Esther Williams gets out of the pool and into a heap of trouble in The Unguarded Moment, a slick, noir-ish drama about a small-town high school teacher who’s wrongly accused of sexually harassing the school’s top jock. George Nader and a young John Saxon co-star in this tense he-said-she-said tale that sadly remains all too relevant today. A brand new 2K master, solid audio, and a couple of entertaining commentary tracks distinguish Kino’s Blu-ray presentation. Worth a Look.
When movie musicals began to lose their audience appeal in the mid-1950s, the girl who was Dangerous When Wet, a Bathing Beauty, and a Million Dollar Mermaid found herself high and dry. Esther Williams swam her way through a series of aquatic spectaculars while at MGM, but after a dust-up with head honcho Dore Schary, she bid the studio tank adieu and struck out on her own in 1955. Universal-International gave her a chance to test the dramatic waters in a low-budget thriller called The Unguarded Moment, but could Williams stay afloat in a non-swimming vehicle or would she drown like other stars who tried to dive off the deep end, shed their patented image, and reinvent themselves?
Okay, enough water metaphors. Williams made a minor splash (dammit, there’s another one!) in director Harry Keller’s tense, surprisingly lurid film noir set at a small-town high school somewhere in Middle America, but it wasn’t big enough to indefinitely sustain her movie career. Though only in her mid-30s and still very attractive, Williams was no longer an ingenue and wouldn’t be in the running for romantic leads for long. Refreshingly, The Unguarded Moment confronts the thorny age issue head-on, casting Williams as Lois Conway, an independent, confident high school music teacher who makes no apologies for her single status, but must continually endure rude, sexist questions about why she isn’t married.
She must also deal with several cryptic, anonymous notes written in block letters that begin “DEAR TEACHER…” and contain inappropriate expressions of affection. The notes both anger and disturb Lois, who’s determined to discover the sender’s identity and put an end to the harassment. The last note she receives proposes a 10 p.m. meeting in the boys locker room beneath the football stadium, and for an inexplicable reason only a hack (male) screenwriter could explain, Lois goes…alone! She’s terrorized, attacked, and almost raped in the dark space by a flashlight-wielding, whispering hoodlum who she later learns is hunky adolescent football star Leonard Bennett (John Saxon), the pride and joy of Ogden Central High.
Lois brings her evidence to the principal, who can’t fathom an upstanding young man like Leonard behaving in such a lewd and degenerate manner. Of course, Leonard denies the allegations and because he’s a golden boy, everyone believes him instead of the mature, unbiased victim who's quickly branded a predatory cougar! Surely Lois must have led the boy on. After all, she’s single, pushing middle age, and probably sexually frustrated. In the blink of an eye, her spotless reputation is ruined, she’s snubbed by the sanctimonious faculty, ridiculed by the student body, and threatened by Leonard's outraged father (Edward Andrews) who has groomed his son for athletic greatness and taught him to distrust and disrespect women since the day Leonard’s mother walked out on them. And he’ll be damned if anything or anyone ruins his master plan...Leonard included.
The only person who finds Lois credible is Harry Graham (George Nader), a local cop who’s also trying to solve the murder of another young woman and believes the boy who assaulted Lois might be the killer. Predictably, the two fall in love while trying to unravel the mystery, but even Harry becomes a target of small-town gossip when he’s accused of letting his emotions get in the way of his duties as a police officer.
Though The Unguarded Moment never pretends to be anything other than a B-grade thriller, there’s quite a bit of substance simmering beneath the far-fetched plot, which was based on a story co-written by none other than actress Rosalind Russell. The misconception that women are hysterical, prone to exaggeration, and unreliable witnesses remains a female albatross, and the idea that the privileged and revered can evade suspicion and escape prosecution still looms large. So, too, does the age-old he-said-she-said angle that played such a huge role in the high-profile legal cases involving Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, and other public figures in recent years. The Unguarded Moment wasn’t the first movie to address such issues, but putting a high school student at the center of the strife added a fresh element and helped the film fit snugly into the troubled teen mini-genre popularized by Rebel Without a Cause and The Blackboard Jungle, both of which were released the previous year.
