The Criterion Collection releases two new DVDs today, two movies with nothing much in common. They were originally released in theaters almost exactly fifty years apart, in 1941 and 1991. One is an elegant, period romance set during the Napoleonic Wars, and the other is a gritty, modern-day urban cop story. The only thing I can think that makes them kindred spirits is their endings. I can see the two heroes, played by Vivien Leigh in the former and Joe Mantegna in the latter, sitting together at the end of their tales. They're both staring off into space, thinking about what an odd hand life has dealt them, thinking about what lies ahead, if anything. The cop looks over at the lady. "What's your story?" he asks. She might respond, "I used to be somebody." And he might retort, in a New York accent, "Tell me about it."
And maybe she would. Lady Hamilton would tell her heartbreaking story, as seen in That Hamilton Woman (1941), starting life as a lower class nothing on the grim streets of London, but meeting the son of an ambassador and looking forward to the good life. But she discovers that the son is deeply in debt and has "given" her to his father, Sir William Hamilton (Alan Mowbray), a collector of beautiful things. They marry and she becomes "Lady Hamilton," and she begins to enjoy her social life, until a weary soldier, Lord Horatio Nelson (Laurence Olivier) happens into her palatial home, asking for aid in the war against Napoleon. Her husband hems and haws, but Lady Hamilton uses her friendship with the Queen to get Lord Nelson what he needs without delay. From there, the married Lord Nelson and the married Lady Hamilton slowly form a passionate, centuries-spanning, heartbreaking illicit romance. A romance to end all romances.