Esther Williams’ Technicolor Neo-Noir: ‘The Unguarded Moment’ Reviewed

As much as her colleagues would love to blame her marital status for everything, being single isn’t the reason Lois (Esther Williams) complies with her stalker’s request to meet-up at night in a secluded place. Her principal (Les Tremayne) would be happy to spin it that way, though, especially when Lois accuses the most popular boy at school of assault.

When it comes to reporting sexual assault, it hasn’t necessarily gotten a whole lot better since the ’50s or, to put it another way, if there have been improvements, it’s still not universal enough that the events of Harry Keller’s The Unguarded Moment feel like a time capsule rather than something that could, and does, still happen today. Comparably, the soda shop that the students frequent feels like a total blast from the past.

The Unguarded Moment is unusual for a lot of reasons, starting with the casting of Williams (who then, as now, was best known for starring in MGM’s aquatic musicals). Here she’s a teacher in a Technicolor neo-noir who more than holds her own in a dramatic role but wouldn’t get too many other opportunities to do so (before The Unguarded Moment there was The Hoodlum Saint and after was Raw Wind in Eden).

For a film that was released in the ’50s, though, the stances that The Unguarded Moment takes are what give the film it’s resonance today, in that it doesn’t shy away from depicting the realities of how people treat Lois after she comes forward, from her colleagues (who are notably all male barring a secretary played by Eleanor Audley, the voice of Maleficent in Disney’s Sleeping Beauty) to the police (who are primarily represented by George Nadar‘s Lieutenant Graham), but also sides with Lois over validating the victim blaming that goes on around her.

That isn’t to say Lois always makes the best decisions when it comes to how to handle a student who’s been leaving her provocative notes at school, but her actions always come from a place of wanting to protect the student and not thinking about the effect these decisions will have on her career. Basically, Lois counts on people being reasonable and, despite being repeatedly confronted with the fact that people would rather suspect her of being a manhunter than besmirch the name of high school football star, Leonard (John Saxon), she never changes her approach, yet is surprised every time when people disappoint her. This could get grating, like watching people in a horror movie consistently make bad decisions (and The Unguarded Truth is essentially a horror movie set in the real world, with Lois made to feel like she isn’t safe in her own home, let alone work) but in a way there’s something noble about Lois’ refusal to lower her expectations. Maybe it stops being noble once one cut off one’s nose to spite one’s face, but it’s defiant, too.

Still, there’s no denying that The Unguarded Truth is a messy movie, from Graham making loose with police protocol to the unprofessional (if inevitable) romance between Graham and Lois that should never work. I was actively dreading it but hats off to Williams and Nader. They really do the impossible because somehow they pull off the turn, without backtracking on Graham’s earlier, jerky behavior (one thing that helps — Graham coming to realize that Lois values her job as much as he values his).

Both commentaries on Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray are strong but it’s more of an either/or situation, than necessary to listen to both. The first is by film historian David Del Valle and filmmaker David DeCoteau and is more conversational (by nature of there being two people). They also sometimes start stories, think of something else, and forget to go back. There’s is the commentary to listen to for appreciation of Edward Andrews‘ chilling performance as Leonard’s abusive father.

There’s a decent amount of overlap between the two commentaries, but the second one by professor and film scholar, Jason A. Ney, is well-organized (a trademark of Ney’s) and usually uncovers some extra details. Topics discussed include Rosalind Russell‘s involvement with the screenplay (she shares a “based on a story by” credit with Larry Marcus), the film’s loss of interest in the murder that opens the movie, nature versus nurture debates in regards to Leonard, and other movies from the ’40s and ’50s that looked at sexual assault (Johnny Belinda, The Accused). Ney also brings awareness to how many close calls Williams had while in the water during her MGM days and offers his wife’s thoughts on the movie, from her experience as a sexual assault nurse examiner.

The Unguarded Moment is available on Blu-ray now from Kino Lorber.

As much as her colleagues would love to blame her marital status for everything, being single isn’t the reason LoisCOMICONRead More

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