RUGGLES OF RED GAP (1935. Directed by Leo McCarey. MCA Home Video) - McCarey's reputation as a comedy master seems to be growing as the years go by, but this uneven farce doesn't make a very convincing argument in that direction. The early scenes are brilliant, as Marmaduke Ruggles, an elegant British valet, realizes that his employer has lost him in a poker game, and he'll be relocating from genteel England to the Wild West. The hilarity fades when the story moves to Red Gap and the screen fills up with exaggerated western-comedy stereotypes. Top honors go to Charles Laughton, an island of eloquent understatement, and to Roland Young, who deadpans Ruggles's first boss to perfection. Charlie Ruggles - the actor, no relation to the title character - doesn't quite wrestle his corny role into submission, although he's physically well-suited to the part of Marmaduke's new American employer. Also in the cast are Mary Boland, the inimitable Zazu Pitts, and Leila Hyams. UNDERWORLD U.S.A. (1961. Directed by Samuel Fuller. RCA/Columbia Pictures Home Video) - Throughout his career, Fuller's style has been primitive but undeniably powerful. In this tautly directed crime thriller he doesn't reach the heights of explosive, anything-goes excitement which mark ``Shock Corridor'' and ``The Naked Kiss,'' made later in the '60s; but he packs a lot of surprises into the screenplay, camera work, and editing. Cliff Robertson plays the hero, a cheap hoodlum who's obsessed with avenging his father's murder, and who systematically hunts down the gangland bosses he considers responsible. The activities of the villains represent the worst American vices, including the scourge of drug-peddling to children. Fuller seems equally disgusted by the weakness and corruption of law-enforcement agencies, however, which he sees as not all that dissimilar to the crime syndicate itself. He has always been a wholly original filmmaker, and this movie shows him in good form, if not at his imaginative peak.
THE CONNECTION (1961. Directed by Shirley Clarke. Mystic Fire Video) - This ferociously antidrug drama takes its cue from a celebrated Jack Gelber play as produced in New York by the Living Theatre, directed by Judith Malina and designed by Julian Beck, with the Freddie Redd Quartet performing a hard-driving jazz score. Clarke's film version is meant to have a kind of trompe l'oeil effect: Although it's fictional, we're supposed to see it as a home movie shot in a heroin addict's apartment, with the director and cameraman stepping into the action now and then. This conceit would work better if the ``filmmaker'' were played as a straightforward character instead of a culture-vulture caricature; but realistic acting was never a Living Theatre strong point, and this movie is most effective in other departments. The script is as assured as it is abrasive, and Clarke's visual style is masterly, moving through the drama's cramped setting with extraordinary expressiveness. Warren Finnerty plays the main character, a whining junkie named Leech, and Carl Lee gives the most memorable performance as Cowboy, the ``connection'' whose arrival is the story's pivotal moment.