I Thee Dread: Pugach and Riss were often at odds.
I Thee Dread: Pugach and Riss were often at odds.

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The decades-spanning story told in Crazy Love isn’t the headline-grabber you’d read in a typical supermarket tabloid—this one’s hard to believe, but it’s actually true. Burt Pugach and Linda Riss, the subjects of Dan Klores’ and Fisher Stevens’ documentary, first made the papers in 1959 and have continued to do so until as recently as 1996. Their relationship has been publicly defined by betrayal, obsession, violence, and a stranger-than-fiction ending. Now the directors are betting that viewers can shrug off the luridness of the saga and be entertained by the wackiness of how these two Bronx natives ended up together.

Both Pugach and Riss narrate their own stories, which are accompanied by old photos, archival footage, and shots of an old-school, glamorous New York. In 1957, Burt was a wealthy ambulance-chaser in his early 30s when he spotted Linda, a 20-year-old beauty, sitting on a bench. As he says now, he “had to have her”—a sentiment that’s repeated frequently by Burt as well as other commentators—and struck up a conversation. Linda humored him but was far from enamored: “I thought he was very weird,” she says in her gravelly Bronx accent. “I probably gave him my phone number just to get rid of him.” She began to feel differently, though, once Burt showed her the good life, which included socializing at his nightclub, flying in his private plane, and generally living like stars. “I believe that Burt fell in love with Linda,” a friend of hers says. “I believe that Linda was impressed with Burt.”

They remained a couple until 1959, when Linda discovered that her fawning boyfriend was married. He promised to divorce his wife, even going so far as to fabricate papers. But that was finally enough for Linda to kick him to the curb. She began dating someone else and got engaged. Burt was desperate to get her back. When she refused, he hired a few goons to go to her home and throw lye in her face. (Though he claims he merely wanted to “beat her up.”) Linda was disfigured and almost completely blinded. Burt was sent to prison in 1962 after a circus of a trial in which he acted as his own lawyer, repeatedly tried to delay proceedings, and even slit his wrists in an attempt to use an insanity plea. Linda claims that at that time, “If someone told me Burt was dead, I would have said, ‘Wonderful.’?”

In 1974, Burt was released from prison. Later that year, he and Linda became husband and wife.

That’s hardly a spoiler—there are plenty of other tabloid-worthy twists that occur during Burt’s incarceration as well as after they’d wed. The now-elderly pair seem to enjoy giving a play-by-play version of events, and it’s admittedly engrossing: Linda, with giant Liz Taylor hair and flashy sunglasses, seems a tough, colorful, no-­nonsense type, using her eyebrows and drags of her long cigarettes to express what her eyes cannot. Burt, meanwhile, is more of a mystery. In a suit with a white goatee and glasses, Burt looks and even sounds like a smart former businessman and playboy who’s still sharp at 80. But when he casually relates his lies and wrongdoings, from his affairs to his negligent practices to his assault on Linda, Burt is coolly detached and matter-of-fact. There’s debate in the film over the state of his mental health. Though some of the interview subjects dismiss the idea that he’s a psychopath, journalist Jimmy Breslin claims, “Nobody is as visibly insane as Burton Pugach.”

Judging his sanity is a tough call, especially considering that the couple are clearly happy to categorize their disturbed history simply as a wild ride. They bicker and putter around like many pairs who’ve known each other 50 years, and unlike dirt-digging documentaries such as 2003’s Capturing the Friedmans, Crazy Love tries as hard as its subjects to make light of the unsettling elements of its story. Sensational headlines from papers are shown, as well as photos of Burt looking wild-eyed as he’s escorted to prison. But one buddy of his laughs about Burt’s life (“They say even Hitler had friends—whaddya gonna do?”), and the young Linda appears to be having the time of her life after the incident, traveling around the world and picking up suitors despite her disability. (At least until she was comfortable enough to take off the sunglasses—Linda concedes that she married Burt partly because she was “damaged goods.”) Worse, though, is the film’s soundtrack: Buddy Clark’s “Linda” gets a pass, especially considering Burt constantly had it played for her. But “Poison Ivy”? “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me”? “Burning Love”?

It’s difficult, too, not to take the film’s central issues of stalking and domestic violence and put them in today’s context. After Linda was injured, for example, she received 24-hour police protection—how often does that happen now? Theirs also is no longer such a unique story; obviously many women still decide to stay with their abusers, usually with not-so-cheerful results. And, of course, though the main message here is supposed to be the adaptability of humans willing to compartmentalize emotions to serve their best interests, the subtext is that if you harass and even harm an estranged love interest, you’ll eventually win that person back. Crazy Love does, however, encourage the idea that sometimes first impressions are best heeded: When Burt introduced himself, Linda says, “I looked at him like he was a nut.”