One of the most fascinating true-crime stories in American history concerns Lizzie Borden, a 32-year-old Massachusetts spinster who was accused of murdering her father and stepmother in 1892. Her trial, which involved issues of diminished capacity and women’s suffrage, became a topic of nationwide conversation, and Borden’s acquittal was shocking in the face of damning circumstantial evidence. This respectable made-for-TV drama depicts all the key moments from the historical record, then uses creative license to explore Borden’s mind. In this interpretation, which reflects ’70s ideas about feminism and psychology, Borden was an abused woman who struck back in a moment of temporary insanity. Beyond this lurid take on history, two things make The Legend of Lizzie Borden interesting: The film’s straightforward style gives way to horror-flick intensity during the climax, and Elizabeth Montgomery’s performance in the leading role is bold.
Written by William Bast and directed by the reliable Paul Wendkos, The Legend of Lizzie Borden is divided into chapters with ominous titles, from “The Crime” to “The Accusation” to “The Ordeal,” and so on. Replicating the way the world heard about the killings without context, the movie opens with a housekeeper discovering gruesome crime scenes. Soon Borden stands accused, since she was in her father’s house at the time of the killings and cannot provide an alibi. Hosea Knowlton (Ed Flanders) gets the job of prosecutor. The film then weaves between trial scenes and flashbacks, slowly unveiling the nature of Borden’s twisted relationship with her father, Andrew (Fritz Weaver). A malicious zealot, he berates his adult daughter constantly and, at one point, murders her pet birds seemingly for the pleasure of inflicting pain. The filmmakers also imply incest. Adding intrigue is the presence of housekeeper Bridget Sullivan (Fionula Flanagan), who suspects Borden of committing the murders, and that of Borden’s sister, Emma (Katherine Helmond), who fears the worst but hopes for the best.
Montgomery, known for her wholesome turn as a domesticated sorceress on the 1964–1972 sitcom Bewitched, commits wholeheartedly to playing Borden. Walking through most scenes with a faraway look in her eyes, Montgomery conveys the sense of a woman uncomfortable in her own skin, her occasional emotional outbursts representing futile attempts to draw pity from an intolerant father. Montgomery’s patrician quality serves the project well, making it hard to distinguish her character’s coldness following the murders from the normal reserve of the upper class. Moreover, Montgomery embraces the perverse eroticism of the story—during the unnerving climax, she strips naked before claiming victims, so blood splatters across her lissome form each time she swings her character’s infamous axe.