Not Such a Catch After All
When Jimmy Breslin thinks you're one of the biggest scum he's ever met, you've got problems. Breslin has been around the block a few times, after all. He got letters sent to him by David Berkowitz. He knew Henry Hill. He has been a reporter in New York for decades. This is a guy who knows scum when he encounters it. He thinks that Burt Pugach, the theoretical hero of today's film, is scum. He says everyone deserves a second chance, but Burt has burned through his. And I have to tell you, I'm pretty well on his side about it. A psychiatrist gets a brief interview in the film, and he insists that Burt Pugach isn't psychotic, and that may well be true. On the other hand, I'd like to know how much time that psychiatrist has spent interacting with Burt, because there's obviously something wrong with him. His total and callous disregard for the harm he's done is evident in both his interviews here and his actions.
Even back in the '50s, Burt wasn't what you'd call a looker. However, one day, he spotted Linda Riss, and she was. When they met, he was thirty-one and he was twenty-one. He was crazy about her--I use the term advisedly, as you'll see--but he was also married with a kid, and Linda wasn't going to fool around with a married man. Burt kept lying to her, and finally, she decided that she wasn't interested in putting up with it anymore. She broke it off with him. While on a trip to Florida with a friend, she met a man called Larry Schwartz, and after he got out of the military, they became engaged. Burt swore that, if he couldn't have Linda, no one could. He hired three guys to throw acid in her face--no, I don't know why it took three guys, either. Naturally, he ended up in prison for it. Linda didn't feel she could marry Larry afterward, and she broke off the engagement. All the time he was in prison, Burt kept writing her letters, and eventually, he even began sending her money. And then, he got out.
One of the things I liked about this documentary was how certain of the wilder revelations weren't telegraphed at all. I'm leaving out several important details of the story in the hopes that anyone who isn't aware of them can have the same kind of revelations that I did. I will merely say that there's a reason she's wearing the big, ugly sunglasses, though I can't say the same about the wig. Of course, it's hard to discuss the movie in any kind of detail without giving it away, and indeed, one of them is not difficult to guess with the information I've provided. However, with each twist of the story, you think you've gotten a handle on how far the crazy goes, and you're not all the way there until the end. Even then, I'm not sure we've gotten all the way into the depths of the crazy. I think it would take considerably longer to discover how far down it goes, and I don't think the movie gives us all the details the filmmakers learned, either.
The thing I didn't like, I must admit, was the soundtrack. There were places I liked it okay, but sometimes, it was pretty jarring. I'm not sure all the period music selections entirely were, and I wasn't fond of the music written expressly for the documentary. I felt that it distracted from the strange power of the story itself. Burt and Linda are weirdly fascinating, and the greatest relief I felt was Linda's reference to the fact that she never had any children. There are some genes I don't particularly want passed on, and there are some people who would only perpetuate bad attitudes toward relationships by demonstrating their own to their children. But every time I got to thinking about that, or about the importance of stalking laws, or what have you, the music would get in my way. I mean, I hadn't until just this moment thought about the serious question of why Burt was allowed and able to send Linda letters while he was in prison in the first place--aren't prisoners' letters subject to censorship? And was she still living in the same place?
I think it is hard to get the true oddity of this story onscreen if you're relying so heavily on interviews to tell it. For one thing, neither Burt nor Linda seem aware that there's anything strange about the story they have to tell. They know that other people seem to think so, but they do not themselves see anything weird about it. All the interviews are so matter-of-fact that you can miss how truly strange it is. This includes Linda's friends, who don't reveal the anger I feel sure they must still harbour--except the one who says that she doesn't believe in the death penalty except for Burt, and she only lets that anger out a few minutes before the end. Oh, I'm sure that it's hard to maintain any sense of rage after fifty years, especially given how things have turned out, but even they have had the sense of oddity worn out of them, leaving little to share with us. It's not that I expect a freak show, but I'd like a little more than we have.