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04 August, 2014

Movie Review: The Legend of Lizzie Borden by S. J. Martiene

On a steamy August day in 1893, Fall River, Massachusetts earned its spot in the annals of unsolved mysteries when two of its citizens, Andrew and Abbey Borden were brutally murdered. The story has always intrigued me (as do many stories of this type). The Borden’s youngest daughter, Lizzie Andrew Borden, was convicted, tried, and found NOT GUILTY of the crime. The real killer was never found.
On February 10th, 1975, ABC aired THE LEGEND OF LIZZIE BORDEN as their Movie of the Week. I had just turned 14 and thereafter I could never forget Elizabeth Montgomery’s haunting performance, the wicked music score, and the fact that I would never, EVER want to eat mutton broth. The movie was in the exceptional, pure '70’s style and went on to win two Emmy Awards (Outstanding Achievements in Costume Design and Art Direction). Montgomery’s performance was nominated; however, she lost to Katharine Hepburn in LOVE AMONG THE RUINS. Despite Hepburn’s stalwart reputation, I still believe Montgomery should have won, particularly since it was such a stunning contrast to the role she was most famous for: Samantha Stevens, the bubbly good witch, in BEWITCHED (which ended its 8 year TV run in 1972).
The movie opens with the murder having already been committed. When Lizzie’s sister, Emma (played by SOAP’s Katherine Helmond), arrives home, she confronts Lizzie with a question, “Did you kill father?” A vacant-eyed Lizzie replies, “No, Emma, I did not.” Lizzie is quickly brought to trial, and the bulk of the movie is filled with the inquest, Lizzie’s imprisonment, and subsequent trial. One of the scenes that stayed with me since it first aired was the meal of rancid mutton and broth. Their housekeeper didn’t want to serve it, but Mr. Borden insisted. We get to see Mr. and Mrs. Borden eat away and grunt like pigs at the fly-ridden broth as Lizzie watches over in disgust. Watching the movie 37 years later does not lessen its foul-factor. YUCK!!
Right away, Lizzie is depicted as having some sociopathic tendencies, and loyal Emma remains at her side, even though she is a victim of Lizzie’s bullying. Emma brings Lizzie a beautiful hat (with ensemble) to wear at the trial and Lizzie goes off on her because she brought the wrong gloves. “Sometimes I actually believe you want to see me hang!” During an interview from a journalist (I DREAM OF JEANNIE’S Hayden Rourke) she portrays her father as a very generous and kind man, although they didn't even have the convenience of an inside bathroom.
The Borden home today, now a Bed-and-breakfast
Public sentiment is on Lizzie’s side, much to the chagrin of prosecuting attorney, Hosea Knowlton (Ed Flanders). “I guess it is to be expected. They haven’t had a good witch hunt in this area since Salem.” After much hub-bub, the trial gets started with testimony from Bridget Sullivan (the Borden housekeeper). She portrays the Borden home as a peaceful place to live and work, the flashbacks in Lizzie’s head beg to differ. Quarrels between Abbey, Andrew, and Lizzie were the norm. Accusations of theft, greed, miserliness, and physical threats abound as a matter of course. The trial continues into questions of the dress Lizzie was wearing and the amount of drugs that Lizzie was given. It has been said that all of the dialogue from the trial was taken from the actual court transcripts. I feel this lends to the movie’s authenticity. The contrast between the testimonies of witnesses and the “flashbacks” in Lizzie’s head are indeed some of the highlights. In the flashback during the questioning regarding the ax, Lizzie is at a general store, buys some poison, and shoplifts the ax. Another customer (played by TITANIC’s Gloria Stuart) brings it to the manager’s attention, but is told that “Old Man Borden always pays.” Evidently, Lizzie has a Five-Finger-Discount habit. The prosecution is frustrated when there is no sign of the victim’s blood or hair on the ax or on the dress Lizzie was wearing. As Lizzie thinks back, she remembers another time when Abbey Borden insisted the will be changed so she is not left penniless in the event of Andrew’s death. Lizzie is filled with rage.
At the Knowlton home, the trial is discussed and Hosea is not happy that Lizzie gets to hide behind her femininity to gain sympathy. Knowlton’s wife also begins to feel empathy for Lizzie, and recites one of the great lines from the movie. It simply illustrates how life was for women in the mid-1800’s.
You have no idea how unbearably heavy these skirts can be at times.” Even today, that line resonates.
Back to the trial, Emma takes the stand and Lizzie thinks back to her relationship with her father. We’ll just say it is creepy, to say the least. As the trial closes, Lizzie maintains her innocence and now it is time for the verdict. While we wait for the foreman, the “truth” is shown through Lizzie’s eyes. If you have never seen the movie, then I will not spoil it for you. Let’s just say for TV in the 1970’s, it was pretty bold and gruesome. The foreman proclaims her innocence and she goes to the Borden home where Emma is waiting. Once again, she asks (and for the last time), “Lizzie, did you kill father?” This time the viewer is left with no answer; only the chilling refrain of children singing the oft-heard Lizzie Borden rhyme. And yes, I had nightmares after I saw it.
There have been many movies, documentaries, books, and even songs written about Lizzie Borden. In 1961, The Chad Mitchell Trio released an album with the song, LIZZIE BORDEN, on it. You can listen to it here: Lizzie Borden . There were also radio shows of what happened in Fall River and one that re-imagines the story. The re-imagining, titled THE OLDER SISTER was featured on ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS.
Emma and Lizzie Borden died within 10 days of each other in 1927. Their story continues to fascinate me.

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