With their grungy location photography and unsentimental stories, the revisionist Westerns of the late ’60s and early ’70s blended a classic American genre with contemporary American insouciance: The injection of counterculture edginess revitalized the cowboy genre by making audiences look at Western iconography in new ways. Dirty Little Billy is a solid example of the artistic inclinations that made revisionist Westerns so interesting. As its title indicates, the picture is an unvarnished study of gunslinger William Bonney, better known as Billy the Kid. Instead of the romantic outlaw seen in previous films, this version of the character is a deranged man-child with a homicidal streak.
Michael J. Pollard, the diminutive character actor who made a big splash in Bonnie and Clyde (1967), plays Billy as a creepy little troll perpetually covered in filth and perpetually grinning at some sick private joke. As the ramshackle movie unfolds, we see young Billy endure the rigors of a joyless home life before venturing off on his own, whereupon he falls in with brutal crook Goldie (Richard Evans) and compliant prostitute Berle (Lee Purcell).
Far from glamorizing Billy’s exploits, the picture makes his odyssey seem miserable and sad, but the direction and screenplay are overly clinical, as if we’re studying Billy in a (contaminated) petri dish. Additionally, Pollard is way too weird to facilitate much audience connection. It’s as if the filmmakers were so determined to upend old romantic myths that they went out of their way to make Dirty Little Billy unpalatable. Making matters worse, the narrative is so episodic and slight that there’s very little momentum. Still, Dirty Little Billy is an admirable effort despite its off-putting qualities, simply because the filmmakers’ commitment to their vision is so complete—if their goal was to ensure that nobody who sees this picture perceives Billy the Kid the same way again, they succeeded. (Available through Columbia Screen Classics via WarnerArchive.com)
Dirty Little Billy: FUNKY