DVD Round-up: Lifeboat, Island of Lost Souls and Ruggles of Red Gap

Alfred Hitchcock was always one for challenges. Whether he was attempting a series of long takes to suggest a single shot, as in 1948’s Rope, or making 1960’s Psycho with the crew of his TV show on a modest budget, Hitch wasn’t one for taking the easy option.

Lifeboat (1943) finds a cast of assorted characters, led by Connie Porter (Tallulah Bankhead) and Gus Smith (William Bendix), all at sea as their ship is sunk by a German U-boat in the North Atlantic and they’re left to drift towards an uncertain fate in the titular craft.

As the tiny vessel quickly fills with its motley crew, they drag on board a German sailor, Willy (Walter Slezak), who could be either be an innocent U-boat sailor or the captain whose decision it was to sink the ship.

The script, ostensibly by John Steinbeck’s but with input from various figures including Hitchcock’s wife Alma Reville, may be lean and its dialogue punchy but it’s the director’s inspired shooting technique that has drawn the most plaudits over the years.

Confined to the small boat that could be cut in half and moved to various positions, Hitchcock is forced to be creative with his angles. Constantly moving around the boat and into the cast’s faces, the tension mounts as the days pass and the doubts about who is responsible for what increase.

Bankhead is a force of nature as Porter, more interested in her camera than those around her, but it’s Slezak who steals the film from her. The audience is as much in the dark as the survivors for much of the picture, sympathies moving from one person to the next as their stories emerge.

This may be a lesser known Hitchcock, at least compared to the usual suspects which fill up the box sets, but it’s still as taught and compelling as his later work and a welcome arrival on Blu-ray.

This new DVD and Blu-ray from Masters of Cinema also comes with two short films made by Hitchcock in France during the Second World War, Bon Voyage (1944) Adventure Malgache (1944), along with a featurette on the making of the film and a clip of the famous Hitchcock/Truffaut interview.

The first of two new Charles Laughton releases from Masters of Cinema in May, 1932’s Island of Lost Souls is Universal’s take on HG Wells’ The Island of Dr Moreau, a film that was banned by the British Board of Film Classification on its release for being “against nature”. Gulp.

Souls finds us somewhere in the hot and steamy South Seas, where Edward Parker (Richard Arlen) is left in the capable hands of Dr Moreau (Laughton), a scientist with a penchant for vivisecting animals and trying to change them into humans.

Also on the island is the Panther Woman (Kathleen Burke), a poor creature who has spent some time under Moreau’s knife and ended up a glamorous half-woman who wants to get her teeth in Parker, so to speak.

This is a heady concoction that may not appear as nasty to modern audiences as it did back in the 1930s but which still causes the occasional flinch. Moreau’s experiments litter the island, men turned into strange abominations that cower in the bushes as Bela Lugosi’s “Sayer of the Law” tries to keep them in order.

Laughton is mesmerising as Moreau, his scientific curiosity now as mutated as his creatures as he plays God with anyone he comes into contact with. Combined with the atmospheric set design that works perfectly in black and white and you have a horror that stands up to repeated viewing along with its other classic Universal stablemates.

Looking stunning on Blu-ray, this dual format release includes new interviews with Laughton biographer Simon Callow and an informative video essay from critic Jonathan Rigsby, along with a fascinating booklet containing various essays. There’s also a smart limited edition steelbook edition of the set that is crying out for a place on your shelf.

The second Laughton escapade is thankfully on the lighter side, as he heads from the safety of Paris to the Wild West in Leon McCarey’s 1935 comedy, Ruggles of Red Gap.

When his employer, Lord Burnstead (Roland Young), gambles away his butler, Ruggles (Laughton), to a newly monied American couple, Egbert and Effie Floud (Charlie Ruggles and Mary Boland), the bemused manservant must adjust to a very different life.

While Egbert is happy for Ruggles to be one of the guys, Ruggles is disgusted at the concept, and through various unfortunate escapades he attracts Effie’s scorn as her husband is returned to her in states of inebriation.

Although the centred on the unfortunate Ruggles, who we follow as he adjusts to his new world, rolling his eyes as he goes, there’s still plenty of room for Boland’s Effie to make herself heard at every opportunity. Boland and Laughton make for a fine double act, as do Charlie Ruggles and Laughton, particularly towards the end as the butler decides his fate.

Watched in tandem with Island of Lost Souls, Ruggles of Red Gap is a welcome change of pace and an opportunity to appreciate the many sides of Charles Laughton. It’s also another welcome addition to the growing library of Leo McCarey titles making it to DVD and Blu-ray, a director with a major influence on the Golden Age of Hollywood.

This new dual format release looks good for its age, restored from the original negative. The set also includes radio plays featuring Ruggles and Laughton, a recording of Laughton’s Gettysburg Address from the film and an informative booklet.

Lifeboat is out now. Island of Lost Souls and Ruggles of Red Gap will be released on 28 May, 2012.

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