The Legend of Lizzie Borden (1975, TV-Movie)

The Legend of Lizzie Borden (1975, TV-Movie)Synopsis:

In 1892, a New England spinster, Lizzie Borden (Elizabeth Montgomery, TV’s Bewitched), is charged with murdering her father and stepmother. Lizzie claims to be innocent, but the local DA (Ed Flanders TV’s St. Elsewhere) is convinced of her guilt. The case goes to trial and the media has a field day with the details of the crime, while most of the town’s residents are unwilling to accept that a member of their community was responsible for such brutal murders.

Reaction & Thoughts:

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 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 too one-sided. I believe she was guilty so I enjoyed how the movie tries to solve the puzzle. Some things still don’t make sense to me, which is why the case has always intrigued me. I’m simply a big proponent of the occam’s razor — “the simplest solution is the best solution” — and I think compulsive theorizing can be detrimental to the truth.

The most interesting aspect of this movie 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? — 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 (Guns of the Magnificent Seven and The Mephisto Waltz) work is very stylish, using all sorts of gimmicks to enhance the narrative. Cameraman Robert B. Hauser does a good job capturing the atmosphere of a small New England town in the 1890s. Billy Goldenberg whips out a delightfully creepy music score.

However, Elizabeth Montgomery owns the movie — she’s simply superb. 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 Emmy-nominated, powerful characterization.

Montgomery is surrounded by a cast of excellent character actors. Katherine Helmond (Who’s the Boss) plays Lizzie’s kindhearted sister, Emma Borden. Fritz Weaver (Demon Seed) is Lizzie’s stern father. Fionnula Flanagan (The Others) is Lizzie’s housemaid, Bridget Sullivan. Gloria Stuart (Titanic) has a small role as a store customer.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

The Legend of Lizzie Borden is not a who-dunit, 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 think most of you will agree that this is a really good movie. Montgomery’s impressive, multi-layered performance is reason enough to sit through this entertaining movie. Color, 96 minutes, Not Rated.

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6 responses to “The Legend of Lizzie Borden (1975, TV-Movie)

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