19 April 2024

In 1975, Elizabeth Montgomery of Bewitched fame starred in the landmark TV film The Legend of Lizzie Borden. She played the infamous title character, charged with the most notorious crime of the late nineteenth century.

Borden was put on trial for savagely murdering her wealthy father and stepmother in their home in Fall River, Massachusetts. She was aquitted and to this day, her innocence is still debated. The television movie was not ambiguous.

It clearly showed (and quite graphically) that Borden did indeed commit the murders...and that she then methodically disposed of the evidence. The picture also gave a motive: her dad is portrayed as domineering and sadistic (both mentally and physically) - and her stepmom is shown to be an uncaring and crass woman.

The Legend of Lizzie Borden suggests that she killed them in order to gain her independence. In fact, she and her sister used their inheritance to buy a nicer house in the same town. The siblings both died within days of each other in 1927.

Although director Paul Wendkos leaves no doubt as to his opinion on the matter, he does a superb job of making us sympathetic to Borden. Montgomery is excellent, playing the infamous defendant in a subdued and subtle manner. During the murders, she is expressionless...at the trial, she is almost defiant...breaking into a laugh at odd moments.

Once you've seen the film, it is unlikely you will ever forget the images of her naked body striking her parents with the ax...splattering the walls with blood - and then sitting in the tub to wash off. The film won Emmys for its sets and art direction...and nominations went to Montgomery (who should have won), editor John A. Martinelli, and costume designer Guy Verhille.

For anyone who doubts the ability of television films to be intensely powerful, check out Helter Skelter. Airing over two nights in 1976, the docudrama about the Charles Manson murders was made just close enough to the actual events to feel sufficiently authentic.

Based on prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi's bestselling book, the movie stands as the best and most gripping account of that horrific summer in 1969 when Manson and his followers butchered Sharon Tate among others.

Much of the story covers the subsequent trial and director Tom Gries handles the proceedings with great skill. Steve Railsback (as the charismatic cult leader) is both mesmerizing and frightening. It's a chilling film all the way.

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