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.
Taken by itself, That Hamilton Woman isn't really all that interesting. Directed by Alexander Korda, it's sometimes gorgeous and beautifully ornate, but very often stiff and dull -- especially in the scenes relating to the war. It was partly made to rouse American and British audiences to support WWII, and in that regard it has dated badly. But the movie has an odd cult appeal that has endured. Apparently Winston Churchill saw the movie over 80 times, which makes sense, given its political motivation (but also because Churchill may have written some of the film's speeches). Film critic Andrew Sarris also claimed to have seen it at least that many times. The reason for this is less obvious, and it requires the knowledge that, in playing the adulterous couple onscreen, Leigh and Olivier were actually engaging in adultery in real life. They were both married when they met in 1937, and they were at the height of their passion when they filmed this. So not only does Leigh look outrageously beautiful, but she seems to be radiating adoration and desire through her eyes, voice and movements, perfectly received and matched by Olivier. Their scenes together, which make up only a fraction of the entire movie, are unlike anything else ever filmed.
As for the cop, Mantegna plays him, and he goes by the name of Bobby Gold, in David Mamet's third feature film Homicide (1991). A detective -- and a hostage negotiator -- of less than good standing, he sees a way to re-affirm himself by arresting and bringing in a controversial bad guy that the FBI has failed to nab. But on the way, he runs into a murder scene at a tough neighborhood corner store; an old Jewish lady has been killed. He winds up assigned to that case, at the request of the lady's powerful family, rather than his original, star-making case. He resents this treatment, just as -- we discover -- he resents his own Jewish heritage. But as the case unfolds, he finds himself getting deeper into a mystery, and re-discovering himself in the process. But this is Mamet, and so we're not exactly talking about happily-ever-after here. William H. Macy plays Bobby's partner, who doesn't quite understand Bobby's new obsession.
When Mamet's films were new, they seemed like nothing else around, but now that he has directed ten of them, a pattern has begun to form. Mamet's dialogue is tough and gritty, but it's also artificial and deliberately rhythmic, and so it doesn't always work in strictly realistic situations. In this same vein, as most of the individual lines work, so do most of the individual scenes, but the larger story arc seems stretched, and the entire film can seem airless. Standing back and looking with perspective, Bobby makes a huge leap in a relatively short amount of time, and in a realistic, streetwise movie, it doesn't quite click. But I still like the movie for the way it immerses itself in each moment, and for the intense way it moves and sounds.
The Homicide DVD comes with a strong commentary track by Mamet and Macy, a great, short gag reel and interviews with some of Mamet's regular actors. The liner notes include an essay by Stuart Klawans. That Hamilton Woman comes in a luminous, black-and-white transfer with a commentary track by Ian Christie. (He's arguably the driest of Criterion's regular commentators; why not one by Andrew Sarris?). There's a video interview with Korda's nephew, a trailer and a promo radio piece. Critic Molly Haskell -- Sarris' wife -- provides the liner notes. As of now, neither title has been released on Blu-Ray.
Criterion also recently announced four new titles for November: Michael Ritchie's Downhill Racer (1969), Arnaud Desplechin's great A Christmas Tale (2008), Matteo Garrone's Gomorrah (2008) and the 3-disc set The Golden Age of Television, with eight live television productions of the 1950s. (Gomorrah will also be available on Blu-Ray.)