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Film / The Legend of Lizzie Borden

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The Legend of Lizzie Borden is a 1975 Made-for-TV Movie directed by Paul Wendkos and starring Elizabeth Montgomery (in a big Playing Against Type role, just a few years after the end of her wholesome sitcom Bewitched). If there's a definitive screen version of the Lizzie Borden story, it's probably this one. It's certainly the one that subsequent versions are copying.

The peace of quiet Fall River, Massachusetts is shattered on August 4, 1892, when a panicked maid runs out from the home of wealthy banker Andrew Borden. A next door neighbor arrives and finds Borden dead, having been gruesomely murdered with a hatchet. People at the scene are still reeling from the shock of this when the bloodied corpse of Andrew Borden’s wife Abby is discovered upstairs, also killed with a hatchet.

Suspicion soon focuses on Lizzie (Montogomery), Andrew's daughter and Abby's stepdaughter, who was one of only two other people in the house at the time, the other being Bridget the maid. Lizzie is oddly calm and undisturbed, and details of her story don't match up. Soon, she is on trial for murder. But could a prim, well-bred, upper-class young woman really have taken a hatchet and chopped her parents to death?

The Legend of Lizzie Borden originally aired on ABC on February 10, 1975. Fionnula Flanagan plays Bridget, the Bordens' Irish maid. Katherine Helmond plays Lizzie's older sister Emma, who's got an ironclad alibi (being out of town). Gloria Stuart of future Titanic fame has a small role as a customer in a shop.

This film provides examples of:

