Dancing in the Dark

Crazy Love documents an unusual courtship.

Burt and Linda Pugach in Crazy Love

Crazy Love (Magnolia Pictures) is a poisoned Valentine of a documentary, an ode to undying passion that sometimes comes across as an apologia for pathological abuse. Like Capturing the Friedmans, the 2003 documentary about a child-molestation scandal on Long Island, N.Y., Crazy Love retells a well-known tabloid story from the point of view of the principals involved. But whereas Friedmans provided enough multiple perspectives to leave the viewer in an epistemological house of mirrors, Crazy Love remains narrowly focused on the tawdry biographical details: not he said/she said, but the New York Mirror said. Still, those tawdry details are jaw-dropping enough to make for one hell of a sideshow attraction.

Burton Pugach, now 79, is a Bronx-bred lawyer who made a fortune in the 1950s from dubious negligence suits. More than an ambulance chaser, he was an ambulance summoner, sometimes going so far as to stage minor accidents in order to wrangle huge settlements. In 1957, at the age of 30, he met Linda Riss, a 20-year-old beauty, and began wooing her aggressively with nights at the Copacabana and rides on his private plane—never mind that he was already married, with a developmentally disabled daughter. When Linda found out about the marriage, she broke off the relationship and took up with a Rock Hudson look-alike named Larry Schwartz. Pugach, after stalking Linda for many months, hired thugs to ring the doorbell at Riss’ apartment and throw lye in her face.

For the next 16 years, Pugach languished in state prisons (well, not just languished; as he points out, he became the de facto attorney of everyone on his cell block and managed to have several convictions overturned). Meanwhile, Riss, nearly blind and permanently disfigured, lived the life of a lonely but glamorous spinster, touring Europe in fabulous sunglasses and dating men just long enough for them to discover she was, in her words, “damaged goods.” Pugach wrote Riss long love letters from prison, and upon his release in 1974, he proposed to her on the local news station during an interview. Seven months later, with some help from creepily enabling friends, the couple were married in a Queens courtroom, and 33 years later, they’re still together and as happy as any other squabbling, chain-smoking pair of certifiable lunatics.

Critics love to complain about the drabness of talking-head interviews in documentaries, but it’s hard to suggest an alternative format for certain kinds of straight-ahead storytelling. At any rate, when your subjects are raconteurs on the level of Burt and Linda Pugach, you could train a Fisher-Price toy camera on them and let the movie make itself. Linda, in particular, is a genius at staging the spectacle of herself: A tiny woman in tiger-striped wigs and rhinestone shades, she sits in airless-looking rooms with plastic-covered furniture, smoking long, thin cigarettes and spinning the tale of her own victimhood in a wry, gravelly voice. She never really accounts for what convinced her to take Burt back, and, to be fair, it’s an impossible question to expect an interviewer to push hard on. Whatever tangle of guilt, remorse, love, and revenge that ties these two together is far too hardened by now to pick apart. On the other hand, Burt is a maddeningly slippery interviewee and one whom the filmmakers should have had no qualms about pressing further. He’s at once confessional and evasive, and blissfully unaware of the irony as he recounts his own sufferings after his arrest. “Those paddy wagons were terrible,” he recalls. “They had no windows.” Oh, so you couldn’t see anything? Kind of like the woman you just blinded?

Though the subject matter sounds depressing, Crazy Love has an infectious, even bouncy tone—sometimes irritatingly so, as when the vintage soundtrack glosses over the buried pain of the Pugachs’ story (I could have done without Elvis singing about being a “hunka hunka burnin’ love” over the closing credits). Dan Klores, a film-publicist-turned-documentarian, and his co-director, Fisher Stevens, rely too often on familiar visual tricks: for example, processing old snapshots with that ubiquitous digital effect that makes the subject seem to pop out in 3-D against the background. But they round up a crack team of interviewees, from friends and relations of the couple to the author of their as-told-to biography to longtime Newsday columnist Jimmy Breslin, who observes that, in all his years of covering all manner of New York weirdness, “nobody is as visibly insane as Burt Pugach.” With the possible exception of the woman who chose to spend the rest of her life with him.