Directed by Paul Wendkos
Written by William Bast
Cinematography: Robert B. Hauser
Film Editor: John A. Martinelli
Cast: Elizabeth Montgomery (Lizzie Borden), Fionnula Flanagan (Bridget Sullivan), Ed Flanders (Hosea Knowlton), Katherine Helmond (Emma Borden), Don Porter (George Robinson), Fritz Weaver (Andrew Borden)
The 70s were a Golden Age for TV movies. Duel (1971). Brian’s Song (1971). The Night Stalker (1972). Evil Roy Slade (1972). The Autobiography Of Miss Jane Pittman (1974). You could even add Killdozer (1974) to the list, which I loved as a kid.
One that had a huge impact on me — and on the countless kids like me who begged their parents to stay up late on a Monday night, is The Legend Of Lizzie Borden. ABC premiered it on February 10, 1975, and I’ve only seen it once more (on the late show) since that night.
Of course, most of us sitting in front of the TV knew a bit of the Lizzie Borden story — a spinster tried and acquitted for the 1892 hatchet murders of her father and stepmother — and we were waiting for Lizzie to pick up the axe, or hatchet, and get to work. What’s ingenious about William Bast’s script is that he dances all around the actual crime until the end, and by that time the anticipation is incredible. Paul Wendkos’ direction, Robert Hauser’s camerawork (so many odd angles and weird lenses) and John A. Martinelli’s editing come together to create a real sense of claustrophobia, dysfunction and unease. What’s more, we’d never seen such bloodletting on television.
But even though everyone brought their A game, The Legend Of Lizzie Borden belongs to Elizabeth Montgomery, who’s riveting and sublimely weird as the hatchet-wielding spinster. She always seems to be only half there — with the other half off in some weird, dark place. (It turned out that Montgomery and Borden were distant cousins.) Following Bewitched, Montgomery made a string of TV movies that really showed what she was capable of. One terrific performance after another. And that’s certainly what she turned in for Lizzie Borden, and it landed her an Emmy nomination. (By the way, Montgomery kept the prop hatchet and delighted in her new nickname, Lizzie.)
I’ve been pining for The Legend Of Lizzie Borden on DVD since the format was introduced. And with it on the way, I wondered how well it’d hold up. There was no need to worry. It’s still disturbing, and it’s easy to see why it made such a huge impression on me 40 years ago. It’s wonderfully creepy, fairly accurate and incredibly well made. Not only that, but it looks excellent on DVD from New Video Group. Highly, highly recommended.