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Richard C. Sarafian
Elizabeth Montgomery stars as Lizzie Borden, a 19th-century Massachusetts woman, who is put on trial for the brutal slaughter of her father and step-mother in the family mansion. She is accused of hacking up her parents with an ax after carefully removing her clothes to avoid bloodstains. Based on fact and considered shocking at the time for a TV-movie. Written by
A good reconstruction, despite some sensationalism
I was interested to read the comments of US reviewers of this title, praising its period accuracy and attention to detail. In the UK we tend to take these 'costume dramas' for granted. Considering it was made in the mid-70's, however, the film still looks good and some of the principals look strikingly like their real-life counterparts (especially Ed Flanders as Hosea Knowlton). Only Lizzie's uncle John V Morse, who stayed in the Borden home on the night before the murders, is missing.
As you can probably tell by now I have quite an interest in the Borden case. I saw 'Legend of Lizzie Borden' when it was first broadcast and after 30 years I still think it offers as fair a reconstruction of the crimes and the trial as you can expect in 90 minutes.
The jarring notes are hints of Andrew being some sort of mild necrophiliac and having an incestuous or near-incestuous relationship with Lizzie. I don't believe there is any real evidence for either of these allegations. Much is made of the fact that Andrew wore a ring Lizzie had given him as a schoolgirl. In fact, at the trial, the undertaker Mr Winward could not remember if there was a ring on Andrew's body or not. This was rather embarrassing for the defence but didn't stop George Robinson making a big point of it during his closing address. (Much of the dialogue in the inquest and trial scenes is taken from the record).
It is probably more true to say that Lizzie desperately wanted Andrew to show his love for her. Instead, he killed her pigeons.
There are only two real flights of fancy: Lizzie stealing the axe from a store (she had no need to and, let's face it, it's a bit obvious); and the testimony at the trial that she tried to buy prussic acid the day before the murders. This is true, she did, but the evidence was *excluded* from the trial by Judge Dewey because the prosecution couldn't prove that Lizzie only wanted the poison for a criminal purpose. Wonderful thing, the law.
Much more revealing is the sense of Lizzie feeling stifled in a mean provincial household when she dreams of a life of travel, fashion and excitement. In the scenes of confrontation between the inhabitants of 92 Second Street, you get a real sense of the tensions that were building up in that confined space, a confinement that was spiritual as well as physical.
I once read a review which said Elizabeth Montgomery portrayed Lizzie as a "wide-eyed zombie". That can be dismissed as rubbish. This is a performance of tremendous scope, showing a Lizzie who was stubborn, vain, calculating, callous and yet strangely vulnerable (you can't help but pity her as she sobs over her slaughtered pigeons). She was a fascinatingly complex woman and this is as good a piece of acting as you will find anywhere.
In 1975 I remember the reconstruction of the murders being described as "overlong and bloody". How times change. I am sure these days they could be far more graphic and true to the brutal nature of the actual killings. Again the film is tempted to go too far by having Lizzie (or more properly Elizabeth Montgomery) strip off before committing murder. This could be one reason why there was no blood on Lizzie's person immediately after the crimes, but the pathologist at the trial stated that if the murderer stood astride Abby Borden, and the first blow that struck Andrew hit a major artery (killing him instantly and releasing blood pressure), there would be very little blood splattering around.
I have waited, and waited, and waited, for UK TV to show this film again. I recently managed to purchase a rare video copy. I am pleased to see that my memory didn't play me false. This is a superb production, a credit to its makers, excellently cast and performed which deserves to be shown again and given a much wider commercial video/DVD release.
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