  • Adapted Out: John Morse, Lizzie and Emma’s maternal uncle who was visiting the Bordens at the time of the murders and was one of the early suspects, is omitted entirely in this dramatization. This is rather significant, since his staying in the guest bedroom the night before is what prompted Abby to clean the room that morning.
  • Ambiguous Situation: There are some slight implications through flashbacks that Andrew was molesting Lizzie, but the film never outright states it.
  • Asshole Victim: How the film portrays Andrew Borden and, to a lesser extent, his wife Abby. They are mean and nasty people, and it's heavily implied that Andrew molested his daughter and may have continued a sexual relationship with Lizzie into her adulthood.
  • Backfire on the Witness Stand: Hosea's case is already not going that well what with Lizzie's extremely incriminating testimony at the inquest having been ruled inadmissible. But things get worse when Hosea rushes an expert witness on the stand without vetting him, and the expert proceeds to testify that what minor bloodstains were found on Lizzie's clothes were "menstrual blood". Lizzie's acquittal follows soon after.
  • Blood Is the New Black: Due to Lizzie taking her clothes off beforehand and how brutally she hacked up her parents, she is covered in their blood head to toe.
  • Bookends: Early in the film, when Emma came back home the day of the murders, she asks Lizzie "Did you kill Father?", and Lizzie denies it. At the end (the last line, in fact), Emma asks again, and this time Lizzie doesn't answer.
  • Broken Bird: Poor Emma. Her father and stepmother have been brutally bludgeoned to death in their own home, her family name has been dragged through the mud, and now she and Lizzie must live as virtual outcasts while she is forever burdened by suspicion that her little sister is a cold-blooded murderess.
  • Call-Back: As her asshole father is in the barn killing her pet pigeons, Lizzie takes some comfort in seeing one manage to fly away. At the end, after leaving the courthouse after her acquittal, Lizzie sees a pigeon fly away and smiles, knowing she has gotten away with a double murder.
  • Censor Shadow: When Lizzie undresses to kill her stepmother, she's covered with shadow when she reaches under her bed to grab the hatchet.
  • Crazy-Prepared: A fictionalized flashback shows all the extensive preparations Lizzie made before murdering Andrew and Abby.
  • Creepy Children Singing: They deliver the "Lizzie Borden took an axe" rhyme at the end. You had to know they'd fit it in there somewhere.
  • Dead-Hand Shot: There's a closeup of Andrew's hand flopping down after Lizzie chops him up.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance:
    • We briefly see a sign reading "Irish Keep Out" in a store window.
    • In one scene, Hosea's wife starts getting a bit feminist, and he replies, "I've never heard you talk like this. Next you'll be asking for the vote."
  • Description Cut: Bridget assures the court that she never saw any quarrelling in the Borden household. Flashback to Bridget witnessing a heated argument between Lizzie and her parents. Later, Alice Russell says that Lizzie didn't know who killed her pigeons, which is immediately followed by a flashback in which Lizzie sees her father doing the deed.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: Is a family quarrel really a good enough reason to murder your daughter's pets?
  • Dutch Angle: The camera tilts wildly, increasing tension, at the beginning of the long flashback showing Lizzie committing the murders.
  • Establishing Character Moment:
    • In a flashback, Andrew Borden comes downstairs. Bridget the maid offers him johnnycakes or cookies for breakfast. Andrew sniffs and says "No appetite for your indigestible Irish start this morning." He's immediately established as an obnoxious Jerkass.
    • In her first scene Abby is shown insisting that poor Bridget wash all the windows, despite Bridget being tired and sick. She's established as just as mean and unsympathetic as her husband.
  • Even Evil Has Loved Ones: Lizzie isn't exactly evil, but she absolutely adored her pet pigeons and remains close with her sister Emma all the while standing trial for the gruesome murder of her father and stepmother.
  • Evil Laugh: Lizzie giggles at the sight of her stepmother's corpse, right as Bridgette struggles to open the front door.
  • Faint in Shock: Lizzie passes out in her lawyer's arms when the prosecution brings in Andrew and Abby's skulls and attempts to fit a hatchet head into the wounds. This is a case of Truth in Television, since Lizzie's fainting spell was one of the highlights of the highly publicized trial.
  • Fan Disservice: In the European cut only, which has a shot of Lizzie in the nude, holding her hatchet, spattered with blood.
  • Females Are More Innocent: A Discussed Trope. It's made clear that a man in Lizzie's position would doubtless be found guilty, but she can get off scot-free because of the expectation that this trope is true. When Hosea gets mad that Lizzie is "hiding behind her skirts," his wife replies "you men have only yourselves to blame if women hide behind their femininity as a last defense. After all, you cast us in this role."
  • Flashback Within a Flashback: The whole time that murders are shown it's within a flashback, while the the individual chops are intersped with more flashbacks to the various fights Lizzie had with her parents or even childhood memories.
  • For Doom the Bell Tolls: A foreboding tone is set when the film starts, by the heavy tolling bells of the Fall River church.
  • Foreshadowing: Lizzie was seen burning a dress, but Hosea dismisses that, saying that Lizzie would not have been so stupid as to burn her blood-spattered murder dress in front of two witnesses and with a cop standing just outside an open door. But then he wonders, "What did she wear?" This film's answer was that she was wearing nothing.
  • Freak Out: Lizzie loses her cool demeanor and has a near mental breakdown when her lawyer tells her she may be facing a death sentence by hanging.
  • Full-Frontal Assault: One of the main reasons why Lizzie Borden was acquitted was that forensic techs of the day thought that if she'd done it, she surely must have gotten blood on her clothes, but no bloodstained clothes were found. This film advances one theory, in which Lizzie avoids incriminating bloodstains by committing the murders while naked. (Another theory suggests that the cursory search of the house simply missed the bloodstained clothing, which Lizzie burned later. This film also touches on that, playing it as a Red Herring.)
  • The Gay '90s: Set in 1892-93, as per when the events really happened.
