Esther Williams Steps out of the Pool and Into School for Dark Melodrama



With her once-glorious if also ridiculously unlikely superstar career at MGM all washed up, swimming sensation Esther Williams trades in her one-piece bathing suit for earth-toned schoolteacher duds for Universal-International’s The Unguarded Moment.  A melodrama not far removed from the far superior domestic/high school-centric classics of Nicholas Ray (Rebel Without a CauseBigger Than Life) or even the rambunctious cautionary “juvenile delinquent movie” of Richard Brooks’ Blackboard JungleThe Unguarded Moment finds a fresh way into the heavily trending teenage alienation niche.  That approach?  Make it a women’s picture.  A women’s picture with late-Film Noir-era lurid flare.

Williams plays high school music teacher Lois Conway, a sharp, spirited single woman with a broken heart in her past.  We never learn much about that, such is director Harry Keller’s mature, novelistic approach to the character and the situation she finds herself in.  Though Conway proves herself to be tough-as-nails and quite astute when need be, her extreme soft spot for her students- even one who actively baits and terrorized her- proves to be her major misstep.  Likewise, a major misstep of the otherwise fascinating The Unguarded Moment is Keller and company’s apparent total failure to realize this.  Almost from the outset, Conway does a downright miserable job of advocating for herself in the face of a swirling storm of misogyny and undue reverse accusations.  All because she’s an unmarried woman with implied “life experience”, her own victimhood somehow costs her her job and her reputation.

Young football hotshot Leonard Bennett has a runaway crush on Mrs. Conway, sending her creepy love notes and even breaking into her house.  In-between that, he goes so far as to lure her into the school locker room at ten o’clock at night for some presumed Fast Times action.  When she quickly states that she only came to put an end to his anonymous advances, he tips into full creeper mode.  The lighting is such that she can’t tell who

it is, though everything from the limited economy of suspects to the casting of John Saxon as Leonard (buff and sporting a full head of hair but radiating unease as he ever would going forward) tips us off from the start.  The biggest question is, why exactly does he pursue and push this crush the way he does for so long.  This time, the screenplay (written by Herb Meadow and Larry Marku, based on a 1951 story by none other than actress Rosalind Russell) lets us down.

This release from KL Studio Classics claims to be from a new 2K master although it doesn’t exactly visually pop the way other such efforts do on Blu-ray.  On the other hand, it by no means skimps on the maintenance of its vintage film graininess.  The color quality is outstanding, delivering that 1950s Hollywood veneer that one is in the market for when seeking out a film such as this.  The risqué locker room assault sequence, played out in nearly total darkness- a bold undertaking in the day, to be sure- is particularly impressive in its presentation.

Although The Unguarded Moment is far from any kind of renowned classic, KL managed to scare up not one but two film newly recorded historian commentary tracks for it.  The first, expertly steered by David Del Valle and featuring Full Moon Puppet Master franchise filmmaker David DeCoteau, is absolutely outstanding.  Del Valle truly, truly, truly knows his stuff in this capacity, sharing everything from broader behind-the-scenes info to pointing out on-and-done extras.  DeCoteau regales us with more than one story of his pleasant experiences with John Saxon.  These guys are a blast to spend time with.

I confess that I then went into the disc’s second commentary, by professor and film scholar Jason A. Ney, wondering what information Del Valle and DeCoteau had left for him.  I needn’t worried.  Ney starts out explaining passive 1950s murder scene etiquette before going onto a detailed telling of Rosalind Russell’s pointed efforts to write this film as a vehicle for herself.  Once Russell had aged out, however, she gladly let it go to Esther Williams.  Ney goes on to dig into the film’s squeamish tendency to lean into victim blaming, foisting strongly implied blame on Ms. Conway for getting attacked in the locker room by Leonard.  He admits that Conway’s decision to go into the dark locker room at the ascribed time all alone was indeed a stupid move, seemingly included to cast her as increasingly at fault.  He spends a lot of the remaining time considering how The Unguarded Moment fits alongside of other 1950s that deal with rape.  While this begs the question of just how far we are to understand that Leonard got with Conway, Ney nevertheless does a fine job of not retreading info from the other commentary.  And dare I say, as imperfect as The Unguarded Moment is, there’s plenty to be said about (and during) it.

The Unguarded Moment delivers a morally and psychologically promising first hour only to completely fumble the narrative in the last half hour.  Character actor Edward Andrews’ turn as Leonard’s terrifyingly misogynist father dips us into lazily conventional storytelling territory as Conway’s romance with perpetually squinting leading man George Nader (as the police lieutenant trying to link all of this to an earlier murder on the school grounds) dips us into pablum.  It’s all too bad, as there’s fertile ground to be tread here for the era.  As it ends up, The Unguarded Moment is as dried and withered as its title is clunky and generic.  This is a decent Blu-ray of keen interest to Esther Williams fans and 1950s movie buffs, but likely trying for most others.