The Unguarded Moment (1956)
Directed by Harry Keller
Starring: Esther Williams, George Nader, John Saxon
* Published specifically for The Esther Williams Blogathon hosted by Michaela at Love Letters to Old Hollywood *
Esther Williams is one of my favourite stars from the Golden Age of Hollywood. I first saw her in Andy Hardy’s Double Life and was happily taken aback by her radiant glow. She had a smile like no other and embodied good health & fitness, even after giving birth to multiple children. Her acting skills were on par and you could see that she was genuinely happy to be performing on-screen. This real life mermaid did not take any of her success for granted, remaining a down-to-earth person until the end of her life. Anyone who has the opportunity to read her autobiography will find this out for themselves.
Most of Esther’s films were light-hearted romantic comedies in which she was the object of affection. She sometimes played characters who were amateur/professional swimmers like in Thrill of a Romance, On an Island with You, Million Dollar Mermaid, Dangerous When Wet, and Easy to Love. Other times her personages just happened to be natural water nymphs and elaborate swimming sequences were magically placed in the films, even if they did not really fit in to the storylines. Moviegoers lovingly anticipated Esther’s water acrobatics just as much they expected Gene Kelly to dance or Judy Garland to sing.
While Esther was almost always certainly typecast in a certain type of role, there were a few instances when she was able to break free of this predisposed mould. Her first and only major non-swimming role at MGM was in 1946’s The Hoodlum Saint opposite studio legend William Powell. Her performance was solid and she had real chemistry with Powell despite being a whopping 29 years his junior. Still, MGM did not want to keep their fish out of water for very long and it would be another 10 years before she could try her hand at drama, this time at Universal-International Pictures with The Unguarded Moment.
Things start out with the gruesome night-time discovery of a recently murdered young woman whose body was found in an alley outside of the town high school. Not having many clues with which to go by, the chief investigator, Lieutenant Harry Graham (George Nader), believes it to be a random attack. Details about the homicide are published in the local newspaper but no one seems to be alarmed about what has happened.
(L) Lois meets Mr. Bennett for the first time. (R) Leonard & fellow football players at the Sugar Shop, with Lois in the background.
The next day, we are introduced to Miss Lois Conway (Esther Williams) who is a music teacher at Ogden Central High School. As a side activity, she also leads the cheerleading squad. Lois is young, attractive, and popular amongst the students; regularly going to the Sugar Shop for sodas and milkshakes with them after school. Up until this point she has not had problems in her job but all of a sudden she starts receiving anonymous “Teacher Dear” letters that become increasingly threatening and insulting in nature. The latest letter she receives suggests a romantic rendez-vous for 10 pm that very evening at the football stadium lockers. Instead of taking the letters to the school principal or to the police, she decides to investigate on her own.
Lois ends up being physically attacked in the dark by an unknown assailant but manages to escape before severe harm comes to her. As she hastily runs out of the locker room, a groundskeeper notifies the police who had been patrolling the area. They catch up with Lois and take her to the police station where she gives a deposition of the events. She eventually learns the identity of her attacker – student and football hero Leonard Bennett (John Saxon) – but refuses to name him right away, infuriating Lt. Graham who wants to bring Lois solace and prevent more attacks from happening. When Lois has enough courage to come forward and complain to the school principal, Leonard denies any involvement and most surprisingly, she finds herself socially ostracised when the community as a large sides with the young man.
As the police put pressure against Leonard to confess, the boy’s deeply troubled father gets increasingly involved in the situation, causing much incertitude and further dire consequences for Lois. Will the police be able to pin the murder on Leonard and can Lois ever go back to living a normal life? The ending may indeed be a revelation.
The Unguarded Moment was new territory for Esther because as a crime film noir, the subject matter was much darker than anything she had ever worked on before then. Even so, the Hays Code was still very much enforced in the mid-1950s and certain aspects to the story were changed or watered down so as not to upset the censors. While these modifications were not the sole cause for the film’s lacklustre box office appeal, it is clear that something was making it so that the public was not biting and that the critics were less than eager to laud this “new” Esther Williams sans bathing suit.
I must say that after my first viewing of the film a couple of years ago, I was less than impressed although at this very moment I could not tell you exactly why. As a matter of fact, I questioned myself as I was watching the film for a second time in order to write my article. Just a few minutes in, I thought to myself, “This is actually a pretty good film and I judged it badly.” My sentiments remained through the duration of the picture and even though there are obvious weak points in the plot as well as social attitudes now considered controversial included in the story, The Unguarded Moment is much better than your average 1950s B-flick. It is a film that should be lauded on the basis of the subject matters portrayed, especially in regard to child abuse and undiagnosed mental disorders.
Audiences do not generally go to the movies to witness the atrocities of humankind, especially those committable by everyday folks who could be their next-door-neighbours. Stories like that are depressing and anxiety-inducing but they highlight important case studies of social behaviour, such as the ones displayed by Leonard Bennett’s father. Mr. Bennett, who has no given first name, suffered from rheumatic fever as a child and was not able to have a normal childhood as he was often confined to bed and considered too fragile to try out for sports teams. As a result, Mr. Bennett imposes strict expectations upon Leonard to be a success of epic proportions. If Leonard behaves in a way to mess up the plans that have been made for him, his father threatens to break every bone in his body. In addition to this macabre ultimatum, Leonard endures regular beatings from his father. Perhaps the icing on the cake is the fact that Mr. Bennett is a self-labelled woman hater and fed his son hatred-fill rhetoric all of his life. This came after Mrs. Bennett left the family unexpectedly after Leonard’s birth, suggesting that she had also been a victim of domestic violence.
Getting back to Lois, she seems to be an angel in disguise when it comes to thinking about the well-being of her students. Her natural desire to protect Leonard is not at all understandable although it is strangely admirable when you realise the sordid conditions of the boy’s home life. It is largely due to the constant abuse he has received in his life that all signs point to Leonard being a potential serial killer of women. Lois can come off as incredibly stupid in some instances, such as when she continues to talk to Leonard in public places even though they should not even be in the same vicinity. This kind of behaviour makes it easier for Mr. Bennett to portray her in a bad light. Her fragility can wear you a bit thin.
Lois does not do herself any favours by constantly seeking out Leonard.
The film underwent several rewrites over the course of its transformation into a useable script. It is known that in the first version of the screenplay, written by none other than fellow MGM alumna Rosalind Russell, young Leonard did indeed turn out to be the killer. What I do not know is if the story was modified in order to propel up-and-coming star John Saxon in a better light. I am inclined to think along these lines particularly when you come from the movie reflecting more about the performances of Saxon and co-star Edward Andrews, who played Mr. Bennett. The character of Lois could have been more diversely utilised especially with Esther at the helm. One can only wonder how Russell herself would have fared as Lois considering that she shaped the role to play it herself.
Edward Andrews & John Saxon give excellent performances. Saxon had tremendous screen appeal with a face made for the movies.
Although I do have a slightly mixed critical appreciation towards The Unguarded Moment, it is most definitely a film that I would suggest to others. Living in the age that we do, it would be impossible for most of us not to find fault in the sometimes sloppy police work, sexist attitudes, and the all-too-convenient prim and proper Code-laden details. After all, this is a film noir and not a bubbly, pastel musical comedy. So take the bad with the good and enjoy discovering a neglected, worthwhile film. Esther would most certainly approve!
Esther and co-star/on-screen love interest George Nader were very nicely paired and they clearly took to being in each other’s company.
One of my favourite pictures of Esther that gives me an unexplained surreal feeling. 🙂