What, aside from obvious technical indications like fades for commercial breaks, betrays the fact that a film was made for television? What qualities do telefilms share that speak silently? What separates them from their theatrical big brothers?
In the case of a TV film made with higher than average care, like The Legend of Lizzie Borden, starring Elizabeth Montgomery, it’s even tougher than usual to answer those questions. The script for Lizzie is intelligent, even slightly experimental. Montgomery’s dour, often unpredictable performance is light years removed from the light comic straight jacket she wore week after week in Bewitched. The director, Paul Wendkos, has enough sense of style and atmosphere to keep the film visually interesting, with unusual camera angles and shock cutting that exploits post-New Wave film vocabulary.
Those techniques start to indicate some of the problems, however. Leave aside that many were already a little passé by the time Lizzie was made (1975). The problem is that each arty gesture is practically featured, as if Wendkos and his technicians view them as proof they’re making a “real” movie. Like the parvenu buying his way into high society, the very effort to look like more than a TV movie dooms Lizzie to being recognized as precisely that. Not that the recognition prevents the results from being compelling. The execution may be a touch too showy and insecure for its own good, but Lizzie remains memorable. (It says something for any movie that after forty years I remembered so much of it.)
And yet there is still a nagging sense of impoverishment to it, well beyond simple questions of budget, as each point is made with thudding blatancy. Shooting on generic, unconvincing sets doesn’t help. (1890s Massachusetts looks an awful lot like 1970s backlot.) But plenty of films have proven that a big budget is not needed to produce a convincing period environment, if the filmmakers have enough imagination, inspiration and drive to excel. Besides, insensitivity to the texture of time and place is endemic to Hollywood, and not enough in itself to explain the film’s sense of underdevelopment.
An ambition to make the best possible film, regardless of circumstances, is what’s lacking in most TV movies. They provide enough to be plausible, but are burdened with the curse of thinness. There are no fine shades, or brash dissonances for that matter, just enough to glance surfaces and momentarily convince. The decor and costumes are not grossly inaccurate. The scripts and performances push all the right buttons, but there is a vaguely tatty air, as if everyone involved feels superior to what they are doing and wants to move on to something else. That very attitude gives the lie to itself. Superiority is proven by going one step further than required. The Legend of Lizzie Borden takes half that step, but still feels as if its makers are waiting for phone calls from their agents with the happy news they’ve landed a feature.