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Fanatical Frenzy

Nutty couple turns blind eye to fairy tales


Nowadays anyone can put out a romantic film that sells viewers on the ability of love to prevail in any situation. Most, though, can't do it with the same gusto—or believability (because it's a true story)—as Crazy Love. "Crazy" is the defining word here. "Crazy" because the two main players in this story—now senior citizens—might just be a couple cards short of a full deck. "Crazy" is also the word people will most likely utter once they've seen the conclusion of the film—that is, if they don't scream, "Holy [expletive]! This really happened?"

In 1957, Burt Pugach was a homely but high-powered lawyer who spotted the woman of his dreams while cruising through the Bronx in his convertible. Linda Riss thought better of dating him, but the '50s were a decade when many women looked to men to provide for them, while not selecting ideal companions, and she succumbed to his advances. Well into their courtship, she discovered a wife he'd kept hidden and quashed their relationship.

A devastated Pugach turned to alcohol, and when she accepted a marriage proposal from another, he turned to violence. Believing his love for Riss was stronger than any other suitor could offer, he decided that if he couldn't have her, no one else would. One morning, three thugs Pugach hired knocked on her door and when she answered, they flung lye in Riss' face, instantly blinding her. Despite claims of his innocence and desperate pleas that he still loved Riss, Pugach was sentenced to prison for 14 years.

A viewer going into this film blindly (no pun intended) can expect at least three jaw-dropping moments. The most unpredictable of the three is revealed after Pugach is approved for parole.

Perhaps an even bigger surprise than the film's content is discovering the identity of one of the men behind the scenes, producer and co-director Fisher Stevens. Probably best known for his role as eccentric Indian robot designer Ben Jabituya from the '80s family friendly film, Short Circuit, Stevens has been working in film and television since 1981 and has produced a steady stream of projects since 2000. Lead director Dan Klores is not as well-known, but has helmed a handful of other documentaries.

Considering the headlines this case has garnered in the nearly 50 years since Pugach's perpetration, a film covering its exploits could easily rely on news footage alone and entirely bypass comments from the individuals involved. Klores and company took the reverse approach, letting Pugach, Riss and their friends and family tell their stories exactly as they saw them unfold. What is then delivered is a better-than-cable-television crime docudrama. And the flood of incredibly potent period-specific music as a soundtrack tops anything you'll find on the tube.

The uncomfortable nature of the tales the interviewees unfold is almost palpable. Though many comments are paired with sardonic laughs, there is an undercurrent of difficulty as they retell certain events. Oddly enough, Pugach—rivaled on-screen only by one of his lifelong pals, who claims near the finish that "Even Hitler had friends!"—seems least affected by the testimony he offers. Many may consider Pugach a monster by film's end as many of Riss' supporters have always believed, but regardless of what he says, or how coolly he says it, his story is exposed, and he's clearly flesh and blood.

This is the kind of story that finds its soulful power because of its truth. This is no dark work of fiction, but sordid reality at its most disturbing finest.

Oh, love can be a bright and sunshiny thing to be sure, but after witnessing the story of Pugach and Riss you'll want to chase it with your eyes wide open.

Crazy Love opens Friday at Flicks.