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27.5.09

Dirty Little Billy (1972)


Director: Stan Dragoti
Starring: Michael J. Pollard, Lee Purcell, Richard Evans, Charles Aidman
Rated R Running time: 93 minutes
No DVD release at this time


Young William Bonney (Michael J. Pollard) steps off a train from New York City and sees a wasteland: Coffeyville, Kansas. Streets of mud and flat, barren land stretching as far as the eye can see. With an epidemic threatening to wipe out their closest neighbors, Coffeyville hopes that an influx of refugees will give their little town an economic boost so they can afford their very own Sheriff, a mayor, and all the things a legitimate town ought to have. Billy's family have come here to carve out a meaningful existence as farmers, which couldn't be a more alien way of life for the shiftless young man. He doesn't know how to hunt, he doesn't know how to fish, and his first attempt at working a plow ends with him being dragged face first across a field. What Billy is good at are the kind of things that decent, respectable people frown upon: cards and petty theft. Billy is miserable with life in this new place, and his stepfather tells him that if he doesn't like it, he is free to leave. So Billy obliges, and ends up crossing paths with a slightly unhinged outlaw named Goldie (Richard Evans). Goldie has taken over a local saloon, for no other reason than the fact that he's got a gun and he's not afraid to use it. Everyone in town is terrified of Goldie, but not Billy. The gun, the utter disregard for law and order, and the power that Goldie possesses over the townsfolk mesmerizes the young thief, and Billy goes to great lengths to work his way into Goldie's world. Goldie seems to like the idea of having someone around that looks up to him, and begins teaching Billy the ways of outlaw existence. Goldie's woman, an attractive prostitute named Berle (Lee Purcell), isn't happy about this arrangement, but rather than receive a smacking around from Goldie, she keeps her protestations to a minimum. She eventually warms to the young thief, and a ragged little family is born. However, the bandit lifestyle has its downsides, and it isn't long before a deadly situation arises that transforms William Bonney into the larger than life figure known as "Billy the Kid."

Western purists will likely shake their heads in disgust over the film's portrayal of the legendary outlaw. Billy the Kid has been portrayed in many different ways -- sociopathic killer, misguided and misunderstood teenage bandit, and even as a Robin Hood-style figure possessing a warped sense of decency. In Dragoti's film, the tag line sums it up perfectly -- "Billy the Kid was a punk". A sniveling, scheming, smartass kid with a chip on his shoulder and a hatred for anything resembling honest work, this Billy is light years away from what audiences were accustomed to seeing. It's an oddly appropriate starring vehicle for Michael J. Pollard whose performance is very . . . well . . . Michael J. Pollardesque. Pollard's unconventional appearance and quirky mannerisms will likely be off-putting to folks more accustomed to the old uber-macho Western stereotypes, but here he is perfectly matched to material which re-imagines history and injects it with a heavy dose of bawdy humor. The rest of the cast is loaded with soon-to-be stars (Gary Busey, an uncredited Nick Nolte. and TV staple Dick Van Patten), and a virtual who's who of veteran character actors (Charles Aidman, Willard Sage, Ed Lauter, Mills Watson, and many others). I could have sworn that I spotted Brion James in a few scenes, but he was not credited and it was impossible to tell for certain given the murky quality of the bootleg I viewed. As bad as the picture quality was, Ralph Woolsey's cinematography still manages to be quite impressive -- perfectly capturing a dirty, violent place full of dirty, violent people. It's hard to believe that this film was directed by Stan Dragoti, whose other films include Necessary Roughness and She's Out of Control. I think it's fair to say that Dirty Little Billy is far and away his best work.

Not a masterpiece, but an interesting and engaging slice of 70's cinema. Can someone please tell me why this is not on DVD?

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