  • Girly Girl: Lizzie is absolutely giddy with excitement about her new wardrobe and accessories for the murder trial.
  • Hidden Depths: The frigid and repressed Lizzie Borden loves animals and cares deeply for her pet pigeons. This is a case of Truth in Television, as historical Lizzie Borden had several pets and later in life became an avid animal rights activist who helped establish the first animal humane society in Fall River and bequeathed most of her estate to a local animal shelter.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade:
    • While in reality Lizzie was acquitted of the murders and her guilt has never been definitively established, the film adds a fictionalized denouement that shows her actually killing her father and stepmother with a hatchet.
    • The film also portrays Lizzie having an extremely confrontational and antagonistic relationship with Abby Borden, while her sister Emma mostly acts passively towards her. According to historical record, it was the other way around.
  • How We Got Here: The film opens with the discovery of the Bordens' dead bodies. As the investigation and trial unfold, the events leading up to the murders and ultimately the murders themselves are portrayed through a series of flashbacks.
  • I Love the Dead: If Andrew Borden weren't profoundly creepy enough with the hinted incest with Lizzie, there's another scene that hints at this. Andrew, who once worked as a mortician, is shown pulling back a sheet and taking a long look at the face of a Drop Dead Gorgeous woman. He then pulls the sheet back over her face, and then feels her breasts through the sheet. Lizzie watches all of this through a window. There is another scene where Andrew shows Lizzie the corpse and insists that Lizzie touch it, describing the flesh as "smooth" and "cool to the touch". This freaks Lizzie out.
  • Incriminating Indifference: Lizzie complains that she is suspected based on the perception that she hadn't been emotional enough about her parents' deaths.
  • Inheritance Murder: Although Lizzie had plenty of motive, what with her father's years of verbal and emotional abuse towards her, and the strongly implied sexual abuse, and her stepmother basically being a royal bitch, this is the immediate motive for the killings. Lizzie overhears a conversation in which Abby is strong-arming Andrew into making her the beneficiary of his will instead of his daughters. A furious Lizzie rages to her sister that she won't go begging to "that sow" and that Andrew can't be allowed to make a new will.
  • Karma Houdini: According to the film, Lizzie gets away with a double homicide and receives a large inheritance for her troubles.
  • The Ken Burns Effect: Panning and zooming over old-timey photos during the opening credits.
  • Letting Her Hair Down: The only time in the movie where Lizzie lets her Victorian hairdo down is, you guessed it, right before she murders her father. This is another of the movie's Ambiguous Situation hints at Parental Incest.
  • Not So Stoic: Lizzie does her best to keep composure during her imprisonment, but collapses into a hysterical mess when she learns she could face an execution by hanging.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Lizzie is visibly upset after she murders her father, as opposed to her stepmother.
  • Old Maid: Unlike other dramatizations that portray Lizzie as a Psycho Lesbian, here she appears as a frustrated heterosexual woman who missed the narrow Victorian "marriage window" due to her father's stinginess and negative reputation around town.
  • Once More, with Clarity:
    • Lizzie, standing on the stairs, laughs spitefully as she sees Bridget muttering curses while Bridget struggles to open the difficult front door to the house. The long flashback at the end reveals that Lizzie was giggling because she'd just taken a look at the corpse of her stepmother, which was perfectly visible to anyone standing on the stairs.
    • In Bridget's testimony, she describes shooting the breeze with a neighbor, and Lizzie is shown watching from her upstairs bedroom—and she's in her underclothes. The flashback at the end shows that she was in her underclothes because she was stripping for her Full-Frontal Assault.
  • Orbital Shot: The last shot of the movie has the camera circling around Lizzie after Emma asks point-blank if Lizzie killed their father. Lizzie doesn't answer.
  • Parental Incest: It is strongly hinted that Andrew has been abusing Lizzie since childhood and that they still have a sexual relationship running right up to the murders. Touching of hands, touching of cheeks, the flashback scene where young Lizzie gives her father a ring, multiple kisses on the lips (including minutes before she murders him).
  • "Psycho" Strings: Used when Lizzie kills her stepmother.
  • The Reveal: The film departs from its docudrama format at the very end, showing an extended flashback to the morning of the murders that confirms Lizzie was the killer after all.
  • Riddle for the Ages: The epilogue states that the murders of Andrew and Abby Borden officially remain unsolved.
  • Screw This, I'm Out of Here!: Bridget promptly quits and leaves Fall River after the trial.
  • Self-Made Orphan: Lizzie is put on trial for the murders of her father and stepmother.
  • Shoot the Dog: Andrew decapitates Lizzie's pet pigeons as punishment for stealing and threatening her stepmother.
  • Shoulders-Up Nudity: You didn't think they were actually going to show her naughty parts in a 1970s TV movie, did you? Apparently, there's a more explicit version that received a theatrical release in Europe.
  • Staggered Zoom: A three-shot zoom onto the corpse of Andrew Borden lying on the couch, although it's angled so his mangled face isn't really visible.
  • The Suffragette: A group of suffragettes can be seen picketing the courthouse in support of Lizzie once the trial becomes a nationwide media circus.
  • Sympathetic Murderer: Lizzie's potential motives are greatly emphasized in this dramatization, painting her in a particularly sympathetic light.
  • Sympathy for the Devil: Invoked by Sylvia Knowlton before the denouement when she admits she empathizes with Lizzie and understands what could potentially drive a woman like her to murder.
  • Time-Shifted Actor: Tracie Savage plays a young Lizzie in flashbacks to her childhood.
  • Thicker Than Water: Emma lies on the stand in an effort to protect Lizzie, who is the only family she has left at this point.
  • Toplessness from the Back: Seen with Lizzie as she strips for her Full-Frontal Assault.
  • Wealthy Ever After: A rather dark, Real Life example. Lizzie Borden is acquitted of her father and stepmother's murders and ends up inheriting most of their estate.
  • Widow's Weeds: Subverted. Lizzie is noted for failing to wear black to her parents' funeral.