he’d directed. It created a sensation in the US and reverberates still through many films. Hitchcock directed Vertigo in 1958, which adapts a different novel by the same team, Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac.

One of those who adapted Vertigo from novel to film was Australian novelist Alec Coppel, and he co-wrote Moment to Moment based on his own short story, “Laughs with a Stranger”. Coppel’s co-writer is John Lee Mahin, who worked for LeRoy on 1951’s drama Quo Vadis and another extravagant melodrama, The Bad Seed, from 1956.

All these behind-the-scenes associations partly explain why Moment to Moment resembles or reminds us of other films, especially the Universal films of Hitchcock and Douglas Sirk. With her stray lock of blonde hair, Seberg is sometimes a dead ringer for Tippi Hedren, and her fraught situation channels many a Lana Turner movie. The opening windy shot bears a passing resemblance to Sirk’s Written on the Wind.

Now’s the time to bring up Honor Blackman, the one who’s credited as Seberg’s full co-star – not Arthur Hill as the hubby, not Sean Garrison as the boytoy, not Gregoire Aslan as the chubby, cat-and-mousing Columbo-esque police inspector who dominates much of the second half. The co-star is … the flashy, tarty neighbor? Let’s unpack this.

The trailer identifies Blackman as “the Goldfinger girl”. In the commentary by writers Nathaniel Thompson and Howard S. Berger, which I freely pillage and revise, Thompson points out that every review felt obliged to identify her as Pussy Galore in that 1964 James Bond film. What they probably didn’t mention, but it goes with the vibe, is that Galore was initially understood as a lesbian. Although Blackman’s Daphne in Moment to Moment is clearly a sexpot for a man in uniform, she radiates a general voluptuary impulse, and it could be that these navy guys are just placeholders or markers for what she really wants.

Daphne is named for a nymph, specifically a naiad from the water. Her surname is Fields, and those are what she’s playing. Mark Dominic is also a “marker” and kind of game piece, like the Blockhead pieces, and his name may remind us of dominoes as well as domination. Is Mark also a game piece enacting a vibe between Kay and Daphne? Nothing in the film implies that – except how they’re staged and played and the recessive Diabolique gene.

Thompson compares Moment to Moment with Vertigo and LeRoy’s famous 1942 hit, Random Harvest. He even calls it “Daughter of Random Harvest”. Random Harvest is probably the most nonsensical melodrama constructed by Hollywood until Vertigo, and that’s not a knock. Random Harvest and Vertigo both involve amnesia, shift their original novel’s surprise endings to the middle of the story, and both stories are ridiculous. Random Harvest is what was called a “woman’s picture”, and that’s what LeRoy called Moment to Moment.

Audiences with a mind to tiresomely overrated realism sometimes scoff at the coincidences, astonishment, and far-fetched rabbits-out-of-hats belonging to the melodrama territory. Some stories are contrived not only to startle and entertain us but to explore psychological areas for which “realistic” stories would have to work harder. Moment to Moment is exploring the terrain of desire in a context of shifting cinematic values, complete with the baggage of shame and dissatisfaction, and its gorgeous locations and production designs float above mundane matters, like logic and sense, as freely as one scene’s golden pigeons.

Also, Kay and Mark visit a museum of lovely abstract and surreal art by Chagall, Giacometti, Leger, Calder, and others. This should cue us that the search for truth goes beyond the surface of mere mimetic reason. Moment to Moment’s design scheme, as shot in Technicolor by Harry Stradling, tells us the same. Bits of obvious rear-projection matting, usually at the service of Seberg’s profile, fit the same aesthetic of exploiting the artificial and unreal. Mark, an amateur painter, looks at Kay with an artist’s eye, at one point posing her by a statue as though she’s ready to be Galatea to his Pygmalion.

Let’s skip everything else that happens, as un-swallowable as it may be, and discuss a point about the final scene. Kay breaks down in a cafe, and we’ve already seen that when Kay cries, she puts her hands over her face for shame. This has the practical effect of sparing Seberg from showing tears, and indeed when she removes her hand, she doesn’t look red and puffy and wet. However, the unnoticed Daphne watches from another table, and she supplies the waterworks by proxy. Her face is almost a cascade as she says to her companion, “How beautiful the world is when it wants to be. Isn’t it though? Isn’t it?” Such is the moral she draws for us.

Throughout Moment to Moment, Daphne functions as a sort of doppelganger for Kay, providing the brazen emotional reactions that Kay restrains, from lust to tears. We could also argue that she’s an emotional catalyst for Kay, the id who encourages Kay’s superego to do the various things she does, whether she should do them or not. Kay’s at her most endangered when she does the things Daphne wouldn’t do and tells her not to do, so Daphne functions paradoxically as both Kay’s libido and her common sense. One of the most fraught little moments between them is when Kay shows a deeper ability to plan and manipulate than Daphne expects.

After the story’s over and everybody’s gone home, these odd, teasing elements and echoes stick with us, reminding us that Moment to Moment never quite explains itself in spite of its wildest revelations.