Thursday, January 19, 2017

Cult-TV Movie Review: The Legend of Lizzie Borden (1975)




Lizzie Borden took an axe. She gave her mother forty whacks. When she saw what she had done, she gave her father forty-one.”

-- Old jump rope song.

“The story you are about to see is based largely on fact. It is considered one of the most infamous and bizarre murder cases of the past century.”

--Title card, The Legend of Lizzie Borden (1975)


In Fall River, Massachusetts in August of 1892, a shocking murder occurs. The prime suspect is demure Sunday school teacher, Lizzie Borden (Elizabeth Montgomery) adult daughter of one victim, Andrew Borden (Fritz Weaver) and step-daughter of the other victim, Abby Borden (Helen Craig).

On initial interrogation at an inquest, Lizzie is unable to adequately explain the events of the day of the murder, and is held for trial. 

While in prison, however, Lizzie -- the so-called “sphinx of coldness” -- opens up emotionally to a reporter, and, thanks to the ensuing newspaper article, becomes a beloved celebrity. Some readers feel that she is an innocent woman, held wrongly, and the subject of a witch-hunt.

Others believe that Lizzie is a cold-blooded murderer.

Throughout the trial, Lizzie listens to and watches testimony about the crime, including that of expert witnesses, and the family maid, Bridget (Fionnula Flanagan). The prosecutor (Ed Flanders) is determined to see justice done, but after all the evidence is presented, Lizzie is found not guilty of the terrible crime.


“You’re special, and special people have always been misunderstood.”

The Legend of Lizzie Borden, based on a “true crime” story, is one of the most memorable TV-movies of the 1970s, for a few reasons.

First and foremost, the telefilm involves an endlessly fascinating subject: an unresolved murder case that became a national sensation. As recently as 2014, Lizzie Borden’s story was retold for modern audiences (Lizzie Borden Took an Ax).

And secondly, the film is buttressed by the surprising --  yet thoroughly committed -- central performance by Bewitched (1964-1972) star Elizabeth Montgomery (1933-1995) as the possible killer with ice water in her veins. 

Montgomery doesn’t showboat or over-act here, and there’s no trace at all of her Samantha Stephens persona.  Instead, Montgomery makes the most of a kind of inscrutable stone face -- and her penetrating eyes -- to leave audiences guessing about the truth.


Today, the telefilm might be judged an artistic success, as well, because of the ambiguous approach it adopts throughout. 

The Legend of Lizzie Borden follows, via sepia-tone title cards (the equivalent, essentially, of newspaper story headlines from Lizzie’s day), the progress of the criminal case. Section titles include “The Accusation,” “The Ordeal,” “The Trial,” “The Betrayal,” “The Trump Card,” and, finally, “The Verdict.”

In not one of these sections is the absolute truth ascertained, or revealed.

Early on, motives for the crimes are suggested. Was bad mutton broth the cause of some temporary insanity that affected the family, and especially Lizzie?  It's one possibility.

Some flashbacks also suggest an inappropriate relationship between Mr. Borden and Lizzie. Was he abusive to her, and was his brutal behavior the cause of Lizzie's retaliation?

And then, of course, there are other incidents brought up at trial, like the occasion in which Mr. Borden brutally murdered Lizzie’s pigeons. Also worthy of consideration is the fact that Lizzie’s stepmother, Abby, was, apparently, conniving to have Lizzie and her sister, Emma (Katherine Helmond) removed from their father’s will, essentially disinherited.


So far as Lizzie Borden’s guilt is concerned, in the telefilm provides no easy answer. And as she listens to and watches the witnesses in the court room, the film cuts to explicit imagery of how Lizzie could have committed the murders, and yet still had no blood stains on her clothes at the end of the day.  

Specifically, we see Lizzie stripping down nude, and committing bloody murder…twice. The criminal acts are filmed from cockeyed, exaggerated angles, which suggests how completely outside the norm they would be for someone in Lizzie’s shoes.  Also, it's worth noting that the corpses in the film are posed in positions very accurate to crime scene photographs of the murders. 

The question of ambiguity comes into play, however, more deeply in consideration of these "flashback" or "re-enactment" moments. Are we seeing what Lizzie did? Or are we seeing what Lizzie could have done, in the situation?  Are we witness to her her memories, or her fantasies?

I make that last point because it is noted in the film that Borden is “special,” and a “sphinx of coldness,” quite different from those around her. Is it possible that she possessed a dark side -- imagining such crimes -- but not a side so dark that she would commit murder?  The film’s approach allows us to consider both possibilities fully.

If Lizzie Borden did not commit these murders, then who did? 

What The Legend of Lizzie Borden does not do, one might note, is present any convincing alternate theory. Lizzie seems the only logical suspect.  I told my ten-year old son the story of the trial, and he immediately suggested that the murderer was Emma, Lizzie’s sister, who established an alibi of being out of town, in both the historical case and the film. Perhaps Lizzie was protecting her?  After all, Emma would have possessed at least one of the same motivations to kill as Lizzie did.

Of course, it’s all guess work. 

You can take a stab at puzzling it all out, but we are left, finally, with an acquittal and lots of questions. What the telefilm captures quite beautifully, I think, is the fickle nature of those “devouring” the Borden case as daily news, or recurring, soap opera gossip. One day Lizzie would be a cold-hearted villain hated by all. The next day she was a saint, and a national treasure. 

Clearly, one of those assessments was wrong.  

But which one?

You’ll get no answer from The Legend of Lizzie Borden, and that’s what makes this telefilm immortal. Lizzie could be America’s first celebrity sociopath, or simply a very private person caught up in a mess. Perhaps she was merely more assertive in her beliefs (and her defense of her prerogatives) than other women typically were at the time. But that doesn't make her a murderer. It makes her...ahead of her time. 

Montgomery’s performance walks a perfect line of strangeness in the telefilm, so that we can’t judge if Lizzie is simply weird for the time period (standing up for herself when wronged…an early feminist, perhaps), or strange in a way that made her dangerous and monstrous.

I'll be honest: before watching this TV-movie (for the first time in decades…) I had always blindly assumed Lizzie Borden’s guilt. The ubiquitous jump rope song about her doesn’t make any bones about her culpability, after all, right?

But after seeing the film again in 2017, I can’t help but second guess my first impulse. When Lizzie notes at the end of the film that she is free, "finally, really free," is she speaking of the end of the trial, or of the death of her parents? And even if she is speaking of the latter subject, does that make her a killer, or someone who just escaped an unpleasant home environment?

There is much to chew on here, in a 1970s TV-movie that actually lives up to the adjective “legendary.”

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