Monday, August 06, 2012

The Unguarded Moment (1956)

Harry Keller’s The Unguarded Moment is a lost gem from the 1950s, which reveals the real dark side of the American dream, and the nightmare behind the seemingly pleasant facade of Eisenhower America. Esther Williams, usually more at home in aquatic roles, had just been dismissed by MGM, and was looking around for an interesting project to help her establish a new screen identity.

Universal suddenly, and unexpectedly, stepped in and offered her $200,000 to appear in The Unguarded Moment — more than $1.5 million in 2012, adjusted for inflation — which was more than MGM had ever paid her for any of her many films for that studio. The film was described to Esther Williams as a suspense thriller, which it manifestly is, and it was a complete change of pace from the roles she had spent her lifetime playing; essentially the same role over and over again, in a series of Technicolor swimming extravaganzas. Williams was sick of them, and sick of the genre as a whole; she wanted something different. Seeing the role as a challenge, Williams accepted the assignment.

Williams plays Lois Conway, a small town high school music teacher living in well-manicured suburbia — actually the Leave it to Beaver / Desperate Housewives street on Universal’s back lot — whose life is turned into a nightmare when one of her pupils, an unbalanced high school football star, Leonard Bennett (John Saxon, in a very early role) starts sending her love notes, physically attacks her after a football practice underneath the bleachers, breaks into her house and steals her possessions, all without leaving a shred of evidence against him.

What's worse, Leonard’s getting away with it in part because he’s “a minor God” at the school because of his athletic prowess on the gridiron, and nobody wants to wreck a winning football team. In addition, there’s a sociopathic killer on the loose, who has already murdered one woman; is Leonard the guilty party? This last part is never really developed, but it hangs over the film like a cloud; there’s a killer in the midst of suburban paradise. So this is hardly the 1950s that nostalgia merchants would like us to remember as the authentic vision of an era.

Lois, however, has never really dealt with anything like this before, and keeps making one mistake after another. Despite the obvious pitfalls, Lois is utterly trusting in her dealings with Leonard, continually trying to reach out to him when he’s clearly a dangerous, damaged teen, and no wonder; his father, played with mesmeric intensity by the gifted Edward Andrews, is a full-on sociopath, with an all-consuming hatred of women, whose relationship with his son is deeply problematic.

Indeed, it’s downright creepy. Edwards, who made his first big impression in Phil Karlson’s noir classic The Phenix City Story (1955) as the ultra-corrupt town boss Rhett Tanner, takes to his role here with absolute relish; one of the things that really distinguishes the film is Edwards’ absolute ferocity in the role, and he never backs away from the most corrosive aspects of his character.

In a truly memorable sequence, Mr. Bennett enters his son’s room just as Leonard is about to go to sleep, and asks him if they can have a father/son chat. Starting off with bland pleasantries at first, Mr. Bennett soon segues into a viciously misogynistic attack on his wife, who apparently “abandoned” the family several years earlier - and with good reason, it would seem - and then moves on to the difficulty he has had raising Leonard without a mother.

All of this is delivered in a smooth, jarringly unemotional monotone, and then, just as he’s about to say goodnight to his son, Bennett turns back to Leonard and with a parting glance, tells him that if he does anything to upset their seemingly placid middle-class existence, he’ll “break every bone in [Leonard's] body.” And with that gentle thought, he quietly exits his son’s room, wishing him a pleasant “good night.” It's one of the great performances by a “heavy” in cinema history.

It also doesn’t help that the principal, Mr. Pendleton (Les Tremayne) is a spineless, worthless “authority figure” who is more inclined to believe Leonard’s lies than Lois’s truth; in addition, even her colleagues at the school, as well as the students, almost immediately turn again Ms. Conway, ready and eager to believe the worst of anyone. It's a picture of 1950s small town America that is so brutal, so unforgiving, that one wonders why Universal, not usually a noir studio, signed off on the project in the first place.

It’s only after the intervention of the police, portrayed here in a surprisingly sympathetic light in the person of Detective Harry Graham (George Nader) that Leonard’s true nature comes to light; in a typically artificial “happy ending,” Leonard is given a pass on his crimes, and winds up in the Army, where it’s clear he’s beginning a new life. His father, meantime, after attacking Ms. Conway himself, dies of a heart attack while trying to fabricate incriminating evidence against her, but is caught in the act by the police.

The whole film is shot in a falsely cheerful, color rich patina of reds, golds and blues, and seems divided against itself in many ways, not least because it depicts the quiet horror of small town American gossip and sexism, but also because it shows that for Ms. Conway, there is really no authority worth applying to; the cards are stacked against her by the value system of the era. And it’s still true, even today; popularity can carry you a long way in a small town, especially fame as a sports hero, and an awful lot of damage can be inflicted before the true facts come to light, if they ever do.

