(Magnolia) Burt Pugach, Linda Riss, Jimmy Breslin, Bob Janoff, Sylvia Hoffman, Rita Kessler, Berry Stainback, Janet Pomerantz. Directed by Dan Klores and Fisher Stevens
Love is an emotion that can overwhelm even the most rational of us. Under its spell, we turn into gibbering, obsessive freaks that lose all sense of proportion and reality. We descend into a kind of baby-talking, goo-goo eyed madness that is considered part of love’s sweet charm. Sometimes, that madness turns savage.
Burt Pugach was a successful attorney in the Bronx (read: ambulance chaser) in 1957 when he met Linda Riss. On the surface, they couldn’t have been more different; he was sophisticated and charming but far from handsome. She was beautiful but naive, easily swayed by the more worldly Burt.
At first she wasn’t interested, but he was persistent. He was co-owner of a ritzy nightclub in Manhattan and he would take her there to meet celebrities of the day; whenever she walked in the door, the orchestra would play “Linda.” He had his own airplane and a pilot’s license and would take her all over the Northeast and beyond. He gave her lavish gifts. His persistence eventually paid off.
There was just one problem – Burt was already married. When Linda found out about it, she was understandably devastated. Burt protested that he had already been in the process of getting a divorce before he met Linda – why, here were the divorce papers to prove it. However, Linda eventually discovered that the papers were forged.
For Linda, that was the last straw. She called it off between her and Burt and moved on. Burt, however, couldn’t let go; he continued to pursue her despite her repeated entreaties to leave her alone. She met a nice man whom she eventually became engaged to. The thought of Linda with any other man but him drove Burt over the edge, leading him to commit an act so vile, so dreadful that it captured the headlines of its time and even by today’s standards is unusually brutal. It would lead the two of them on an odyssey that would continue long past the tragedy of that day in 1959.
I won’t go into what happened precisely and the consequences of the action. Suffice to say that either you have never heard of Burt Pugach in which case I don’t want to take away from the impact of the documentary by telling you some of the more shocking aspects of the movie in advance, or you are aware of the facts of the case in which case I don’t need to reiterate what you already know.
The filmmakers a former publicist (Klores) and an actor (Stevens) who combine talking head interviews with the principals and their acquaintances, as well as incorporating a wealth of archival footage, grainy home movies and newspaper headlines. In all honesty, the documentary portion is in some ways fairly by-the-numbers.
The best part of the documentary is that the filmmakers choose to weave the story in such a way that you get entangled in it and before long you become absolutely enthralled by it. It becomes a cinematic train wreck in a good way – you can’t take your eyes away. Kudos to Klores and Stevens for allowing the story to take center stage.
It’s the story itself that captivates here and every juicy twist and turn that it takes drops your jaw to the floor anew. I know that truth is stranger than fiction, but this is stranger than science fiction. It reminds you once again that people will do incredible things in the name of love and terrible things in the name of obsession.
WHY RENT THIS: This is a remarkable story that is the poster child for the truism that truth is stranger than fiction.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: It is very much a New York story and those who find such things uninteresting will probably be put off by this.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of foul language and some frank sexual references, but it is the mature themes of the documentary that make it questionable for younger audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film won Best Documentary Feature at the Independent Spirit Awards.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: In addition to 43 minutes of additional interview footage with the principals, there is also a slideshow of Linda’s artwork as well as copies of Burt’s letters from prison to Linda.
FINAL RATING: 7/10