Film buffs who enjoy thrillers may be unfamiliar with Harry Keller’s The Unguarded Moment (1956), now making its Blu-ray debut from Kino Lorber. Even fans of its star, Esther Williams, might be unfamiliar with one of her few post-MGM films. It made literally no splash at the box office, since she’s never in the water, yet it’s worth seeing for elements that make you question how this got made in the ’50s.
The Unguarded Moment opens cold with a pre-credit sequence. A woman’s blanketed body lies in the street, surrounded by reporters, photographers, police, and bystanders. Detective Lt. Harry Graham (George Nader) stands glumly holding her shoes. His sour dialogue with a journalist indicates that this murder is part of a wave of assaults. Then Herman Stein’s score rises in grim thunder as Graham gets into his squad car, the credits begin, and we shift locations to Ogden Central High School.
The high school is played by the same Glendale, California school where exteriors of Al Lewis’ 1956 sitcom Our Miss Brooks were shot, and the neighborhood is played by the same Universal backlot where Leave It to Beaver was shot, so The Unguarded Moment gives off very cozy WASP-American TV vibes for its increasingly sinister and sick Technicolor world. The kids even hang out at a malt shop.
One of the color attractions is Esther Williams, looking fabulous in lipstick and classy earth tones as Lois Conway. To prove that fabulosity, she’s introduced while stretching her body to demonstrate cheerleader routines, because she coaches the squad and also serves as the music teacher. It’s impossible to discuss this swimmer’s film career without defining it as the exhibition of a radiant physicality at which viewers are invited to gawk, and that continues in The Unguarded Moment. In fact, various characters’ removing articles of clothing becomes a plot device.
The routine of the cheerleaders in their white and red uniforms is interrupted briefly by the quarterback dashing in with his football. Lois assumes he’s trying to impress one of the cheerleaders, and they’re clearly impressed. Thus we’re introduced to 18-year-old Leonard Bennett, played by 19-year-old John Saxon, who receives a special card in the final credits heralding a “new personality”, or as the trailer puts it, an “exciting new personality”. In his male-model way, Saxon is as stunning as Williams.
After practice ends and everyone’s bustling away, Lois remembers she left her big red handbag at the stadium. Her goo-goo-eyed lackey, Sandy (John Wilder), rushes off to get it, so when Lois discovers a crudely written note to Dear Teacher (“We could make beautiful music together”), she blames the poor dimwit.
This is only her first in a string of bad judgments without which the story couldn’t move forward, for The Unguarded Moment‘s first major revelation will be that the idolized jock is one screwed-up boy and at least a would-be rapist, if a thwarted one. On one side: the school hero or “minor god”, as the principal puts it, not to mention the golden child of a leading citizen and wealthy businessman. On the other side: a pretty woman teacher who’s liked until she starts causing trouble by telling the truth about the minor god.
Lois’ character is conceived in contradictions. On one hand, she’s always charging forthrightly and without fear into all kinds of situations and confrontations, as if she thinks she’s a man or something. Everyone keeps asking patronizingly why she isn’t married yet instead of wasting her life as a teacher, which makes her bristle.
On the other hand, her headstrong, unconsidered actions lead to bad calls that will have the audience shaking its collective head, as though she’s somehow lived to a privileged mid-30s without knowing how things are stacked against her. This quality partly implies a dialectic in which others can blame her for things that happen, yet the story tends to refute blame by showing that she’s acting in a principled and sympathetic way that the world should emulate. The world keeps failing her.
In a thoughtful commentary, noir historian Jason Ney compares her judgments to the behavior in horror films where people insist on going into that old dark house, or not leaving it, and he also points out how the film’s attitudes about “assault” (the word “rape” was verboten) are at once highly ’50s and decades ahead of time in showing how Lois is threatened by craven male-dominated institutions, public doubt and snickering. Lois is always shown as firmly telling the truth, a person victimized by specific men and complicit attitudes, so the audience is placed in this female context of identification and paranoia.
In this sense, The Unguarded Moment jibes with other paranoid “disbelieved woman” thrillers of the ’50s, such as the very same year’s Julie, made by Andrew and Virginia Stone as a vehicle for Doris Day, or Witness to Murder (Roy Rowland, 1954) with Barbara Stanwyck.
Take the cool, analytical way Lois confronts her spineless principal, Mr. Pendleton (Les Tremayne). When he says there’s no proof that Leonard is lying in his denials, she calmly asks, “Do you think I’m lying?” He turns his face aside and mumbles no, of course not. “But one of us has to be,” she presses. Then he wishes she had “a shred of proof” and that her allegations didn’t involve “a minor god around here” and his bigshot father.
