Love is blind, or so it turned out in the romance of ambulance-chasing lawyer Burton Pugach, who hired thugs to throw a caustic chemical into the face of his girlfriend Linda Riss when she refused to marry him in 1959. The disfigured Bronx Beauty finally did marry him when he got out of prison, and stuck by him in the 1990s, when he threatened to throw the same substance in the face of a later mistress.
The story that you couldn't make up was among the documentary sensations at Sundance. The wild tale and the colourful people telling it should make this documentary a tabloid adventure that neither the media nor the audience can ignore.
Pugach and Riss, still alive and married, narrate their story on-screen in dead-pan New York-ese. The laughs and the realism make it more enjoyable than the The Sopranos or any of the screwball family comedies that purport to reveal the outer-borough pecadillos of New York. Director Dan Klores and co-director Fisher Stevens have assembled a gem of New York inanity.
The story dates from the late 1950s, when the homely personal-injury lawyer Pugach owned a nightclub and an airplane, but really wanted pretty Linda Riss, then 20.
Riss demanded that he divorce his wife, and when he didn't, she planned marriage with another man who had something else that Pugach never had, a handsome face. Pugach tried to have her beaten up and, failing that, paid hoodlums to throw lye in her face.
When Pugach, Riss, and their friends tell the story in inimitable Bronx accents, each speaks in the voice of an undiscovered character actor. The craziness of their love is affirmed when Riss agrees to marry Pugach after he's sprung from prison in 1974. It was better than being lonely, she said at the time.
The film then takes you into its own sequel when, after 20 years of marriage, Pugach is accused by a new mistress of threatening to put lye in her face. Even more improbably, the lawyer disbarred in 1959 takes on his own case and wins his own acquittal, with the scarred Linda at his side, all the while with journalists, friends, police and the loving couple offering observations on love, life and law.
While interviews shot by Wolfgang Held and Claudia Rashke-Robinson, spin a crazy Bronx yarn, the film's colour comes from the archives. Klores has reassembled the Jewish Bronx as it was in the 1950s - wildly kitschy in some images, dutifully grey in others - and then recreated the tabloid circuses that exploded once the initial crime was committed, and snowballed once Pugach was implicated.
As the story gets closer to the present, journalists Jimmy Breslin and Andrea Peyser fill out the chorus, but the best voices are contemporaries who were with the events for the longest time. As for costumes, only Linda Riss can take credit for the chic sunglasses that she's had to wear for almost fifty years. Blind and bald, by her own description, she still has style, and it certainly won't hurt the film.
One false note in the documentary is the music. We hear pop tunes from the 1950s and 1960s, but they tend to be the music that Dan Klores heard, not what his leading couple would have been dancing to. More of them and less of him in the soundtrack would have made the show ring truer.
Even though this is Dan Klores's third documentary feature, the director is a professional publicist who has a long track record of hiding high-profile clients from the press as often as he's promoted them. Now Klores has one of the New York's oddest couples eager to tell one of New York's oddest stories stories. It looks as if he has a hit on his hands.
Shoot the Moon Productions