In 1892, a New England spinster, Lizzie Borden (Elizabeth Montgomery, TV’s Bewitched), is charged with axing her father and stepmother to death. Despite Lizzie’s claims of innocence, the local District Attorney (Ed Flanders, Tobe Hooper’s Salem’s Lot) is convinced of her guilt. The case goes to trial, but most people are unwilling to accept that a woman was responsible for such brutal murders.
Reaction & Thoughts:
“You’re a strange girl, Lizzie, one minute as hard and as cold as a grave…”
A surprisingly absorbing reenactment of one of America’s most notorious murder cases. Did Lizzie Borden kill her father and stepmother? The Legend of Lizzie Borden operates from the premise that she was indeed guilty of the crime she was accused of committing. William Bast’s teleplay tries to fill in the gaps, speculating how she might have pulled off this horrendous crime. It’s not all speculation, though.
The Legend of Lizzie Borden stays pretty close to the facts, only adding things that we can’t possibly know for sure. Lizzie’s advocates will probably find the movie hard to digest — this dramatization is definitely too one-sided. But since I do believe she was guilty, I enjoyed how the movie tried to solve the puzzle. Some things still don’t make sense to me, which is why the case has always intrigued me.
The most interesting aspect of The Legend of Lizzie Borden is the way in which it suggests that gender bias worked in Lizzie’s favor. According to the film, few people believed that a woman could commit such a heinous crime — a rare case of gross misogyny helping a woman. Interestingly, sexism is also used to explain Lizzie’s motives; an unmarried woman in the late 1800s had very few options in life. Is patriarchy to blame for the tragedy? It’s a provocative idea to say the least.
Putting aside the question of whether Lizzie was guilty or not, The Legend of Lizzie Borden is a well-crafted TV movie. Director Paul Wendkos’s (The Mephisto Waltz) work is very stylish, using all sorts of gimmicks to enhance the narrative. Cameraman Robert B. Hauser did a good job capturing the atmosphere of a small New England town in 1890s. Billy Goldenberg whips out a delightfully creepy music score.
However, Elizabeth Montgomery owns the movie — she’s simply superb in a rather complex role! Montgomery gives a canny performance as a woman who is quirky, cagey, and clever in equal doses. I’m a huge fan of Montgomery’s Bewitched and I was pleasantly surprised that there wasn’t a single trace of the famous nose-twitching suburban witch in her powerful, Emmy-nominated characterization.
Montgomery is surrounded by a cast of excellent character actors. Ed Flanders has some good moments as the relentless D.A. Katherine Helmond (TV’s Who’s the Boss) is great as Lizzie’s kindhearted sister, Emma Borden — Helmond has one great scene near the end of the film. Fritz Weaver (Creepshow) is Lizzie’s stern father. Fionnula Flanagan (The Others) is Lizzie’s housemaid, Bridget Sullivan. Look for Gloria Stuart (James Cameron’s Titanic) who has a small role as a store customer.
Conclusions & Final Thoughts:
The Legend of Lizzie Borden is not a whodunit, but a how-she-dunit. The film features one of many theories that have circulated for decades. Whether you agree or disagree with the movie’s point of view, I’m confident that most viewers will agree with me that this is a compelling production, one of the best TV movies of the era. Elizabeth Montgomery’s impressive, multi-layered performance is reason enough to sit through this entertaining movie. Highly recommended! Color, 96 minutes, Not Rated.