After 13 years as a MGM player and star attraction with 19 feature films to her credit, Esther Williams found herself facing an uncertain future in 1955 when her contract with the studio ended. But her next move not only surprised herself but must have made her fans and former colleagues at MGM do a double take. She starred in a lurid psychosexual melodrama from Universal-International, shot in Technicolor, entitled The Unguarded Moment (1956).
With the exception of the MGM short Inflation (1942) and the romantic drama The Hoodlum Saint opposite William Powell in 1946, Williams’ skills as a dramatic actress were rarely tested during her MGM days. Nor was there any reason to since the moviegoing public was obviously quite satisfied with just gazing upon Williams’ stunningly beautiful figure being showcased again and again in lavish musicals and romantic comedies, most of which managed to highlight her in at least one aquatic production number in either a pool, a lake or the ocean. Well, Esther doesn’t have to don a bathing suit in The Unguarded Moment but she is still exploited in other ways in a storyline that has her being stalked by an anonymous “admirer” who could be a serial rapist/murderer.
This is a long way from the likes of Dangerous When Wet and Million Dollar Mermaid and much closer in tone and style to the other hyperventilating melodramas Universal-International were turning out in the fifties – vivid, trashy tales of passion like The Female Animal (1958) and Female on the Beach (1955) and glossy soap operas like Douglas Sirk’s Written on the Wind (1956), which is now considered a masterpiece. The Unguarded Moment though is clearly in the former camp and qualifies as a guilty pleasure for the often absurd paces it puts Esther through and for the strange tonal tug-o-war between the sleazy and the moralistic. What gives the film a distinct edge over other Universal-International releases of its ilk is an unexpectedly creepy and disturbing performance by veteran character actor Edward Andrews. You won’t think the same way about him again after this but more on that later.
It is probably pointless to issue a spoiler alert as most people who want to see this before reading about it have already tuned out but there isn’t much of a mystery at stake anyway. Esther stars as Lois Conway, a music teacher in a high school, who starts receiving unsigned flirtatious notes from someone who sounds like a sixth grader – “Wow Teacher. Could we make music together!” – but is probably much older. The notes keep coming and the tone becomes more aggressive and sexual until Lois decides to handle it by confronting the sender. She agrees to accept his invitation to meet him at night in the school’s deserted gym, the first of many super dumbo decisions on her part.
It turns out badly. Lois is unable to get a good look at her suspect because he hides behind a blinding flashlight issuing taunts like “Don’t make like a teacher. Is that what we’re here for? I’d like to take a look at you. I’d like to take a real long look at you. What’s that perfume? I smell it whenever I pass.” Then he attacks her but she manages to fight him off and escape from the locker room just in time for the police to spot her fleeing the gym. In her torn dress and disheveled state, Lois is immediately whisked to the police station for questioning by Lt. Harry Graham (George Nader).
At first there is antagonism between Graham and Lois as she is forced to admit her poor judgment in agreeing to meet her stalker but she is convinced the suspect is Leonard Bennett (John Saxon in his first major film role), the star of the high school football team. That’s no surprise because we have already clearly seen and heard Leonard in action in the deserted gym sequence but it takes a while to convince Lt. Graham that he’s the culprit.
The real mystery – and most compelling part of The Unguarded Moment – is what transformed this seemingly normal teenager into a potential rapist? In public, Leonard is the all-American jock and home town football star but in private, he is a malevolent lurker, a Peeping Tom full of repressed sexuality and rage. Once we meet his father, Mr. Bennett (Edward Andrews), the pieces of the puzzle fall into place.
It is this sick, unrepairable relationship between the tyrannical misogynist father (and respected community member) and his emotionally damaged and fearfully obedient son that transforms The Unguarded Moment into an over-the-top Freudian meltdown. In a telling encounter between the two, Bennett reminds his son once again of his mother’s infidelity and worthlessness (she abandoned the family years earlier): “After that I rearranged the whole house to get the sight and smell of women out of it…and made this room over for YOU because I wanted someone in here I could trust.” When Leonard counters with, “I don’t know how she could do that. I don’t know how she could walk out on a sick man and a baby,” his father responds, “A woman can do that. I’ve been drumming that into your head ever since you were knee high.”
As the film progresses, Mr. Bennett becomes an increasingly frightening and imposing presence. When he isn’t trying to smear Lois’s reputation and turn the school board and faculty against her, he is threatening to sue the police for harassing his son or browbeating Leonard with threats like “If you knock down what I’ve spent years building up, I’ll break every bone in your body.” Even in Bennett’s first initial meetings with the music teacher about his son, it is obvious that he is much more controlling and driven than a stage mom. “That boy,” he boasts to Lois, “is going to get everything he wants in life. He knows how to win. He knows the secret of it.”
Even when Mr. Bennett makes what appear to be innocuous remarks or observations, they always take on a more perverse or misanthropic significance. For example, watch his face as he gazes at a high school corridor brimming with hormone-fueled teenagers and says, “Kids. You know if you could harness all this energy, you could run our power plant for a year.”
The Unguarded Moment generates some genuine frisson in its final third when Mr. Bennett breaks into Lois’s house to create some incriminating evidence against her. When she returns home suddenly, he hides in the closet in her bedroom and, in one of the more voyeuristic shots in the film, we see her through Bennett’s eyes as she undresses in front of her makeup mirror. It all leads to a jack-in-the-box confrontation between them as Bennett becomes sexually excited, his voice alternating between incessant whispers and malicious threats: “I’m not accustomed to standing in the dark close to a pretty young woman. You are very pretty. That perfume you are wearing is very exciting. It’s very exciting.” Without Edward Andrews’ powerhouse performance, The Unguarded Moment would have been much less memorable but the versatile character actor overcompensates for the film’s weaker aspects.
