The Legend of Lizzie Borden (TV Movie 1975) Retrospective

SUMMARY

The film, although based on fact, is a stylized retelling of the events of August 4, 1892 when the father and step-mother of New England spinster Lizzie Borden were found brutally murdered in their Fall River, Massachusetts home. Public interest in Borden and the murders is exacerbated by her aloof demeanor after the murders, and the public speculate about her involvement when she fails to express emotion at her father and stepmother’s funerals.

The subsequent incarceration of the prime suspect (Lizzie herself) as well as the coroner’s inquest and trial are largely faithfully depicted, using actual testimony. During the trial, various persons testify, including Bridget Sullivan, the Borden’s maid from Ireland who was the only other person in the home at the time of the murders.

In what may be seen as deviation from the film’s docudrama narrative, as Lizzie hears her verdict, flashbacks are shown of her actually committing the murders in the nude and bathing after each death, thus explaining why no blood was ever found on her or her clothes; however, it is left ambiguous whether Lizzie was actually reminiscing about the crimes or simply fantasizing how she herself would have disposed of her victims. In another deviation, after Lizzie’s acquittal, her sister Emma asks her point-blank if she killed their parents; Lizzie does not answer. The epilogue states that the killings of Andrew and Abby Borden remain unsolved.

DEVELOPMENT/ BEHIND THE SCENES

In the morning of August 4, 1892, a brutal and vicious crime occurred in Fall River, Massachusetts one destined to haunt the dark edges of our folklore and challenge our notions of justice. Lizzie Borden: The name will forever evoke images of butchered parents, blood-caked hatchets and raving mad spinsters. But before taking her place in the basement of American pop culture, Lizzie Borden held the nation spellbound during a two-week trial at the time, among the most widely covered and followed in U.S. history.

A judgment of “guilty” might have seemed obvious at the time, but the public was caught off-guard on June 20, 1893 when Borden was acquitted of all charges. Despite contradictory statements and mounting incriminating evidence, it was determined by an all-male jury that because no murder weapon was found and there was no blood evidence linking the  defendant to the crime, reasonable doubt must prevail. To this day, the case remains unsolved.

Eighty-two years later, the first movie about this landmark trial aired on Monday, February 10, 1975 on ABC. Directed by Paul (The Mephisto Waltz) Wendkos and written by William (Valley Of Gwangi) Bast, The Legend of Lizzie Borden garnered the attention of audiences and critics alike. But more shocking than its violence and “mature subject matter” was the casting of its title character. The actress chosen to portray this patricidal maniac was none other than America’s favorite sitcom sweetheart, Elizabeth Montgomery.

Even after dark, memorable turns in TV’s Thriller and The Twilight Zone, it was her eight-year run as Samantha Stephens, the lovable witch turned suburban housewife in ABC’s Bewitched, that had cemented her stardom and public image. While this not-so-obvious choice certainly raised a few eyebrows, it may have been perfect casting all along: In her book Finding Your Famous (& Infamous) Ancestors, author and genealogist Rhonda R. McClure reveals that Montgomery and Borden were actually sixth cousins once removed!

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The project began in the mind of director Curtis (Night Tide) Harrington, who was seeking a distinctive, attention-grabbing project to propel his career from underrated B-movie maverick to A-list filmmaker. “Curtis came to me with the idea of developing Lizzie Borden as a feature film, not merely for television,” Bast recalls. “We discussed the ideas in detail, and I wrote a two-hour treatment and gave it to my agent. Word of the project leaked out, however, and (director) Robert Mulligan quickly issued a release to the trades that his next project was to be about Lizzie Borden, which effectively killed off ours. Months later, the trades revealed that Mulligan’s project had not eventuated, at which point mine became viable again.”

But complications ensued, and decisions had to be made fast. “Paramount and ABC came to me to now make the project as a television movie,” Bast explains. “I agreed to this provided Curtis came along as director, which I don’t think they were particularly happy about. Finally they agreed, so I wrote a script they began to shop around. At this point, Curtis was offered a project by Doug Cramer a remake of Cat People, I believe that Curtis was anxious to do. He requested Paramount to allow this, but they cautioned him that if a star agreed to my Lizzie script, they would have no option but to go ahead without him. Curtis apparently thought this was a risk he could take.

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“When Elizabeth Montgomery accepted the role, Curtis requested that Cramer let him off Cat People, but by this time Paramount had signed Paul Wendkos to direct, and they remained intractable in their choice. Nothing I could say or do would alter their minds. Poor Curtis tried writing letters of protestation to Montgomery, and only succeeded in getting himself barred from the lot. This resulted in a long rift between Curtis and me, which was only repaired years later when we worked together again on The Colbys.”

One of the most sensational aspects of Bast’s screenplay is the suggestion of an incestuous relationship between Borden and her father Andrew. In providing proper motive for the killings. Bast paints Andrew (played impeccably by Fritz Weaver) as a sexually depraved mortician who, while embalming bodies in his basement, enjoys defiling them as well. This idea won approval from the players: “As actors, we were secretly thrilled by this idea of incest and necrophilia,” Weaver says, “and we used it every time we looked at each other. It was in our eyes. We loved the opportunity to explore something so deplorable and fascinating.”

In the first of two key flashback sequences exploring their morbid bond, 13-year-old Lizzie (played by Tracie Savage) presents her father with a birthday cake. She slides a ring off her finger, places it on his and leans down to kiss him — on the lips! — which then cuts to the adult Lizzie kissing her father’s corpse!

“As a child actress, there was nothing uncomfortable in that scene,” Savage says. “It was fairly straight forward. I’m not even sure I knew at the time that this was meant to show that their relationship was incestuous. The director never talked about that.”