That brings us to The Unguarded Moment‘s true diabolical villain and a strong reason this film begs rediscovery. The real malignant force isn’t Leonard, who strangely always has Lois’ sympathy because “he’s a child”, by which she evidently means he’s in high school. The real problem is Leonard’s scary father, Mr. Bennett, played by gentle and jovial character actor Edward Andrews, who usually plays some kind of befuddled banker.
As Mr. Bennett, Andrews tears quietly into the role of a controlling psychopath who terrorizes and goads his son, forcing the boy to compensate for his own inadequacies. Mr. Bennett’s issues run deep and creepy, from threatening Leonard with “one of our special sessions” (“No!” says Leonard quickly) to quietly informing him, “I’ll break every bone in your body.” Dad makes Leonard the opposite of a cinematic “mama’s boy”. The product of a toxic misogynist upbringing, Leonard is boxed and smothered by his father’s personality and, by extension, his social status and everything about him.
From his first appearance, hovering over Leonard at the malt shop, Mr. Bennett ratchets the queasiness factor toward the ceiling. That’s the scene where Lois meets him right before finding the first note, and her responses to his chatter clearly signal what the audience is meant to understand: something ain’t right with this guy. One of his bits of wisdom is “Leonard, when will you learn? Everybody does bad things. Everybody has something hidden. Everybody.” He seems to savor this noir philosophy.
Ney declares Mr. Bennett the vilest villain of the ’50s, while the second commentary track by chatty chums David Del Valle and David DeCoteau contains Del Valle’s childhood memory of Mr. Bennett’s vibe being different from anything he’d seen before. On a visual level, Bennett’s appearances are increasingly dark, as modulated by William H. Daniels’ photography, until our final nightmarish glimpses of him are scored by Stein’s sleazy-jazzy mode of sexy sax and blood-thumping drums.
The closest contemporary analogue to Mr. Bennett I can recall isn’t the above-named woman-centered thrillers but another highly disturbing movie of 1956, Nicholas Ray’s Bigger Than Life. That film has significant differences in its exploration of the tyrannical paterfamilias, but clearly, there was something in the zeitgeist. The illustration of how gossip-mongering and communal thinking lead to job insecurity also makes The Unguarded Moment a post-McCarthy film, so a lot’s cooking in this pot.
Ney compares its concept with The Accused (William Dieterle, 1949), adapted by Ketti Frings from a June Truesdell novel. He also links the groundbreaking Johnny Belinda (Jean Negulesco, 1948) and Ida Lupino’s Outrage (1950) and observes that all these titles had women writers to hone their female perspectives. He also points out that the following year yielded Mark Robson’s Peyton Place, heavily watered down from Grace Metalious’ novel, and then came Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder (1959), the first Hollywood film to use the word “rape”.
Both commentaries discuss how the concept for The Unguarded Moment was created by actress Rosalind Russell as a vehicle for herself a decade earlier. With Larry Marcus, she wrote a script in 1951 under the pseudonym C.A. McKnight. Universal persuaded her to drop “McKnight” in favor of her bankable name. By the time the film was produced, she felt too old for the part. More importantly, she was deep in preparations for a little Broadway number to be called Auntie Mame, which would define her.
Marcus and Herb Meadow modified her script, changing the killer’s identity and turning Graham from a fellow teacher into a moody cop. The killer subplot almost vanishes, although murderous menace is still present. What remains is a heroine who’s strong despite her sometimes unprofessional or unwise tactics and the atmosphere of self-invested small-town misogyny and backbiting that turns the suburban idyll into hell.
Telling details include a scene with the malt shop waitress, who has her secret perspective on Leonard that flies in the face of the town’s hero worship, and an exchange between the nervous principal and the distracted Bennett at a school dance. Trying to flatter Bennett as one old fogey to another, the principal comments that the students’ demure foxtrots are “a tribal dance straight from the Congo”. That reflects a common canard among the parental generation about the invasion of “jungle rhythms” into pop music, but Bennett doesn’t process it. “Yes, astonishing coordination,” he murmurs, lost in thought at all the youthful gyration.
Both commentaries discuss the place of The Unguarded Moment in Williams’ career, with Ney emphasizing how Williams endured a protracted relationship with a rapist in her young teen years. The story she told in her memoirs bears unfortunate similarities to how characters react with skepticism to Lois on Leonard’s behavior. Unfortunately, that’s another reason this film hits harder than you’d think. Some elements are overstated or pat, as is par for ’50s melodrama, but certain aspects are still relevant.
We haven’t even mentioned that, as Del Valle points out, both Nader and Saxon were managed by agent Henry Willson, the kingpin of Universal’s pretty beefcake boys. That’s a topic for another day.
Who was director Harry Keller? Frequently a film editor, he directed B westerns for Universal before handling a bunch of ’50s noirs, including two more with Nader: Man Afraid (1957) and The Female Animal (1958). Although not recalled as a stellar stylist, he got the job done, especially with the Universal machine supporting him.