Air Date: Feb. 10, 1975 (ABC)
Production Companies: George LeMaire Productions, Paramount Television
Running Time: 96 min.
Available on: Amazon Prime
Written by: William Bast
Directed by: Paul Wendkos
Cast: Elizabeth Montgomery, Fionnula Flanagan, Ed Flanders, Katherine Helmond, Don Porter, Fritz Weaver
Rating: 8 vintage televisions (out of 10)
Growing up, I must have had a thing for axes. The “Frozen Fear” segment of Asylum (1972) is something I’ll never forget watching at the theater for the first time, and The Legend of Lizzie Borden (1975) was a much talked about television movie on the playground at school. The latter is the “true” story of a gruesome unsolved murder and, while it’s been told in subsequent film and TV versions over the years, the original remains the best to this day. It's a terrific demonstration of how such a grisly tale can be told so effectively within the confines of the medium.
Watching it recently, it holds up incredibly well. A little longer than most of the films in this series (it would have fit a two-hour timeslot instead of 90 minutes), it held my attention as its actual 96 minutes passed quickly. It may help that it’s compartmentalized into a series of “chapters,” each one beginning after a commercial break. After a brief introduction, in which a nosy neighbor knocks on the door and Lizzie (Elizabeth Montgomery) says, “Oh do come in; someone has killed father,” we start a section called, “The Crime.”
During a section called, “The Accusation,” Lizzie is found “probably guilty” by a coroner’s inquest and is held in prison pending trial. Never mind that she was the only person seen in or around the house when her stepmother, Abby (Helen Craig), and her father, Andrew (Fritz Weaver) are hacked to death, it’s the fact that she shows no emotion following the horrifying events that threatens to convict her. In the next chapter, “The Ordeal,” she adjusts to life in prison for the 10 months it takes for her case to go to court.
The rest of the film takes place during her trial, with chapters called, “The Trial”, “The Betrayal”, “The Trump Card”, and the climactic, “The Verdict.” The people and the press love Lizzie, much to the frustration of the district attorney, Hosea Knowlton (Ed Flanders.) Very lightly sprinkled into the story are mentions of the women’s movement. At dinner one evening, Knowlton’s wife, Sylvia (Bonnie Bartlett) tells him that men have themselves to blame for women hiding behind their skirts; they’ve cast them in their roles. He replies, “Next, you’ll be asking for the vote!”
That’s one of the questions early on: is a woman capable of such a brutal crime? I don’t know if the trauma has caused Lizzie to repress her memories, but they come back to her in flashbacks during the trial. The final chapter depicts how Lizzie may have killed her parents, if she had indeed done it, regardless of the verdict. Montgomery plays her icy cold and addresses concerns about wearing her heart on her sleeve by saying, “They say I don’t cry; they should see me when I’m alone.” (We see Lizzie when she’s alone. She doesn’t cry then, either.)
It's hinted repeatedly that her father may have abused her; however, it never digs too deeply into the subject. In one flashback, Andrew is surprised that Lizzie has acted out by stealing from him, “I don’t understand. We were always close… especially close.” Indeed, at all ages, the two are frequent lip-kissers. He started his career as a mortician, and she watches through the window as he inappropriately touches the body of a dead woman that he later tells his daughter is beautiful.
There’s a lot here in what could be a simple courtroom drama. There’s a great script by William Bast (The Valley of Gwangi), great direction by Paul Wendkos (The Mephisto Waltz), great music by Billy Goldenberg (Duel.) All, of course, are also TV veterans with hundreds of credits among them. The great acting goes without mentioning (although I just mentioned it.) The Legend of Lizzie Borden is a solid TV movie even though our perception might be fueled by a primal fascination with true crime, especially those that have never been solved.
Visit the TV Terror Guide: 70's TV Movies playlist at ClassicHorrors.Club TV on YouTube to watch The Legend of Lizzie Borden as well as all the great movies from this series...