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The second flashback is far more elaborate, and is probably the most disturbing in the entire movie. “I remember shooting it like it was yesterday,” Savage says. “I had to walk down into my father’s lab to discover him embalming a cadaver. There on the slab was a ‘dead body’ We did two versions — one with the body covered by a sheet, the second version with it nude. As I walk in. I’m supposed to be horrified. Instead of sending me away, my father encourages me to take a closer look. He grabs my hand and has me touch this cold, gray corpse. As my fear grows, I panic and pull my hand away, pulling with me the tube used to drain blood out of the body. The tube began spraying blood all over me. I screamed and screamed.

“The entire scene was incredibly creepy to shoot,” she continues. “The lighting was dark and gray. The room was dreary. The actress on the table really looked dead. And the idea that I was about to he sprayed with blood was just plain awful, especially for a 12-year-old. I’m not sure if I had nightmares after that but I should have!”

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After leaving the film business in the late ’80s, Savage pursued a career in broadcast journalism and found herself caught up in another infamous unsolved murder. “I find it extremely ironic that as a child I played the role of a future killer who became the defendant in the ‘Trial of the Century’ and then as an adult, 20 years later, I ended up not only reporting on this generation’s ‘Trial of the Century’ but being a participant as well. I was subpoenaed by the O.J. Simpson defense team and forced to testify on the witness stand. The defense was trying to prove there was a conspiracy against O.J., and was hoping I would reveal my sources. I would not.”

“There are many similarities in these two cases: They both involved horrific, bloody murders that were passion killings; the person responsible seemed obvious; no murder weapons were ever found; and both juries returned their verdicts after just a few hours of deliberations. What does this tell us about the criminal justice system? That it’s not perfect and certainly doesn’t always get it right!”

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In The Legend of Lizzie Borden, however, the verdict is trumped by a trip into the criminal’s twisted mind. In the last 10 minutes, we are presented with one final flashback: As “not guilty” is announced, a smirking, cunning Lizzie takes us back through those horrifying and violent moments on August 4, providing a detailed, step-by-step re-enactment of how she got away with murder. In Bast’s well-thought-through scenario, Lizzie locks the house’s doors while Bridget Sullivan, the maid (Fionnula Flanagan) , is outside washing windows, and her stepmother Abby (Helen Craig) is upstairs tending to a guest room. She then goes to her bedroom, strips naked and retrieves an ax from under her mattress. From there, she commits the murders before taking a bath and washing the evidence down the drain. This would explain why Borden didn’t have a drop of blood on her — and how her clothes remained so clean shortly after the discovery of the bodies.

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“For the European version, she actually did those scenes naked,” Weaver reveals. “Of course, the set was closed. None of us lechers were allowed to see it, but as she came into the dressing room in her robe afterward, I said, ‘I’m glad I didn’t see your nude scenes, Elizabeth, because I fall in love rather easily. She said, ‘You wouldn’t have fallen in love with me the way I looked,’ and we both laughed.”  This version also runs an extra 4 minutes, 104 minutes total versus the United States version of 100 minutes.

At the time of production, the Women’s Liberation Movement was in full swing, and trying to stay relevant. Bast gave his take on Borden’s story a strong feminist point of view. “I was not on a feminist bent,” he notes, “but I felt that feminism would have been in the air back then.” During the time of the trial, the mere idea of a woman of Lizzie’s reputation and stature committing such atrocious acts was unheard of. And yet the reason she did it, some believe, was because she was repressed and as the movie presents her abused. The subject is brought front and center during a lengthy conversation between the DA and his wife: When he accuses Lizzie of “hiding behind her skirts,” she simply replies, “You have no idea how unbearably heavy these skirts can be at times.” As Montgomery was an advocate for women’s rights and passionately involved in political activism, this aspect of the script was clearly a strong draw.

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And for those who doubted the scope of her acting abilities, the sitcom sweetheart boldly proved the naysayers wrong with her portrait of the icy cold, strangely complicated murderess. “She was perfect,” Bast says. “I don’t think anyone could have done better.” Savage agrees: “She was brilliant. Most people had only seen her as the lighthearted, adorable Samantha; Lizzie Borden was a serious role in a very intense drama, and she played it beautifully.”
But as serious as she was on screen, Montgomery always kept her sense of humor when the cameras weren’t rolling. “She had read somewhere that Lizzie was probably an epileptic, which was news to me,” Weaver recalls. “She then proceeded to demonstrate what it would be like for Lizzie Borden to ‘give her father 40 whacks’ while in an epileptic fit! She looked like a deranged woodpecker, and we were on the floor laughing!”

CONCLUSION

The film was a major hit for ABC, garnering four Emmy nominations (including one for Montgomery) and winning two (Outstanding Costume Design and Outstanding Film Editing) . It was also nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture Made for Television. “I couldn’t have been more pleased with the outcome, and still am,” says Bast, whose script nabbed him an Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Television Feature or Miniseries, “especially as it continues to be appreciated in certain quarters.”

Savage is also proud to have been part of The Legend: “It was very well-made, with a great cast and script. It was such an interesting, fascinating story to begin with, and the director did a terrific job capturing the creepy nature of this true story.”
CREDITS/REFERENCES/SOURCES/BIBLIOGRAPHY
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CAST

Elizabeth Montgomery as Lizzie Borden

Fionnula Flanagan as Bridget Sullivan

Ed Flanders as Hosea Knowlton

Katherine Helmond as Emma Borden

Don Porter as George Robinson

Fritz Weaver as Andrew Borden

Bonnie Bartlett as Sylvia Knowlton

John Beal as Dr. Bowen

Helen Craig as Abby Borden

Alan Hewitt as Mayor Coughlin

Gail Kobe as Alice Russell

Hayden Rorke as Julien Ralph

Amzie Strickland as Adelaide Churchill

Robert Symonds as Andrew Jennings

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