By Alan Hurst
It’s hard to overstate the impact of TV films of the 1970’s. All the major networks had multiple “Movie of the Week” nights and there were also special event movies that usually featured more prestigious casts and bigger budgets. It was also the decade that saw the birth of the “Miniseries” – essentially multi-part TV movies. These productions garnered millions of viewers on a single night – something that can’t happen anymore with the proliferation of networks, cable and viewing platforms. These were films that were watched at 8 p.m. on a Tuesday night and then the subject of water cooler conversation on Wednesday morning.
Considering there were just three major networks, there was a lot of product and it ran the gamut from bad to routine to excellent to truly ground-breaking. For the latter I’m thinking specifically of productions like Steven Spielberg’s tense Duel (1971), the moving Brian’s Song (1971), Elizabeth Montgomery’s shattering performance in A Case of Rape (1974), Cicely Tyson’s stunning work in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1974), Katharine Hepburn and Laurence Olivier’s delightful sparring in Love Among the Ruins (1975), Jane Alexander and Edward Herrman in the definitive Roosevelt biography Eleanor and Franklin (1976), and Sally Field’s tour de force in Sybil (1976). But there are literally dozens of others.
The boon of these TV films gave new filmmakers and writers some terrific opportunities to hone their skills and it gave actors and actresses closely associated with their characters in weekly sitcoms or dramas a chance to really show what they were capable of. Performers like Carol Burnett, Dick Van Dyke, Richard Chamberlain, Mary Tyler Moore, and Angie Dickinson got some terrific opportunities beyond the confines of their weekly series roles. But there is one that stands out for me and it’s The Legend of Lizzie Borden (1975), now acknowledged by some as the definitive exploration of the two real-life murders in 1892 Fall River, Massachusetts and probably the best thing that Elizabeth Montgomery ever did. And it’s a great one to pull out as Halloween approaches – the setting, subject matter, and the crime are built for Halloween.
The film opens on a hot August day on a street with a maid scurrying from neighbour to neighbour looking for a doctor. We then go to another woman who approaches tentatively as Lizzie Borden (Montgomery) stands behind a screen door stating in a matter of fact way that someone has killed father. Upon discovery of the body, the film dissolves to an eerie and evocatively vintage score and period sketches behind the credits. And we’re hooked.
The film is a mixture of fact and conjecture in telling the story of Lizzie Borden, a spinster accused of killing both her father and stepmother with an ax. Borden was ultimately acquitted, but very few ever believed she wasn’t responsible for the double murder. The film takes the point of view that Lizzie did commit the murders – even showing us how. But it also does a very good job of showing the stifling and confining life that women experienced in that era, particularly unmarried women, floating the idea that murder may have been a viable solution to breaking free.
What I found riveting back in 1975 and what I think still works today are two key things: Montgomery’s performance and the fact that director Paul Wendkos and his creative team get the mood just right. The film is presented as a series of chapters (i.e. “The Crime”, “The Verdict”) that take you from the day of the murders through to the end of the trial. Inter-cut are backstories that highlight Lizzie’s (and her sister’s) frustration with their puritanical father, abusive stepmother and dim prospects for a future. The house feels like a prison with no modern conveniences (even though this family had money and could afford them). It’s a dismal place, adding to the Gothic feeling that permeates everything. Adding to the claustrophobic feel are the costumes the women are wearing – dark colors, heavy fabric, long skirts in suffocating August heat.
The director and writer also do a very good job of setting Lizzie up as both victim and villain. You can feel her frustration at every injustice, but you can also see that Lizzie is demanding, quirky and with a hair-trigger temper that shows hints of violence. It’s a very rich part and Montgomery gets everything she can out of it. Much prettier than the real-life Lizzie, Montgomery uses that as she lightly flirts her way through the trial, but you can still see the character’s hardness beneath the eyes. With Montgomery, you get the sense that Lizzie isn’t quite right and it’s both off-putting yet perfect for the character. You must believe that Lizzie is capable of the crime – even if you aren’t sure she did it. Montgomery also uses a halting, flat delivery throughout which adds to the uncertainty of the character and her motivations. It’s a very smart performance.
At the time, Montgomery was best known for her eight-year run on the comedy Bewitched (1964-72), a gimmicky but fun exploration of marriage where the wife is a pretty witch who tries to suppress her powers to keep her mortal husband happy. Montgomery was delightful as Samantha, getting five Emmy nominations for her work, but the show probably ran about two seasons too long and she was anxious to move on to other things when it finally ended in the spring of 1972. Her first project was a run-of-the-mill suspense drama – The Victim (1972). Up next was a raw, nuanced performance in the controversial A Case of Rape (1974) which was a graphic exploration of the hell that a rape victim goes through in the courts (unfortunately it’s just as relevant today). She was Emmy nominated for that, and again the following year for her work as Lizzie Borden (she should have won).
The Legend of Lizzie Borden has other good performances in addition to Montgomery’s. Katherine Helmond (Soap) is very good as her wary sister, Finoula Flannigan as the all-knowing maid, and Ed Flanders as the prosecuting lawyer. The film itself was nominated for four Emmys, winning for its costumes and film editing.
Thankfully – after years of rarely being seen – The Legend of Lizzie Borden was released on DVD a few years ago so you can see it intact and commercial free. A nice treat each Halloween.
Hooked from a first viewing of Mary Poppins at four and after school reruns of I Love Lucy, Alan has been a movie and TV enthusiast ever since. A particular aficionado of films from the late thirties through the seventies, he enjoys helping others discover the joys of those films, directors and stars. His career has careened from journalism to public relations to marketing, always with one foot in the arts and with a unique ability to relate all work and life experiences back to a movie. Alan’s top five desert island films are Bonnie and Clyde, Sunset Boulevard, Cabaret, Mildred Pierce and, with no apologies, Mary Poppins. Alan’s focus will be on films from Hollywood’s first golden era (and a little beyond) as well as TV.