The 1970s was a great decade for revisionist takes on genre cinema with the likes of William Friedkin shaking up the cop movie with The French Connection (1971), George Lucas’ take on the coming-of-age movie with American Graffiti (1973), and Robert Altman’s idiosyncratic private detective movie with The Long Goodbye (1973). These films upended the conventions of their respective genres with anti-heroes, downbeat endings, and eschewed a black and white worldview for one that was morally murky.
The western was a particularly fertile genre for reinvention with Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man (1970), Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), and Sydney Pollack’s Jeremiah Johnson (1972) offering bold takes. Among these films is the lesser-known Dirty Little Billy (1972), a grungy, no frills take on legendary outlaw Billy the Kid with Michael J. Pollard playing the titular character. The film came and went quickly and became so difficult to find that it wasn’t even able to develop its own cult following despite counting notable people like Quentin Tarantino and Rob Zombie among its admirers.
The film establishes its grungy aesthetic right away with an establishing shot of a muddy puddle and an equally muddy foot stepping in it. Billy (Pollard) and his family arrive by train to a small frontier town and he promptly slips and falls in the mud – his introduction to this dead-end burg. His parents buy a house that can be charitably called a shithole – it’s covered in dust, no glass in the windows and livestock occupy one of the bedrooms. Train tracks were just laid down and the realtor claims that this means cattle will soon arrive and that will provide a source of income causing the town to grow. Judging by how dismal things look that seems highly unlikely. Billy’s family moved away from New York City for this?
Billy’s stepfather Henry (Willard Sage) sets him to work on the land but between his soft hands and lazy approach to work he’s kicked out of the house after a heated confrontation. Billy soon crosses paths with two fellow outcasts, Goldie (Richard Evans) and Berle (Lee Purcell), when he witnesses the former killing a man. An understandably wary Goldie threatens to kill Billy and they form an uneasy partnership which allows Billy to learn how to be a criminal. The rest of the film follows their misadventures as they try to get enough money to leave town.
Billy’s sullen attitude acts in sharp contrast to Michael J. Pollard’s cherub-like face. He’s a more low-key crook as opposed to Emilio Estevez’s cocky psychotic in the Young Gun movies. Pollard plays Billy as someone unusually calm during intense situations. He spends a lot of time watching others, learning from them what to do and not to do in a given situation. What better place to develop your chops as an outlaw than a saloon where he is shown how to cheat, gamble and steal – not from the best but rather from people who are just as desperate to get out of town.
Richard Evans plays Goldie as a nasty sadist who treats Berle like a piece of property, slapping her around when she refuses to work as a prostitute. He is a mentor of sorts to Billy, telling him how things are in the world. The film presents prostitution as a dehumanizing profession as we see her eating while servicing a client to take her mind off the demeaning act. Lee Purcell plays Berle as a scrappy survivor, the only one to outlast her seven siblings. She is excellent in the role, especially in a scene where Berle recounts the hardships she and her family endured. It is a touching scene that highlights her vulnerable side as she and Billy get closer.
Dirty Little Billy turns many conventions of the western genre on its head. Everybody is covered in dirt and wears raggedy clothing that looks like they’ve never been washed. Even the gunfights are clumsy, chaotic affairs that are over quickly. There is nothing cool about them. People are scared, they miss their shots or their guns misfire. The violence is brutal and ugly as evident in a nasty knife fight between Berle and the girlfriend of a rival gambler.
Billy’s education as an outlaw is paralleled with the growth of the town, which sees a boost in population thanks to a neighboring town closing. Dirty Little Billy is an origin story with modest scope and stakes with most of the action taking place in a saloon in a small town as Billy and his new friends spend most of their time drinking, gambling and scheming to no end. Billy is content to do nothing until fate forces his hand and make an important life decision. It isn’t until the climactic showdown with three fellow hardened outlaws that we finally see the beginnings of the famous outlaw he’ll become. This is refreshing take on the legendary historical figure and a no-frills western that deglamorizes the genre with unflinching conviction, anchored by a committed performance from Pollard.