Thus, this is a deeply disturbing, brutal film, and one that has obviously been suppressed since its initial release, and only just released on DVD by Universal as a part of a box set, Women in Danger, which is highly recommended. Also in the set are the equally delicious noirs Michael Gordon’s Woman in Hiding (1950), Joseph Pevney’s Female on the Beach (1955), and Abner Biberman’s The Price of Fear (1956), making this a truly essential purchase for any noir enthusiast; Female on the Beach, for example, worthy of an essay all its own in NOTW, has never appeared legally on DVD before, and the transfers throughout are superb.

Incidentally, this is as good a moment as any to address the numerous criticisms of the transfer of The Unguarded Moment on the Women in Danger box set; as the only color film of the four, The Unguarded Moment, it must be admitted, doesn’t get the best possible transfer - it’s somewhat garish and flat, but perfectly serviceable. It isn’t a Criterion version, in short, which the film richly deserves, but it’s certainly a B+ -- and clean and solid throughout. So please discount the negative comments on transfer quality you might see elsewhere; that’s for perfectionists. This is a film you simply have to own.

Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without A Cause (1955), made just one year earlier at Warners, paints a much more sympathetic picture of high school life, with James Dean emerging as a sort of martyr for a generation; The Unguarded Moment, in stark contrast, shows that the most peaceful and seemingly supportive environments are in fact fraught with danger, and that no one can trust anyone, and that power will only seek to save itself in the face of public opinion. While the film didn’t alter Esther Williams’ image with the public - they wanted her to remain forever a poolside Doris Day - Williams is very good in the film, and the entire project is an absolute success in every regard.

It’s a film noir, but it’s also all too true; interestingly, as a final note, actress Rosalind Russell came up with original story and screenplay, working with a professional writer, as a role she hoped to play in the future, but the project got sidetracked, and was sold to Universal. It’s curious how these things turn out. But mostly, The Unguarded Moment is memorable as a dark hued vision of small town American life, no more so than when Mr. Bennett (Andrews) says to his son
“Leonard, when will you learn? Everybody does bad things. Everybody has something hidden. Everybody.”

About the Author: Wheeler Winston Dixon is the Ryan Professor of Film Studies, Coordinator of the Film Studies Program, Professor of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and the author of numerous books on film, including his newest work, Death of the Moguls: The End of Classical Hollywood (Rutgers University Press, 2012).


  1. A great article. This one sounds like its right up my alley!

  2. Such a pity I'll never get to see this, as it sounds fascinating. I've always thought of Edward Andrews as the solid citizen in Doris Day films, and when I looked up his bio I realised the range of his roles.
    Also that clip was brilliant...very illustrative of attitudes in the 50s!
    A super critique.

  3. Wheeler Winston Dixon12:52 PM, August 08, 2012

    Adrienne, you absolutely CAN see this; just get the WOMEN IN DANGER DVD set, and sit back and watch. Well worth your time.

  4. A good idea, but sadly not available in the UK!

    1. Adrienne, you should try You Tube:

  5. You referred to Edward Andrews as "Edwards" a couple of times, when I'm sure you meant "Andrews". He was truly a great actor, his strength lying in his ability to exude sliminess. THE YOUNG SAVAGES is a great example. When you see his photo on a poster (Dan Cole for Governor), you know the state is in trouble.

  6. I was dumbfounded when I read about the TCM Women in Danger box set, that it was going to include two of my favorite 50's guilty-pleasure flicks The Unguarded Moment and Female on the Beach. It's like someone read my mind and consulted a TV guide schedule for AMC circa 1995. The only problem is that they left out Gorilla at Large.
    You're correct about the lush color pallet of this film. I'm hoping when I buy my copy I'm not too disappointed in the transfer. The first time I saw Violent Saturday and The Blob I though the color was somewhat flat too.
    The darker side of suburbia is an interesting niche in the noir cannon. Hopefully someone will get cracking on that book. I would also make room for some dark melodramas like Rebel, Bigger than Life and Strangers When We Meet, all color flicks.

  7. "Reveals the real dark side of the American dream". Who believes that stalkers and rapists didn't do their work in the 50's? Just because they couldn't or wouldn't portray it on screen, it existed, just read some true crime reports and old newspapers.
    My mother was stalked by a perv in the early 50's. The police rallied to help her. The stalker claimed she was leading him on. The policeman told my mother "Don't worry, they always say that." The guy left her alone after the police grilled him.

    With modern political correctness, it even happens in the opposite way now! Remember the stripper who claimed some members of the Duke Lacrosse team assaulted her. Everyone assumed the males were guilty, the media and the internet pilloried these guys. In the end, there was no credible evidence, and Mike Nifong, the Durham County DA was disbarred, fined and served a day in jail for perjury. (No doubt his day was spent in some VIP jail.)
    Suppressed? I remember seeing this in late night TV back in the 70's. Is there evidence it was suppressed and not just forgotten ?


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