The Film: 4/5
In the small town of Freedom, Kansas in 1954 Evelyn Wyckoff (Anne Heywood) is not only a highly-respected Latin teacher at the local high school but also a tireless defender of racially integrated schools and the right to teach students about Communism to give them a better understanding of that which they are being told to fear and reject on a daily basis by opportunistic Washington politicians and the complacent media. But there is something missing from the unmarried Miss Wyckoff's life and she doesn't realize what effect it's having on her until she suffers an emotional breakdown during a school assembly prior to the start of the Thanksgiving break. Consulting with Dr. Neal (Robert Vaughn), Evelyn is told that she is most likely suffering from the onset of premature menopause. As a virgin she has never known the pleasures of being intimate with a man and this is beginning to take its toll on her health.
Evelyn is encouraged by Wichita psychiatrist Dr. Steiner (Donald Pleasance) to take on a lover so that it may relieve the effects of menopause. An attempt to nurture a relationship with sweet-natured bus driver Ed (Earl Holliman) proves futile but the effort she put forth gives Evelyn an amazing feeling. Her life takes a turn for the worst when she is raped by Rafe Collins (John Lafayette), a student and star athlete at the local junior college who works as a janitor at Evelyn's school. Despite Rafe's brutish approach to lovemaking she thinks she has finally found the passionate relationship her body and soul have long desired, but her new lover is only using her body to satisfy his own selfish means. When their sexual coupling becomes exposed to the entire town Evelyn's quest for love mutates into a fight to maintain her sanity and dignity as the world she has known her entire life comes crashing down.
In less than a year Vinegar Syndrome has amazed many by unearthing and restoring for DVD and Blu-ray movies so obscure they have virtually been forgotten by all but the most dedicated film buffs and exploitation appreciators. Their resurrection of Massage Parlor Murders (great transfer, mediocre flick) and Punk Vacation were impressive enough, but with the release of Good Luck Miss Wyckoff the company has shown their desire to do more than just give little-known B and C-movies a fresh high-definition coat of paint. Based on the 1970 novel of the same name by the celebrated American writer William Inge (Bus Stop, Picnic), Good Luck deals with the issues of repressed sexuality, small town bigotry, and interracial couplings in a very direct manner. The direction by Marvin J. Chomsky is strictly on the stylistic level of a made-for-television film, which is suitable given that Chomsky's background as a director is comprised mostly of TV projects like episodes of Star Trek and Gunsmoke and the groundbreaking miniseries Roots. The visuals of Good Luck are filmed with beautiful restraint by Alex Phillips Jr. (Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia), and there is a quiet artistry to the presentation of the inviting interiors of suburban homes and the trusting halls of the high school where Miss Wyckoff teaches, as well as the somewhat uncomfortable offices of the doctors she visits in search of a solution to the malady that completely upsets her orderly and chastised existence. The subtle art direction by James D. Bissell feels incredibly authentic and never once calls attention to itself. Bissell would later go on to work as one of Hollywood's best production designers on films like E.T., 300, and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol.
Working from a script by Polly Platt - best known as a production designer on her ex-husband Peter Bogdanovich's Targets and The Last Picture Show and later as a producer for James L. Brooks' Gracie Films - Chomsky spends the first half of Good Luck building up the character of Miss Wyckoff and planting the seeds for a possible positive outcome to her reticent sexuality, and then spends the second half tearing it all down. Once Rafe enters the teacher's life and starts to exert his brutal control over her mind and body what began as a subdued portrait of a intractable woman looking for love becomes an examination of race relations and society's hypocrisy when it comes to victims of rape that goes deeper than skin. British actress Anne Heywood (The Nun and the Devil) is put through the emotional wringer as Evelyn, but she manages to convey every sentiment with verisimilitude rather than histrionics; even when the story calls for her to dig deeper into Evelyn's shattered psyche Heywood's performance is very convincing in its naked vulnerability. She makes Evelyn such a wonderful human being from the moment we first meet her that every new experience she embraces - from pursuing a romance with Holliman's down-to-earth bus driver to passionately standing up for the right of the school's most recent addition to its teaching staff (J. Patrick McNamara, Close Encounters of the Third Kind) to instruct his students in better understanding Communism - is an exhilarating sensation we the audience can't help but feel as well.
The long-awaited release of Good Luck to Blu-ray and DVD feels timely since the events of the film that transpire in the third act recall the animosity towards women in America that has increased exponentially in the past year alone. The congressional and presidential elections of 2012 saw candidates from both major political parties dealing with the pressing issues of women's rights when it came to equal pay, fair treatment in the workplace, protection from sexual harassment, and reproductive health. We also witnessed a troubling escalation in "slut shaming", where women who are promiscuous are publicly denounced and humiliated by their peers when they are sexually assaulted. I've seen this even happen to young girls. It's one of the most disgusting examples of modern mob mentality in this country. The dangers of what tends to occur when a large group of supposedly free-thinking individuals allow fear, paranoia, racism, and an undeserved sense of superiority to replace logic and sympathy is one of the prevalent themes in Good Luck Miss Wyckoff. The people of the ironically-named town of Freedom are all too willing to take away another person's liberties due to their rigid interpretation of patriotism, and in the end it is Freedom's greatest defender of the American way who is shamed and practically run out of town for something she could never have helped. Even the people to whose defense Evelyn came turn their backs on her in her hour of need.
