Pas­sion that de­fies be­lief

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film - Evan Wil­liams

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

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