In the Anna Nicole era, it’s clear we’re all tabloid junkies. So it’s worth asking: When a tabloid story sinks its hooks into us, is our relationship to it ”sensational” or, in fact, humane? Are we voyeurs, getting off on the violence and kink and morbidity, or are we avid spectators to tales no more lurid in their intrigue than that of Othello, Oedipus Rex, or Crime and Punishment? Crazy Love, Dan Klores’ toxically fascinating true-crime/true-romance documentary, milks the one-of-a-kind story of Linda Riss and Burt Pugach for every tawdry twist it holds. Yet the tale itself is so spectacularly perverse, and the film stays so authentically close to the personalities involved, that you don’t feel dirty — you feel cleansed.
In 1957, Riss, a nice New York Jewish girl, with a heart-shaped face and a body voluptuous in that stately-’50s-hourglass mode, met Pugach, a nerd of a hustler roughly 10 years her senior. They fell for each other, though Pugach, from the start, was trouble. A lawyer and nightclub owner, with enough cash to dabble in the movie business, he wanted to romance Linda and maintain a hot sex life on the side. We’re shown many photos of Pugach, and though he wasn’t handsome (he was like a bug in horn-rims), his eyes gleam with private delight under their heavy lids. He had the look of a vintage sociopath, a man who knows how to make people feel good by using his self-love as a mirror.
As Riss, catching on to his tricks and betrayals, began to drift away, Pugach threatened and stalked her. Declaring that no one would have her if he couldn’t, he hired three petty crooks to knock on Riss’ door, and when she answered, they threw lye in her face. She was permanently blinded.
This was an act of such sick, demented cruelty that for a while I found myself fighting the jaunty, amused tone — the tabloid succulence — of Crazy Love. Yet the thing is, I was hooked, too. Especially by what happens next: During the 14 years he served in prison, Pugach wrote ardent letters to Riss, and when he was released, he pursued her. Devotedly. Until he won her back.
You could argue that Klores has simply crafted the world’s most artful Jerry Springer episode: ”I Married the Man Who Blinded Me!” He and his codirector, Fisher Stevens, sprinkle present-day interviews with Riss and Pugach throughout the film, and though Pugach, in his 70s, is the same remorseless reptilian charmer, it’s Riss, hidden under giant sunglasses, her softness burned away, who’s the film’s true gothic sensation. At moments, you may suspect that Riss, lonely and dependent, retreated into a kind of masochism, or that the movie is letting Pugach off the hook because he makes for such a good story. Yet as Crazy Love goes on, these two souls, bound by habit, passion, hatred, affection, and, in some inexplicable way, by that monstrous event, carry themselves with a life’s-no-bed-of-roses shrug that echoes the lives of many more couples than would probably care to admit it. These two found, and lived, their own truth. It’s a freak show of a fairy tale, rendered by a filmmaker who knows how to pierce tabloid reality right in its anguished, bloody heart. A-