Passion that defies belief
TO describe as an eyepopping experience may be regarded, given the subject matter of the film, as a joke in poor taste. So I’ll choose my epithets carefully. Sadly inadequate descriptions such as mind- boggling and hair- raising come to mind, even that hoary old saying that truth is stranger than fiction.
Yes, Crazy Love is a true story, an awardwinning documentary by Dan Klores, and yes, it’s probably stranger than any fiction a reasonable person could imagine. And as with any good thriller relying on wild plot twists and sudden turns of fate, it’s best that we come to it in a state of ignorant expectancy.
That poses the usual dilemma for reviewers. How much of this sad, dark tale can be disclosed without spoiling its impact? It’s hard to believe that US audiences will have forgotten about Burt and Linda Pugach, who have been the stuff of American tabloid headlines for nearly 40 years. But how many people in this country remember much about them, or anything at all?
If I happen to reveal anything that seems unduly bizarre, wildly improbable or overly sensational, I assure you that I don’t exaggerate.
The full story of the Pugachs is vastly more sordid and nightmarish than the summary that follows.
Crazy Love is the history of an obsession, and a screenwriter who devised it as the plot of a fiction film — starring, let’s say, Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep in the mature- age roles — would be justly accused of excess.
Hollywood, of course, has always been partial to stories of obsessive love. Anyone looking for a film with a comparably lurid subject matter and an equivalent intensity of raw emotion might turn to the work of John M. Stahl, or his rhyming quasi- namesake John Dahl, who gave us memorable stories of frustrated, twisted and neurotic characters. Stahl’s study of deranged sexual jealousy, Leave Her to Heaven ( 1945), was rated by Pedro Almodovar among his 10 favourite films, and if any director can be called an expert on crazy love it’s our old friend Pedro.
Stahl also made that famous weepie Magnificent Obsession ( 1935), about an irresponsible playboy who becomes a surgeon and falls for a woman he has accidentally blinded. Remade by Douglas Sirk in 1954 ( starring Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman), the story has certain affinities — I’ll put it no higher — with the events described in Klores’s documentary.
For the moral chasm at the heart of Crazy Love there’s no better parallel than Dahl’s The Last Seduction ( 1994), with its terrifying depiction of sexual ruthlessness and betrayal. Dahl’s film is among the great examples of modern noir, and perhaps the best way to classify Klores’s film would be to call it a noir documentary.
A few facts are in order. Burton Pugach grew up in the Bronx, the child of a broken Jewish family, and was brought up by his doting mother who ( by Burt’s account) bathed him until he was 12 years old and later took to beating him. Pugach became a successful negligence lawyer and took his first wife, Francine, in 1951.
By his own admission he slept with dozens of women before and after his marriage. Then, in 1957, he met Linda Riss, a Jewish woman 10 years his junior, and was instantly infatuated. Against her better judgment, Linda was persuaded to break off her relationship with another man, Larry Schwartz, and agree to marry Burt.
But when she discovered that Burt had forged his Alabama divorce papers she ditched him and returned to Larry. Burt then enlisted the help of his friend, the actor Keefe Brasselle, to woo her back. Like all obsessive lovers, he was convinced that Linda ( and every other woman he courted) was unfaithful to him. In 1958, he persuaded Linda to submit to a medical examination to prove her virginity, a demand considered reasonable enough and not especially unusual in the climate of the times.
Burt, meanwhile, was being investigated for professional misconduct by the Bronx County Bar Association. What follows entailed accusations of fraud and misconduct, police arrests, trials, and a conviction for violent crime. At one point, Burt was declared insane by hospital authorities, a ruling overturned by a court.
In Sing Sing prison, serving 14 years of a 30- year sentence, he offered his legal services to fellow inmates and apparently succeeded in having three murder convictions overturned. For this he was rewarded with a spell in solitary confinement, and moved to a mental institution and subjected to shock treatment. The only unshockable thing about Burt was his conscience, assuming that he had one. His treatment of Linda was unbelievably cruel, yet she forgave him, married him and stands by him to this day.
At this point, I’ll say no more about the adventures of Burt and Linda, not so much to cut a long story short, but to make an outrageous story seem at least fleetingly credible, if only by the omission of essential detail.
Should it surprise us that the pair were happy to talk about themselves? It may have been a form of mental therapy or moral purgation, or merely an admission that for two people already deeply compromised and humiliated, a thirst for mindless celebrity, even in old age, might be the only consolation remaining to them.
The harshest judgment of Linda is that she was gullible and pathetic. Burt, on the other hand, comes across as a man of breathtaking ruthlessness and mendacity, a moral cipher whose oncamera demeanour — a mixture of smug joviality and creepy self- righteousness — gives new meaning to the idea of shamelessness.
It’s a story so riveting that it scarcely matters how well it is told. Klores’s techniques are proficient rather than inspired. It was enough, perhaps, to get his subjects before the camera. I liked the soundtrack, notably the use of the Buddy Clark hit Linda , recorded with Ray Noble, which is heard to ironic effect.
The whole story, of course, was a gift to New York’s sensation- hungry media, and Klores has recaptured the mood of free- booting tabloid journalism in the years before the electronic news media rose to challenge its ascendancy. There are references in the film to a substance called lye: a word I’d never heard, but a godsend for headline writers wishing to describe an alkaline solution rich in potassium carbonate.
For years, the New York tabloids thrived on that little word. Those were the days when US papers, uniquely in my experience, used the sentence- without- subject as a headline: Slays Lover Who Squealed to Cops ( the archaic slay surviving, even today, only in tabloid banners).
I offer these little digressions to avoid revealing more about Burt and Linda. Of course I’m sorely tempted to do so, but I fear you wouldn’t believe me. Many will know the story already and it’s one so black and astonishing they may want to hear it again. If so, Crazy Love is the film to see. Some of the secondary characters make interesting studies, but it’s Burt and Linda who will linger uncomfortably in the memory, as they have already in the headlines.
Odd couple: Tabloid fodder Burt and Linda Pugach as they appear in the documentary Crazy Love