Shortly after the theatrical release of True Grit, the Coen Brothers were approached by Entertainment Weekly and asked to name their favorite Westerns. Disregarding whether some of the titles were mentioned jokingly as favorites, I decided to seek out the two I had never seen before: Greaser’s Palace (1972) and ‘Doc’ (1971).
I sometimes like to browse through both the positive and negative customer reviews on Amazon.com, mostly to look for differences, as well as similarities, in tastes. And occasionally the reviewer will recommend other interesting items or titles. This was the case when browsing through what Dr. James Gardner (of California) had to say about the DVD of Doc. His referral of Dirty Little Billy (1972) as “the ultimate revisionist Western” intrigued me, as did the film poster. And so, a few days after I watched Stacy Keach, Faye Dunaway, and Harris Yulin in Doc—which wasn’t bad at all—I had my first viewing of studio magnate Jack Warner’s last independent production; having obtained a poor, but watchable, TV-recorded copy.
Now, thanks to Sony Pictures’ Screen Classics by Request, it’s officially available on DVD. And it’s very unlikely that the film has ever looked or sounded better.
Dirty Little Billy is a tale of how an inept New York teen brought out west transforms into a menacing outlaw. The chemistry between the characters, the balance of humor and drama, and how the story is told, causes my “little grey cells” to dance with ideas. It doesn’t matter that this is fiction inspired by Billy the Kid’s life, or that there aren’t any admirable figures. This is finely crafted entertainment with a scenario that could be set nearly anywhere in the proceeding centuries, presenting the banding of society’s misfits and how each one is molded. This film will be of interest not only to American and Spaghetti Western fans, but to both cinephiles and movie watchers in general.
The first image is of the fresh mud that welcomes the McCarty family to the fourth-rate town of Coffyville, Kansas. The soft wet earth feels as if it’s always been there, though the family has just arrived a day after one of Coffyville’s “famous sun showers.” Young Billy, his mother Catherine, and his stepfather Henry are quickly sold a dusty, run-down farmhouse harboring a goat and two chickens.
Their sales agent is Ben Antrim (an amusing performance by Charles Aidman). Supposedly, he has people coming here from all parts of the country to “work themselves to the bone, so that he can get rich.” During a town meeting (featuring Gary Busey), Antrim passes along a rumor regarding an epidemic in a nearby town, which will “hopefully” force out its inhabitants and have them move into theirs. The rise in size of Coffyville’s population would thereby qualify them as a “third class city,” which would allow them to elect a mayor, a council, and a professional peace officer.
Henry McCarty (William Sage) is a hard-working Irish immigrant wanting to cultivate his own land, while Catherine (Dran Hamilton) wants her son to follow his lead and adapt to a new routine. Billy’s mother seems to have always been too soft on him, while his stepfather is too hard. Having “bellyached on the train, all the way out here,” Billy just wants to be back in New York. The little “bum” hates farming.
Henry’s growing intolerance for Billy’s uselessness to him boils over one night, and he threatens him into running away. Billy doesn’t need much persuasion to leave, as he really just wants to get back east. But having no money, he can’t go very far. “Just walking” through town, Billy gets caught in a cross-fire between Antrim’s inexperienced lawmen (Ed and Len) and the town’s residing menace. Goldie (Richard Evans) is a saloon dwelling, card gambling degenerate who sometimes violently demands for the prostitution of his girlfriend (Berle) to help financially support them. Both his nonconformist stance against Antrim and the fear he generates around town appeals to Billy, who does what he can to gain his respect and mentorship.
A great deal of the story is spent in that little saloon, which also shelters drunkard Charlie Nile and a bartender nicknamed Jawbone. Moving along with just the right pace, the story spends an appropriate amount of time with the characters; showing us what makes them tick. Among the most memorable sequences is a card game that goes all wrong; leading to wild gunfire, and concluding with a bloody knife fight between Berle and a woman named Lou. (Rosary Nix—wherever you are—you rock!)
Michael J. Pollard’s eccentric performance is as fascinating as you’re likely to read about elsewhere. But upon repeated viewings, which I have found rewarding and worthy of study, the supporting cast becomes more and more noticeable for their fine contributions; even when just relying on body language. Keep an eye on the silent exchanges between Billy and Lee Purcell’s Berle—they’re beautifully directed, and quietly contribute to his character’s development and aforementioned transformation.
Richard Evans deserves special mention. Goldie is such a brilliantly written component to the detrimental education of Billy the Kid—at least, in this story’s universe—and Evans acts within the confines of that character’s restricted psychology so well that he’s easily one of the most important ingredients to the film’s potency.
Besides all around great acting—including the extras, which is a rare thing—and editor David Wages’ crackerjack timing, the cinematography by Ralph Woolsey (of 1970’s Little Fauss and Big Halsy, and 1972’s The Culpepper Cattle Co.) compliments both the richly detailed sets and the performers perfectly. His use of sunlight is also impossible to miss. It’s really a treat for a movie lover to find something as well-crafted as co-author/director Stan Dragoti’s feature film debut. And it’s due to a recent viewing of The Hired Hand (1971)—an extraordinarily gorgeous film—and Dirty Little Billy which has inspired me to write my second Western. One dedicated to the genre’s future. I don’t buy too many movies, but this one’s a keeper. My compliments to the entire cast and crew.
DVD Specifications: Runtime: 1:32:06 / Audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English) / Subtitles: None / Widescreen anamorphic – 1.85:1 / Theatrical Trailer (2:36) / DVD Release Date: March 1, 2011 / Keep Case / Chapters: 10
Special thanks to author Edward M. Erdelac for getting me back into American Westerns with some goodies to get started with. Check out his “Seven Gritty Westerns You’ve Probably Never Seen.”