World-class obsession drives Crazy Love story

You can’t find better proof that truth is stranger than fiction than the bizarre saga of Burt Pugach and Linda Riis. A tale of biblical — or Stone Age — emotions, actions and consequences, it’s the stuff that nightmares are made of.

In the endlessly fascinating “Crazy Love,” the preternaturally odd Jewish couple has either the moxie, the shamelessness or the demented pride to relate their story directly to the camera. Not since “Capturing the Friedmans” has a documentary provoked such an array of emotions, from amazement to queasiness to unexpected hilarity to a sadness you can’t quite put your finger on.

You can take that as a recommendation or as a cue to shove your fingers in your ears and walk briskly in the opposite direction. Either response seems appropriate.

“Crazy Love,” which screened in competition at Sundance in January, opens Friday, June 8 at Bay Area theaters.

This remarkably fair movie revisits an era when “tease” and “virgin” were part of the vernacular of teenagers and 20-somethings. A time capsule of sorts, this New York story evokes a world where Jews married only Jews, sex wasn’t Topic A, big hair ruled and the tabloids prospered. (OK, some things haven’t changed.)

Burt and Linda met on a Jewish holiday in September, 1957. She was a 20-year-old beauty sunning herself on a Bronx bench. He was a negligence lawyer and B-movie producer 10 years her senior, driving a fancy car. As soon as he spotted her, he pulled over to the curb, fed her a line and got her number.

For the next two years, Burt wined and dined Linda. He was not an attractive man, but he owned a nightclub and a plane, had minor movie-star friends and drove a new, powder blue Caddy. He showed Linda a glamorous world, and she reveled in it.

Director Dan Klores provides a brief glimpse of their respective adolescence, and the scars they bore. Linda’s parents split up when she was quite young, and she grew up without a man in sight. Burt was regularly beaten by his mother, who called him a “book-learned idiot.”

Moviegoers who remember their college Childhood Development classes will have a leg up because the film doesn’t strain to link Linda and Burt’s painful upbringings with their soon-to-be-twisted relationship.

Nor does it soft-peddle Burt’s sleazy character. An ambulance chaser of dubious professional ethics, he propositioned every female client. Not only that, the scoundrel was married. When Linda found out and confronted him, Burt swore he’d get a divorce. The very next day, he presented her with papers claiming he had filed with an Alabama court.

Linda, behind her ever-present sunglasses and cigarette, recalls how she finally realized it was a lie and dumped Burt once and for all. She soon got engaged to a nice Jewish guy her own age, which drove Burt into a prolonged jealous rage. He hired someone to kill her, which resulted in the 22-year-old being blinded and disfigured and Burt getting a 30-year prison sentence.

But that’s only half of the story. For the capper — how Linda ultimately got a form of revenge — you have to stick around to the very end of the movie.

The filmmaker generally plays it straight, letting the sensational material and the erstwhile lovebirds’ staccato testimony carry the piece. A Greek chorus of friends and relatives provide the voice of reason and give the viewer an anchor amid the jaw-dropping lunacy. An ironic soundtrack of over-the-top pop tunes by Johnny Mathis, Nat “King” Cole and “Screaming” Jay Hawkins supplies a dash of levity.

“Crazy Love” has elements of both a cautionary fable and a Coen Brothers’ black comedy. Indeed, it elicits the same response: Thank God I would never behave like that. Or would I?

“Crazy Love” opens Friday, June 8 at the Embarcadero in San Francisco and the Shattuck in Berkeley.

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.