And speaking of rebels without causes, Leonard is Exhibit A. His motivations are sketchy at best and never properly explained, but Saxon plays him with plenty of swagger and just enough sensitivity to make him human. Williams proves she doesn't need a pool to hold our attention, and though she'll never be considered a great actress, she's natural, authentic, and believable, despite her character's countless poor choices. She and the square-jawed Nader make an attractive pair, but it's Andrews as arguably the creepiest father and one of the oiliest villains ever to grace a Golden Age film who files the most riveting portrayal and makes The Unguarded Moment worth watching. A fine cast and substantive themes salvage The Unguarded Moment, but can't lift it above better-known guilty pleasure thrillers. It's an intriguing curio packed with titillating elements, not the least of which is Williams, who's no fish out of water in this rare dramatic vehicle.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
The Unguarded Moment arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
A brand new 2K master yields a very pleasing 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer that revitalizes this 67-year-old film and showcases the artistry of Oscar-winning cinematographer William Daniels. Excellent clarity and contrast and nicely resolved but still evident grain produce a vibrant, film-like image, and top-notch shadow delineation and some striking silhouettes enhance tension during the suspenseful sequences. Though the single-strip color looks slightly faded during some scenes, it appears bold and lush much of the time. Red lipstick, a yellow taxi cab, the green suburban lawns, and especially all the orange in the school uniforms, flags, and other paraphernalia provide eye-catching accents. Sharp close-ups highlight fine facial features, background elements are easy to discern, and clothing patterns and fabrics are distinct. Some mild speckling crops up here and there and a few moments of softness creep in, but the source material is mostly free of any defects. For a minor movie that’s been off the radar for decades, this is quite a lovely presentation. Fans will be thrilled.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track supplies clear, well modulated sound. A bit of faint surface noise could be detected during quieter moments, but no pops or crackle intrude. A wide dynamic scale handles all the highs and lows of Herman Stein’s music score and the various rock-and-roll jukebox tunes without any distortion and all the dialogue is easy to comprehend. Subtleties like footsteps crunching against pavement and ambient city noise are crisp and sonic accents like honking car horns make a statement. Though largely unobtrusive, the audio asserts itself when necessary and fills the room with ease.
A couple of audio commentaries and some trailers comprise the extras package.
Audio Commentary by film historian David Del Valle and filmmaker David DeCoteau - This chatty track is loads of fun and features plenty of juicy trivia. Del Valle dominates the proceedings and his cogent insights into the film, its production, and its cast keep us involved throughout. (DeCoteau is little more than a sidekick and his interjections don't add much to the discussion.) Del Valle talks about Rosalind Russell's involvement in the project, shares tidbits from Esther Williams' autobiography, examines the story's lurid themes, and praises the work of actor Edward Andrews. He also points out Eleanor Ardley, who has a bit part in the movie and is most famous as the voice of Maleficent in Disney's animated Sleeping Beauty and Madame Leota, the fortune teller in Disneyland's Haunted Mansion attraction. Though it would have worked better if Del Valle had gone solo, this is still a breezy, informative track that fans will enjoy.
Audio Commentary by professor and film scholar Jason A. Ney - Ney provides a more scholarly and sober track that covers a multitude of topics. He calls The Unguarded Moment both ahead of its time and very much of its time, cites the differences between the original treatment and finished screenplay, talks about victim shaming, sexual assault, and the old-fashioned ideals that swirl about the film, and looks at the age-old nature vs. nurture theme. Ney also discusses censorship issues, how policing has changed over time, and Williams' personal connection to her role. In addition, he examines Saxon's film career and compares The Unguarded Moment to other movies about sexual assault like The Accused, Johnny Belinda, Outrage, and Anatomy of a Murder. Ney's one faux pas is misidentifying actor Edward Andrews, whom he repeatedly calls Edward Albert. The first time he misspoke I thought it was an innocent slip of the tongue, but by the third time... (Could Ney possibly be confusing Andrews with actor Eddie Albert of Green Acres fame?) Despite the error, this is a solid and absorbing track that's well worth a listen, too.
Theatrical Trailer (HD, 2 minutes) - The film's original preview touts Williams' "first startling dramatic role" and highlights the movie's thriller elements.
Though hot-button issues propel The Unguarded Moment, some unbelievable plot points keep this woman-in-jeopardy thriller from wielding much impact. Williams impresses in a completely dry part, but the movie rarely rises above B-movie melodrama. A brand new 2K master, lossless audio, and two worthwhile commentary tracks heighten the appeal of this glossy guilty pleasure that’s a treat for Williams fans, film noir buffs, and aficionados of teen problem movies. Worth a Look.