For one thing, the screenplay is often preposterous, with huge lapses in credibility and plot developments that are highly unlikely. The most obvious one is the romantic relationship that develops between Lt. Graham and Lois. Not only do they make their dates public events, such as attending the high school football game together, but their combined efforts to expose and arrest Leonard are clearly conflicts of interest for them both and grounds for job dismissal. But logical behavior is not the movie’s strong suit; we might as well be watching some odd imitation of human behavior on another planet.
The uneven direction by Harry Keller doesn’t help either. Better known as a film editor (The Red Pony, Stir Crazy, Stripes), Keller’s directorial efforts are largely undistinguished and include a slew of B Westerns like Marshall of Cedar Rock (1953) and lightweight fare such as Tammy Tell Me True (1961) and The Brass Bottle (1964).
To top it off, Esther Williams seems ill at ease with a portrayal which alternates between a mother hen schoolmarm and a strong-willed, impulsive and incredibly naïve woman who refuses to acknowledge the dangers she is facing. Away from her more natural setting of a swimming pool or beach, Williams seems artificial and her heroine remains curiously unsympathetic. One minute she is emasculating Sandy, a young male student who adores her, by handing him an apron and demanding he take her place serving punch at the school dance; the next minute, she is happily subservient, making coffee for her male chauvinist detective boyfriend. And all the while she expresses surprise about rumors of her fondness for certain male students. For example, playing nurse to Sandy alone in her classroom after he is beaten up in a fight defending her.
You can probably blame all of these faults on Rosalind Russell, who is hiding behind the pseudonym here of C.A. McKnight. According to biographer Bernard F. Dick in Forever Mame: The Life of Rosalind Russell, the story idea came from writer Larry Marcus and Rosalind Russell, as a possible vehicle for herself. The first draft of the screenplay by Marcus and Russell (under the pseudonym C.A. McKnight) had a working title of Teach Me to Love and was completed by 1951. Russell, however, had no time to work on the screenplay as she became busy with back-to-back Broadway productions including Wonderful Town, The Girl Rush and Picnic. As a result, she didn’t return to the project until 1955 when Marcus and scenarist Herb Meadow had made further revisions to the script under working titles of The Lie and The Hidden Heart.
In the final draft of the screenplay which was retitled The Unguarded Moment, the heroine tries to help the disturbed student instead of being a mere victim and she becomes romantically involved with the investigating police lieutenant instead of a sympathetic fellow teacher in the original story.
In her own autobiography, Rosalind Russell revealed, “I’ve often worked on the material, on movie scripts (as I did with the play version of Auntie Mame), but only once did I actually get screen credit as a writer. A young man named Larry Marcus and I had an idea for a story about a schoolteacher who’s attacked by one of her students. We sold it to a man who later sold it to Universal who made it with Esther Williams, who was very good in it. I had fun with Larry Marcus. So that we could concentrate without a thousand interruptions, I finally dragged him off to the Hotel Del Coronado, down at the beach, and sequestered him there until we’d finished our story. I knew we’d never get it done otherwise. We spent a week working, and I only let him go to his room to sleep. About five o’clock every afternoon I’d take him out on the beach and walk him up and down – it was winter – like he was a puppy “This is all you get, Larry, this air,” I’d say. “Breathe in a lot of it, because after dinner, we start work again.” The picture was called The Unguarded Moment. I wish I could tell you it was Gone with the Wind .”
Esther Williams’ own recollections of The Unguarded Moment in her autobiography, The Million Dollar Mermaid, also expressed her ambivalence toward the role.” “I thought it was a curious choice for Universal to offer me the lead in a “dry” psychological thriller, and I wasn’t sure the public would accept me without my glittering crowns and sparkly swimsuits. Nonetheless, Universal offered me $200,000, which was more than I ever made for a single film at MGM in or out of the water.”
When you realize that Rosalind Russell is the co-author of the screenplay, the Lois Conway character and her headstrong impulses start to make sense. In her younger days, say circa His Girl Friday in 1940, Russell could have brought this complicated, contradictory creation to life but Esther Williams didn’t have the dramatic range or experience to pull it off in 1956. Still, Williams didn’t give up and signed on for another straight dramatic role in the overheated Raw Wind in Eden (1958) opposite Jeff Chandler. That film fared no better with the critics or the public and Williams called it quits after two more movies, The Big Show (1961), and the relatively obscure Spanish production, Magic Fountain (1963).
Still, The Unguarded Moment remains a fascinating and campy anomaly in her career. Fans of her MGM musicals may want to check it out just to see how far she ventured from her usual formulaic family-friendly pictures. Others will enjoy it for its overwrought excessiveness and subversive depictions of small town life that conjure up the more stylized and sharply observed melodramas of Douglas Sirk.
The Unguarded Moment was initially released in 2012 as a DVD-R that was included in the box set Women in Danger: 1950s Thrillers from the TCM Vault Collection. The other titles included Woman in Hiding (1950) with Ida Lupino, Female on the Beach (1955) starring Joan Crawford and Merle Oberon in The Price of Fear (1956) but that collection is now out of print. The single DVD-R release of The Unguarded Moment, however, is still available but wouldn’t it look great remastered and upgraded to Blu-ray?
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