There was a term I kept trying to recall while watching 1956’s The Unguarded Moment. I looked it up afterwards and discovered it was “cognitive dissonance”. Basically, this means holding two contrasting beliefs in one’s mind at the same time, usually leading to irritation. It seems to me a couple of characters in this movie demonstrate this cognitive disparity, and it led me to feel agitated.
This is the first serious drama Esther Williams made after spending years trying to escape a box the studio system put her in. For the longest time, she starred in movies where her swimming expertise was employed for complex choreographed musical numbers, all done in and around bodies of water. I’ll confess I have yet to see any of those movies, but that’s a novelty I imagine wears thin pretty fast. So, I was glad she had an opportunity to show what she could do outside of that context.
And she is very good in this. If there is a reason to see this picture, it is for her performance. And that is remarkable, as she had to overcome some strange dialogue in an awkward script.
She plays a high school teacher here, who goes on the warpath when she receives anonymous lewd notes from a student. She even calls the author’s bluff and goes to an empty locker room that night for a proposed tryst. While I admire her confidence, this is a very questionable move. Worse, she becomes mousy and placating when she finds herself cornered in the dark room by an assailant keeping a flashlight on her.
She flees before getting raped. Once on the street, she is apprehended by the police and taken to the station where they do a breathalyzer on her. Wow, those are some priorities. Then she is loudly interrogated by a police lieutenant (George Nader) in a room where other officers are within earshot. I was surprised by the lack of courtesy he demonstrates, having a sensitive conversation openly in a room with others in it.
I’m not even sure exactly what the police think happened. I suspected the officers who brought her in thought she was a prostitute. I don’t know if it was mentioned in any dialog, but I don’t think anybody bothered to check out the locker room where she was assaulted. And Nader gets short with her because she isn’t forthcoming with any information. But who would when there’s others in the room?
But she has other another reason for not wanting to press charges or give any information, and that is because, as she puts it later, “That is a high school boy, not a criminal.” And there’s some of that cognitive dissonance I mentioned. A student first bothers her with suggestive notes and then tries to rape her when she confronts him in that locker room, but she believes he should be cut some slack because he’s a student. Never mind he can still be a threat not only to her but also to other women. And not just as rapist—he may also be a murderer. Oh, and I failed to mention he’s eighteen. Old enough to be tried as an adult makes him no longer a kid in my book.
John Saxon plays the disturbed, um, lad. This is the youngest I have seen him in anything before, and he looks significantly different than he would in the later films I know him from. The movie provides a psychological reason for Saxon’s behavior towards women via a couple of uncomfortable conversations with his dad, played by Edward Andrews.
Dad is extremely bitter about his wife having left him years before. I suspected he actually killed her, and then I was surprised that is an avenue the movie doesn’t explore. One really odd rule Andrews has is he refuses to let Saxon date. The film’s creepiest moment is when he informs his son how seriously he will enforce that: “If you knock down what I’ve spent years building up, I’ll break every bone in your body”.
More cognitive dissonance comes courtesy of the school principal, played by Les Tremayne. For some reason, Williams goes to him to report Saxon, when she didn’t say anything to the police. The principal’s behavior is about as questionable as that of the police. He just summons the student to his office, so he, Saxon and Williams can have an uncomfortable conversation. Even though Tremayne believes Williams, he refuses to do anything about Saxon, as he is the star of the football team.
But, really, shouldn’t this be a police matter? Why doesn’t Williams talk to them instead of her boss? And I wanted to jump into the screen and punch Tremayne when, at a football game where Saxon makes a great play, he turns to Williams, laughs and says, “And that’s the boy you wanted me to discipline!”
The most confusing thinking on display here is how the script regards women. It has one cautious foot in an era that is more progressive than the times, and the other firmly in the kitchen, where it expects women of that time to be. Williams gets a lot of flack from seemingly every guy in the movie. I lost count of how many times one asks her if she’s miss or missus, or if she has a boyfriend. I was glad when she, rightfully, is angered by all this focus on her relationship status. And yet, she is charmed when Nader comments on her abilities in her kitchen. Then there’s Tremayne, right after he says that shitty thing to her at the game, going on to say how happy he is to see her there with Nader. Really, fuck these people.
I won’t ruin the ending of The Unguarded Moment, except to say I thought it was preposterous, unnecessary and completely unbelievable. One thing that shouldn’t surprise anybody is she settles down with Nader. I wonder if he will let her continue teaching? I have the nagging feeling he won’t, and that she will be OK with that. Strange how this movie has as its central figure a stronger female character than most films of the time, yet doesn’t seem to know what to do with her. At least the change in genres was a new opportunity for its lead, for Williams to escape from the weird cinema ghetto she was trapped in before.
Dir: Harry Keller
Starring Esther Williams, George Nader, John Saxon
Watched on Kino Lorber blu-ray