In addition to Heywood the cast of this film features many first-rate performances from actors who rarely surprise me as much as they did here. Robert Vaughn's blunt demeanor and cool line readings register well in his few scenes as Evelyn's doctor, while Donald Pleasance is surprisingly restrained as the psychiatrist Dr. Steiner. For an actor whose most well-known roles had him playing characters on the edge of madness, Pleasance really soars in the quieter moments when he tries to help Evelyn open up about past traumas that may have contributed to her current attitude toward sex. Earl Holliman plays such a friendly and big-hearted guy that you really hope he and Evelyn eventually get together, if only life really worked like it does in the silver screen fantasies of our youth. Doris Roberts (Everybody Loves Raymond), Ronee Blakley (Nashville), Dorothy Malone (Artists and Models), and Carolyn Jones (The Addams Family) in her final film role all play Evelyn's friends and fellow teachers and they each represent the more narrow-minded of Freedom's modest citizenry. Individually the actresses don't get much screen time to better develop their characters, but together they reminded me of the other inmates in The Shawshank Redemption: they add support to the main character and provide a running commentary on the events transpiring in Freedom, and that's all they can do. This is Evelyn's story, not theirs.
John Lafayette (The Following) isn't afforded much character development outside of being a sadistic sexual predator. Rafe is a cold-blooded, unrepentant bastard and that's exactly how the actor plays him. Giving the character much of a back story outside of the scant information provided by another student athlete would not have mattered because of the cruel and unspeakable acts he commits against Evelyn. R.G. Armstrong (Major Dundee) and Jocelyn Brando (The Big Heat) are both characteristically fine as the old married couple who rents out a room to Evelyn. Dana Elcar (MacGyver) gives the best performance of the supporting cast as the conflicted high school principal Mr. Havermeyer. He is empathetic towards Miss Wyckoff but he is also torn between doing what is in the best interest of the school and community, and Elcar registers that inner torment well without lapsing into overacting. Even if we can't exactly forgive or forget the actions he takes in the final scenes of the movie, at least we are able to understand them.
The original orchestral score by Ernest Gold (Exodus) swoons with the lush sounds of the Hollywood of old, but can occasionally go ballistic with cues that work too hard to convince us what to feel in certain scenes. When Evelyn begins to experience the menopausal symptoms Gold's music sounds like an over-the-top piece composed for the soundtrack of a horror movie. Beyond those rare missteps the score is poignant and melodic.
When it comes to Vinegar Syndrome's release slate - and this year they've put out some real doozies - the company's Blu-ray titles are usually of much higher quality than the ones that are resigned to DVD-only debuts. In a matter of months they've resurrected movies so obscure that even I've never heard of them and given them first-rate restorations using the best available film elements at their disposal. Even when things don't come out as well as we would want them to be V.S. has to be given huge credit for the effort they put forth in the first place. The work they did on their Massage Parlor Murders Blu is a achievement Robert A. Harris would have to hold in the highest regard.
For Good Luck Miss Wyckoff the company scanned an original 35mm camera negative of the uncut, 106-minute version of the film in 2k resolution. Since this version has never been released before on home video there are no previous releases to compare the quality of this transfer with. However, I highly doubt Good Luck will ever look as good as it does on this release. Framed in 1.85:1 widescreen the picture is a little soft and contains a significant amount of grain, but it mostly looks great. Print damage is barely noticeable outside of an occasional scratch and details are very clear without looking like the victim of excessive digital noise reduction.
The audio restoration does not fare as well. Vinegar Syndrome has provided the film with an English 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack that features much popping and crackling at times, dialogue that sounds like it was recorded in an abandoned subway tunnel, and an fluctuating volume level for the often overdramatic music score that requires manual adjustment lest you want both your television speakers and eardrums blown out. It's not a bad track per se; fortunately the dialogue scenes are relatively easy to hear and there is solid volume control for most of the film. I don't blame V.S. for doing the best they could with the elements they were given.
English subtitles are also included but they are riddled with grammatical inaccuracies and often misspelled character names. Whoever is doing the subtitling for Vinegar Syndrome needs to give the beer bong a rest before work.
In order to present the film in the highest quality possible the first disc of this set is a Blu-ray with only Good Luck and nothing else.
The second disc is a DVD with a standard-definition presentation of the film and some fascinating supplements. For starters the theatrical re-release version re-titled The Sin and cut down by nearly a half-hour is included here and restored from the best possible elements. This recut puts greater emphasis on Evelyn's twisted relationship with Rafe and moves up their initial encounter close to twenty minutes earlier than in the original cut, even though the pivotal rape sequence was cut out completely. Several other great scenes of integral character development were also tossed in the garbage. For years this version of the film was the only one made available on home video (under another alternate title, The Shaming), and Vinegar Syndrome's Blu-ray release represents the first time the full 106-minute cut has had a chance at reaching a wider audience since its original theatrical release. If you're an ardent admirer of Good Luck Miss Wyckoff then the sexed-up bastardization that is The Sin will only be of interest as a curio.
Vinegar Syndrome has also included a new video interview with actress Shirley Knight (7 minutes), who wasn't part of the Good Luck cast but had known and worked with author William Inge on several occasions. She discusses her interactions with Inge and the impact his works had on her acting career.
Theatrical trailers (5 minutes) and television spots (2 minutes) for both the original release of Good Luck and its reissue under the name The Sin and a brief slideshow of black & white stills from the film (1 minute) close out the bonus features.
The third and final disc is a CD containing the music score by Ernest Gold on seventeen tracks.
A disturbing and provocative drama that refuses to shy away from venturing into rough topical territory, Good Luck Miss Wyckoff is a wonderful adaptation of the Inge novel and a stirring testament to the indomitable human spirit. Anne Heywood's haunting performance was worthy of awards attention, so it's a shame that the movie that could have been her breakthrough in American film was reedited into incomprehensibility and then buried for decades. Thanks to Vinegar Syndrome's terrific Blu-ray/DVD set Heywood's acting - not to mention the film itself - will finally get the attention they have long deserved.