Film Reviews


By • Jun 1st, 2007 •

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Magnolia Pictures / Shoot the Moon Productions / Stevens/Zieff Films
PG-13 / 92 minutes


Even if this film were fiction, no one would believe it – not even Ripley.
But it’s true…all of it! Which makes the sordid real-life love affair between a crazed lover and his yet/still devoted victim one of the most mind-boggling, absorbing documentaries in recent memory.

The Facts: In 1959, Burton Pugach, a 32-year old negligence lawyer (AKA ambulance chaser) became so obsessed with Linda Riss, 22, a gorgeous Bronx-born blue-collar virgin, that when she became engaged to another guy, he hired a trio of thugs to throw lye in her face. If he couldn’t have her, he’d see no one else would. (Subsequently, her fiancé broke their engagement.)

Splat!! Not only was she scarred and almost completely blinded, but Burt landed in jail for 14 years, and that dire deed landed on the front page of every NYC tabloid – continuing to be a newsworthy cause célèbre for decades to come…which is exactly what the film is all about.

Considering the circumstances – the least of which was Burt was already married and had a child – why in hell would such an obviously intelligent dame end up not only forgiving this nut case, but shortly after his release from prison years later, marry him? (He proposed to her on TV twice.)

Yeah! For real! Long-since divorced from wife #1, they got hitched on November 1974. And now, after 33 years as Mrs. Burton Pugach, she’s still loyally at his side despite his fiendish depravity. To add insult to injury, in 1996, Hubby Dearest also had a 5-year affair with another, much younger woman (he threatened that one too) but Linda continued to forgive him…as she does to this day.

And today, what do we see onscreen? Burt, 80, looks more like Col. Sanders than Casanova. But Linda, 70, with a 2-inch cigarette ash constantly dangling from her lips and wearing designer harlequin sunglasses, has no idea. Now totally blind, in her mind’s eye, she sees him as he once was.

During extensive on-camera talking head shots, you realize Linda is the ultimate survivor. Or, as John Miller-Monzon, the film’s researcher said, for her to marry Burt was “an absolute pragmatic decision on her part” adding he also thinks “she has genuine feelings for him…though I don’t know if I would call it love.”

How to explain it? As one of Burt’s buddies volunteered: “They say even Hitler had friends.” Throughout the film’s engrossing 92 minutes, we’re exposed to in-your-face interviews with the pair, interspersed with comments by friends and media observers-though any psychological rational for her behavior isn’t clear-cut. Most likely, she just didn’t want to be alone.

From Jimmy Breslin: “I’ve been in this business for 50 years, and nobody is as visibly insane as Burt Pugach. Living with him is the best revenge.”
From Geraldo Rivera: “She’s now totally blind – and he became her eyes.”

Documentary filmmaker Dan Klores and co-director Fisher Stevens, with help from an extraordinarily accomplished crew, have meticulously pieced together almost 50 years of current and archival material that raises more questions than is, at first, immediately apparent.

Background: Freud would have had a field day. Burt was regularly beaten by his mother, who also bathed him until he was 10 or 11, and his father deserted the family shortly before his Bar Mitzvah (in a Chinese restaurant). On the upside, Burt was a brilliant student (graduated cum laude from Brooklyn Law at 23) and was quite successful by the time they met.

At 5, Linda was raised by relatives after her parents split, and only returned home to her mom at 12 when her younger sister died. Though she didn’t have Burt’s education and only held menial jobs, she was obviously “a child left behind.” It’s apparent she has a good brain.

At their first meeting, Burt was instantly smitten – she was movie-star stunning – but any time a guy would look at her twice, he became insanely jealous, to the point he sent her to a doctor to prove conclusively whether or not she was a virgin. (She was.) As a close friend said, “She liked boys, but there was nothing ever EVER promiscuous about her.”

But Linda was also a product of her generation and upbringing, which was to be married and deferential to men. In those days, lawyers, like doctors, were akin to royalty…and god. So how could she resist this guy with an LLD – who took her out to dinner every night or to nightclubs (he owned one), had his own airplane, and bought a new Cadillac convertible every year?

She wanted marriage; he said he was getting a divorce and showed her the papers – which proved fraudulent. So Linda broke off their relationship and got engaged to another guy. That’s when the harassment started – a litany of endless threats and stalking from that low-life…which brings us back to Square One.

In retrospect, Burt and Linda might well have been best described eons ago by John Milton in his epic “Paradise Lost” as “Demoniac frenzy, moping melancholy, and moon-struck madness.”

And it is mad – as well as a maddening fascination, not to be missed.
Once seen, you’ll realize that real life is often more mesmerizing than the reel one – as is the case here. Besides, there’s no telling what lies ahead for the damaged duo. As Scarlett would say, “After all, tomorrow is another day.” Maybe a better one – whether or not Burt really gives a damn. For her sake, let’s hope so.

To again quote researcher Miller-Monzon, speaking of the plucky, courageous Linda, “This film is a valentine to her.” And definitely worth the detour.

Director and Screenwriter: Dan Klores
Co-Director and Producer: Fisher Stevens
Research and Co-Producer: John Miller-Monzon
Associate Producers: Jake Bandman and Libby Geist
Cinematographers: Wolfgang Held and Claudia Raschke-Robinson
Original Music: Douglas J. Cuomo
Music: John Murphy
Editor and Co-Producer: David Zieff

Burt Pugach, Linda Riss Pugach, Jimmy Breslin, Rusty Goldberg,
Bob Janoff, Rita Kessler, Janet Pomerantz, Margaret Powers, Berry

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