Of the long list of couples who have loved neither wisely nor particularly well, few have such power to disturb as Burton Pugach and the love of his life, Linda Riss. Using interviews with friends, relations and the lovers themselves, Dan Klores' gripping 90-minute documentary follows their shocking, true-life saga from their first meeting in 1957 in a Bronx park, through an unspeakable act of passion, to the present day. And while remaining admirably nonjudgmental about his subjects, Klores raises a key question: What holds lovers together, and does love have anything to do with it?
Depending on how you look at it, Burton Pugach was either a postwar success story — a Bronx-born Jew who survived a terrible childhood dominated by a mother who was both doting and physically abusive, he bootstrapped his way into running his own law firm by the time he was in his mid-20s — or an ambulance-chasing negligence shyster of the worst sort. Whatever the case, by the time he met pretty, 20-year-old Linda Riss in Joyce Kilmer Park, Burt owned his own Bronx nightclub, a brand-new powder-blue Caddy convertible and a private plane. For flirtatious but virginal Linda, the trappings of wealth were enough to make up for Burt's appearance — he looked, in the words of Linda's friend, just like geeky comic actor Arnold Stang — and for the simple fact that Linda didn't really love him. Raised by an aunt, grandmother and, after the age of 12, her divorced mother, Linda grew up without the security of a father figure and probably found something comforting in a possessive older man who, unbeknownst to her at the time, was literally insane about her. But while Linda was willing to put up with jealous rages and the constant pressure to have sex, she couldn't overlook the fact that Burton was already married and had a severely retarded daughter. Linda demanded he get a divorce before they resumed dating, and while he played for time with phony papers and diamond engagement rings, Linda decided she'd had enough and started dating an old flame. Their breakup sent Burt into a deep, lovelorn depression — he reportedly sang the song "Linda" over and over to his pet iguana, Iggy — and when he learned that Linda and her new beau were engaged, he decided to make good on that old threat: If Burt couldn't have the woman he loved, no one would. On June 15, 1959, a thug hired by Burt knocked on the door of Linda's apartment in the Bronx. When she opened it Linda got a mayonnaise jar full of lye thrown directly into her face.
That horrible disfigurement, however, wasn't the end of the story — not by a long shot. To summarize any further would be to spoil the masterful way Klores allows the tortuous story of an amour fou to unfold in all its unforeseeable twists and turns. In her mile-high bronze wig and Peggy Guggenheim sunglasses, Linda is a tough broad with a razor-sharp memory, and she, like the disconcertingly normal Burt, proves a colorful storyteller. But it's Klores' pacing and his heart-stopping editing that give the film its punch, and his amazing and well-selected soundtrack — "You've Really Got a Hold on Me," "Can't Get Used to Losing You," "You Call It Madness (But I Call It Love)" — puts an ironic polish on a love story that's far too strange to be fiction. leave a comment --Ken Fox