LITTLE ROCK Deep into Crazy Love, an unsettling documentary about the pathological "love" of one damaged human for another, venerable newspaper columnist Jimmy Breslin says of one of the principals that "nobody is as visibly insane as Burt Pugach and not institutionalized."
I don't know whether I accept the idea that Pugach - who as a married 32-year-old lawyer hired some men to throw lye into the face of a young woman with whom he was obsessed - is mad. Now in his 80s, he seems nothing more than emblematic of a certain criminal type - vainglorious, shrewd and unabashedly selfish. He makes strategic use of candor. He is more than willing to confess whatever sins have already been made apparent. Do you call that insanity? Or methodical cunning?
What may be most remarkable about this thoroughly remarkable film by New York publicist Dan Klores and co-directed by actor turned producer Fisher Stevens is Pugach's tremendous patience and self-discipline. He went after what he wanted and got it; he made his prey feel like she had no other option but to cling to her oppressor. He played the game and won through a combination of ruthlessness and pragmatic forbearance.
Linda Riss may have had a choice. But she never had a chance.
She was a pretty 22-yearold Brooklyn virgin when she was spotted sitting in a park by Pugach, an ambulance-chaser lawyer who drives a Cadillac and owns an airplane and a nightclub. He's scrawny and strange but sweet enough in his oddly obsessional way. He makes up his mind to have her on the spot, and she's willing to go for airplane rides and go nightclubbing with him until she finds out he'smarried.
Pugach counters by showing her some divorce papers, which turn out to be forged and give her cause to break up with him for good. She goes to Florida and takes up with a beefcakey guy she meets on the beach.
When they become engaged, Pugach hires some thugs to ruin her looks. She ends up disfigured and nearly blind as thecase blows up all over the newspapers in 1959. After some initial bluster, her intended backs out of the wedding - she'd given him permission but she keeps the ring.
Pugach eventually goes to prison, but not before growing a Mephistophilian beard and making a spectacle of himself in the courthouse. He's in Attica during the riots; he befriends the Black Panthers. Through them he meets radical lawyer William Kunstler and, in the mid-1970s, is unexpectedly paroled.
All this time, he's been obsessing about Linda.
Crazy Love has been compared to a Greek myth, but it's really more of a sideshow act. It spoils nothing to say that Pugach and Linda eventually get together and that they seem to enjoy each other's company. Linda seems the stronger of the two, and it's possible to believe that the balance of power in this relationship has shifted - though it shouldn't surprise us if one day she smothers her husband with a pillow.
On the other hand, human beings are strange creatures; they make all kinds of pacts and accommodations. Whatever gets you through the night. Maybe they really are happy together.
While a lot of critics have remarked on how funny Crazy Love is, the root note of this complicated emotional chord of a movie is sorrow. It is heartbreaking, it really is, to consider the wasteland of Pugach's soul and the desperation that drove his beloved to him.
Klores and company are to be congratulated on handling this sensational material with sensitivity - there's no sense of agenda intruding on the film. They make great use of period clips and music, and they allow us to draw our own conclusions about this star-crossed pair. Burt Pugach crazy?
Not so much.
MovieStyle, Pages 37 on 07/06/2007