Monday, October 10, 2011

Classic Throwback: Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (Sam Peckinpah, 1974)

Sam Peckinpah’s 1974 grunge-fest, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, was a film that initially divided critics, with some (Roger Ebert) giving it a perfect score, while others (Michael Medved) claiming it to be one of the ‘worst films ever made’. I understand both cases, but I am sitting somewhere in the middle.

The film opens in Mexico, with the characters speaking in Spanish, unaccompanied by subtitles. I thought that was odd, but I soon realized that none were needed. The plot was obvious – Teresa, the pregnant teenage daughter of a powerful man known as ‘El Jefe’ (Emilio Fernandez) is summoned before her father and interrogated as to the identity of the unborn child’s father. The young woman is stripped down and eventually succumbs to torture, identifying the father as Alfredo Garcia, discovered later to be a well-known gigolo commonly found in Mexico City. Infuriated, El Jefe offers a $1 Million dollar reward for whoever “brings him the head of Alfredo Garcia”, the one and only line spoken in English in the sequence. 

Two of El Jefe’s henchmen, following months of searching, enter a seedy bar and meet Benny (Warren Oates), a retired United States Army Officer who now makes a meager living as the piano player and manager. Benny, despite having heard of the elusive Garcia, doesn’t reveal this knowledge to the suit-clad henchmen, later discovering from his prostitute girlfriend, Elita (Isela Vega), that Garcia had met his death in a drunk driving accident the previous week. He also discovers that Elita had cheated on Benny with Garcia, and decides to make a deal with the men – asking for $10,000 plus up-front expenses for the successful delivery of the head.

Embarking on a road trip across Mexico to the site of Garcia’s burial, Benny decides to take Elita along with him, claiming he wants to be sure Garcia is dead and no longer a threat to their relationship. What he thinks will be a simple task of digging up a dead man, results in the couple being accosted by bikers when they stop to camp, and having to overcome the wrath of Garcia’s relatives and the ruthlessness of El Jefe’s associates to secure the bounty.

Peckinpah has built a nightmarish modern Mexico that is every bit as seedy, brutal and nihilistic as the modernized Western frontier he portrays in his more famous ‘69 film, The Wild Bunch. Like in all of his films, Peckinpah reestablishes himself as the master of ‘grunge’. His antihero is an unkempt, arrogant weasel who sees little more than the reward, caring little for how his actions disrespect the dead man, the emotions he stirs in his girlfriend or the loved ones who have freshly buried him. 

Each of the settings, including the opening sequence at El Jefe’s estate, Benny’s bar and a roadside restaurant stop, is as sleazy and repulsive as possible. None of the characters are likeable in any way (though Elita possesses the most humane morals) but you can’t help but find Warren Oates’ cool, charismatic performance legendary. He has some great lines - “You two guys are definitely on my shit list” – and on one occasion he wears his trendy sunglasses (which seem to be stuck to his head in the early going) to bed. His transition from reluctant errand-boy to sadistic killer (who actually enjoys shooting people) is compelling. While his performance in The Wild Bunch isn’t especially notable; overshadowed by his more famous counterparts, he lives and breathes this grimy role to perfection.

Having dug up Garcia, survived numerous attempts on his life and ‘reclaimed’ the head, Benny transports it across the desert in a sack, with the decomposing relic attracting flies and prompting him to stuff ice down the sack to preserve it. What is amusing, and generally sincere, is the bond Benny builds with the head – claiming it as a friend and recognizing that he and Al (the nickname he coins it) shared a lot in common. They are both desperate guys trying to make ends meet and survive in this vile world and felt the affections of the same woman.

Like almost every Peckinpah film, there is a rape and some sort of brutality toward and objectification of women, ultraviolent gunfights, double-figure death counts, copious amounts of blood and other pretensions and contrivances. All evidence suggests that Peckinpah was not a strong writer; but he was a drunken genius whose often-abhorrent ideas accompanied a unique and unconventional vision that was constantly at odds with censorship. I believe this was the only film in his career released exactly as he had intended. While I am wary to declare this a ‘good’ film, I feel it is a culturally significant and influential film in the career of Peckinpah and the 1970’s in general. There is much more to this film than the simple manhunt for the head of a gigolo.

While Bring Me the Head of Alfedo Garcia is repulsive, offensive and gratuitously violent, you can’t help but respect Peckinpah’s boldness for creating a film like this. As the tagline on the poster reads – “Why is his head worth one million dollars and the lives of 21 people?” - the battle for the head of a dead man results in the death of a lot more people. That’s messed up. In a strange way, the sick premise works, and if only for Warren Oates’ performance, it is worth a look.

1 comment:

  1. I grew up watching these kind of movies The story was decent and the action sequence weren't half as bad. These were there to entertain us and isn't that the point of movies anyway.