Sunday, August 31, 2014


Jack L. Warner was the last of the classic movie moguls. After selling the family business in the late Sixties, he decided in 1971, at age 79, to get back into the game as an independent producer. Jack L. Warner Productions released two films through Columbia Pictures in 1972. The better known of the two is 1776, a musical consistent with Warner's late-career proclivities, which had resulted in My Fair Lady and Camelot. For his other picture he took inspiration from a Warner Bros. release with which he'd had a conflicted relationship at the end of his tenure: Bonnie & Clyde. Overcoming some revulsion at the material, he greenlighted the film and later happily took credit at its surprise success. A western script by two ad-agency auteurs reminded him of that success, so he joined forces with their agency to produce the script by Stan Dragoti and Charles Moss, to be directed by Dragoti, who had heretofore directed commercials. So far s'okay: Dirty Little Billy is a typical film of its moment in movie history, being a revisionist western. But a revisionist western about Billy the Kid begs the question: what exactly are you revising? There had already been quite a few cinematic Bonneys, ranging from the laughing young outlaw played by John Mack Brown in King Vidor's early talkie to Jane Russell's stud in The Outlaw to Paul Newman's "psychological" interpretation in Arthur Penn's The Left-Handed Gun to the monster-fighting hero of Billy the Kid vs. Dracula. But if one thing was consistent, it was that Billy was, if not a hero, at least a protagonist, a compelling figure whose fate is worthy of our attention. It was, to say the least, an unorthodox promotional strategy to suggest, as the Dirty Little Billy advertising did, that he was no such thing. Well, they promised "a different kind of movie," and it is that, if nothing else.

As if striving to be the definitive revisionist western of the Seventies, Dirty Little Billy opens with a close-up of mud. That sets the tone as well as anything, since Dragoti and his production team take the bold idea that the Old West wasn't the tidiest place to almost self-parodic extremes. Our setting is Coffeyville, a struggling municipality aspiring to "third-class city" status and with a leg up in its competition with a neighboring community beset with an epidemic. Into this striving town comes Billy with his Ma and his mean old stepfather, who has taken them from the big city to live out his dream of drudgery on the farm. Billy is rebellious before the family gets off the train, and losing his shoe in the mud doesn't help his mood. We may as well note now that Warner had cast a Bonnie & Clyde alumnus as Billy, but rather than Warren Beatty or Gene Hackman it is Michael J. Pollard. It might have occurred to the old man that giving Pollard the lead in any picture would be like giving Elisha Cook Jr. top billing after The Maltese Falcon, but to be fair to Warner he was not the first to think that in Pollard a star had been born. This was, after all, the age of stars without glamour, as Little Fauss & Big Halsey attested by making Pollard and Robert Redford equals. The problem with Pollard, compared to those briefly considered his peers, was that he seemed to be a one-trick pony, capable of but one character type: a moron. At most he might be deceptively moronic-looking, but such a variation was unlikely to enhance his charisma. The perverse point of Dragoti's project, however, seems to be to show that Billy the Kid had no charisma, or much intelligence. The point is made, but it never sharpens to the point of satire as it would seem to need to in order to hold our interest.

Back to the story: resentful of a lad who refuses to recognize him as a father and proves an incompetent farmer, stepdad persuades Billy to run away, but the kid is barely out of town when he hops off the train and heads back. After dodging bullets in the mud, he falls in with Goldie (Richard Evans), a one-whore pimp who has just stabbed a patron of the saloon where his girl Berle (Lee Purcell) plies her trade. Billy becomes a bystander to Goldie and Berle's abusive, codependent relationship and learns the use of a pistol. It does him little good at first, as the weapon misfires when he tries to intervene in a fight between Goldie and a refugee from the rival town, which has folded due to disease. The brawl devolves into a nasty knife fight between Berle and one of the refugee girls, Berle prevailing when she slices her antagonist's ear off. This latest violence is the last straw for the leading citizens of Coffeyville, who try to warn Goldie out of town with the threat of a famous marshal. The threat works, but the leading citizens fail to honor their end of the bargain, setting Goldie up for assassination as he rides away. Berle dies trying to save him, but Billy manages to get the wounded Goldie to temporary safety. Our Kid comes of age in an outlaw mining camp where Goldie has foolishly taken them, thinking some magic name will make the hardcases there his friends. At the brink of death, if not worse than death, Billy miraculously acquires legendary skill with his pistol, saving Goldie again and annihilating the miners. Here seems to be the moment when the student surpasses the master, and some decisive change in their relationship, if not a decisive end to it, seems to be in order. Instead, Goldie complements Billy on doing good, Billy appears pleased, and the film ends. Perhaps that struck Warner as avant-garde.

What Warner apparently failed to get about Bonnie & Clyde, and thus failed to include in Dirty Little Billy, is a sense of transgressive fun to cinematic outlawry. Instead, the Dragoti film is a pageant of unrelieved wretchedness which is fascinating in its own way to a student of revisionist westerns but unlikely to entertain general audiences. It's remarkable that a classic mogul like Warner would make the last film people saw his name on -- produced before 1776, it played many markets in 1973, after the musical had opened -- such a nihilistic piece of work. In a sense he proved that he remained a contemporary filmmaker to the end, considering that Dirty Little Billy was far from the only "revisionist" film in any genre that now seems to dare us to find it entertaining. Stan Dragoti, meanwhile, wouldn't make another film until the end of the decade, but by that time he had found a more constructive, or at least a more appealing alternative approach to a legendary figure. That film was Love at First Bite.

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