• Legend of Lizzie Borden, The

    Released by: Cinedigm
    Released on: October 7, 2014
    Director: Paul Wendkos
    Cast: Elizabeth Montgomery, Fionnula Flanagan, Ed Flanders, Katherine Helmond, Fritz Weaver
    Year: 1975
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    The Movie:

    After the discovery of her parents’ bloodied and brutalized bodies in their Fall River, Massachusetts home, Lizzie Andrew Borden is accused of their murders. She is incarcerated in a nearby Boston jail to await trial, where she either fantasizes or remembers details of her life, particularly her father’s eccentric and sometimes abusive behavior (as well as a necromantic interlude he may have had with the corpse of a young woman). Everyone assumes her guilt, given that she was the last person to see her father and stepmother alive and she stood to inherit part of their sizeable estate. Her public face doesn’t help her any, and to make matters worse, eyewitness testimony reveals just how frugal her father was, often denying his daughters anything other than their basic necessities, and how confrontational her stepmother was, often accusing Lizzie of being selfish and controlling. Testimony piles upon testimony, circumstantial evidence upon circumstantial evidence.

    Despite the conjectural flashbacks, The Legend of Lizzie Borden hews closely to the historical events, and much of the dialogue is taken directly from court transcripts. Though Borden was convicted in the court of public opinion (she retired to her home, never married, and was fairly reclusive in her later years), there is little evidence to suggest that she murdered anyone. The testimony mainly focused on character substantiation; that is, on what kind of person Borden was and what her relationship with her father and stepmother was like. Investigating officers in the case disliked her from the start, dubiously noting that she lacked poise and often seemed confused when talking about her parents. (Some of her bizarre statements may have been perpetuated by the fact that she had long been prescribed morphine and other drugs to help settle her nerves.) Perhaps it was for this reason that they quickly focused on her rather than investigating other tantalizing aspects of the case, among which was the fact that the Bordens, though rich, lived in a neighborhood close to Andrew Borden’s industries and in a part of town not known for its affluence. Another had eyewitnesses calling attention to a mysterious male figure who had been seen on the Borden property on the morning of the murders.

    The Legend of Lizzie Borden is a fairly atypical television docudrama from the 1970s. Playing on the borderline between horror and drama, director Paul Wendkos manages some striking stylistic touches. Set in the summers of 1892 and 1893, it has all the hallmarks of a Hammer Gothic transposed to the East Coast of the United States. Wendkos and screenwriter William Bast divide the story into segments, each one getting its own title: The Crime, The Accusation, The Ordeal, The Trial, The Betrayal, and so on. These segments all begin the same way, in sepia tone fading to color, giving the film a unique look among its contemporaries. Flashbacks are punctuated by hazy transitions or rapid-fire edits, making it all the more difficult to distinguish between what is real and what is fantasy. This was a smart move; on the surface, the film appears to convict Borden of her parents’ murders, something the court system steadfastly refused to do at the time. Yet, a closer examination reveals just how tenuous such a conclusion is. Given that these ‘flashbacks’ tend to occur following close shots of Lizzie’s face or eyes, they might just as well be fantasies. And certainly, Lizzie is presented as a flighty woman not quite in touch with reality. In addition, Wendkos manages some nasty touches, from the subtle insinuation that Andrew Borden was a necrophile (at least, in Lizzie’s mind) to Lizzie’s remembrance of accidentally ripping an embalming tube from the body of a corpse, resulting in spewing blood spattering her dress, face, and hands.

    The Legend of Lizzie Borden features more than its share of terrific performances. In supporting roles are Katherine Helmond, Fritz Weaver, and Fionnula Flanagan (who had a very similar role in The Others in 2001). But it’s Elizabeth Montgomery who really shines in the lead role of Lizzie Borden. Montgomery was the daughter of famous actor Robert Montgomery; she broke into acting through guest-starring roles in popular television series, including Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Twilight Zone, and Thriller, before landing the female lead in Bewitched. The show lasted eight years and 254 episodes before being canceled in 1972, making her name a household word. The Legend of Lizzie Borden showcases a dramatic departure for Montgomery, but she more than proved herself capable of meeting the challenge. Her Lizzie is wildly divergent, sometimes coming across as appropriately drug addled and crazy, at other times as cunning and deliberate. It’s the perfect performance, one that garnered her a Primetime Emmy Award nomination for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Special Program—Comedy or Drama. It wasn’t her first nomination, nor would it be her last. Unfortunately, after a fairly lengthy and successful career, in 1995 she died at the age of 63 from cancer.

    The film was released theatrically in Europe in a lengthier cut that contained more nudity—mostly involving Montgomery during the murder sequences—and gore. (The cut included here is the standard U.S. television version, though there is a brief shot of Montgomery’s bare breast and nipple at the 1:28:03 mark.) The entire affair certainly has a theatrical air about it. As Lizzie whacks her stepmother with an axe, the camera cuts to a mirror on the wall that distorts the image. It’s an astounding touch, one of many that separates the film from the usual television fare and places it in the realm of art cinema.


    Cinedigm offers The Legend of Lizzie Borden on standard definition DVD in its original full frame. But don’t be fooled; it obviously comes from a hi-def transfer, and it features more than its share of detail, so much so that, when upconverted, it looks better than some films in 1080p on BD (mostly those with low bit rates from nondescript transfers). This comes as a bit of a surprise, given a) the age of the film; b) that it was shot for television; and c) parts of it were shot in soft-focus. Blemishes and grain remain, but they only add to the dreamlike quality of Wendkos’s direction. Colors tend toward the brown and drab, and the transfer is extremely dark with deep, unforgiving blacks, giving the film the look of a David Fincher production, though not quite as in your face.

    Audio is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0, which is adequate. Clearly, the sound mix was never the film’s raison d’etre. There is a very slight layer of hiss in a few instances but nothing to worry about. Overall, the sound is clear and the dialogue strong.

    Unfortunately, there are no extras. Here is a film crying out for a documentary examining the real-life Lizzie Borden or a featurette on Montgomery’s successful career and interesting personal life. But let’s face it: most television films from the ‘70s aren’t the biggest sellers on DVD, and for studios, extras probably wouldn’t be worth the extra cost. The film does contain a chapter menu; the film is divided into 12 chapters, an appropriate number given its 96-minute running time.

    The Final Word:

    The Legend of Lizzie Borden is an excellent film that features a superb script from Bast, who won the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Allan Poe Award for it, and great direction from Wendkos. It’s fairly accurate and extremely stylish, with great performances from everyone involved, especially Montgomery, who received an Emmy nomination. The video quality is also superb and the sound quality decent. On the negative side, however, there are no extras.

    Note: A famous folk rhyme about the incident suggests that Lizzie’s stepmother was killed with 40 whacks from an axe, her father 41. In fact, the stepmother was struck 18 or 19 times, while the father was struck 11 times. The rhyme does, however, get the order of the murders correct as determined by pathologists at the time. The rhyme is as follows:

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