Peckinpah's Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974) updates Film Noir's obsessed looser and alienated anti-hero from the traditions of Huston's "Treasure of the Sierra Madre", Bogart's "Casablanca", Mitchum's mercenary in Mexico flicks, Sergio Leone's "Dollars trilogy", and re-incarnates him as "Bennie" a decadent, gonzo, sleaze-ball piano-player/tourist clip-joint bar owner cum looser, on a quest for a $10,000 bounty on the head of an old acquaintance. The quest that becomes a spiral into Noir madness. -----
A family scandal (a unwed pregnant daughter) causes a wealthy and powerful Mexican rancher (Fernandez) to make the pronouncement--'Bring me the head of Alfredo Garcia!' Causing a flurry of activity. Two of the bounty-hunters dispatched Robert Webber and Gig Young encounter a local piano-player Bennie (Oates) in their hunt for information. The piano-player does a little investigating on his own and finds out that his hooker girlfriend Elita (Vega) knows of Garcia's death and last resting place. Thinking that he can make some easy money and gain financial security for he and his (now) fiancée, they set off on this goal. ------
You just feel, after watching this, that all the over extravagant Hollywood versions of expat Americans in far off lands and their bars/nightclubs are way way too antiseptic and safe and the women in them way too virginal. This film made between the end of the Hayes Code and before PC hits the nail on the head. You get a feeling that this was more like it would have been. -----
Peckinpah's twisted take on Rick's Place in "Casablanca", Bennie's Tlaquepaque tourist bar sequence. Bennie in control perched back against the wall playing the piano singing the tourists out and watching the impeccably dressed Sappensly(Webber) and Quill (Young) enter and question his cartoonishly costumed staff and watching their reactions to the photo of Alfredo. Bennie in total control "First drinks on the house, gentlemen" calling them over to see what they want, waiter arrives and Bennie saying to Paulo "take care of those gentlemen" giving the cue signal, prompting his bar crew into what looks like a well rehearsed course of action, the two whores arrive one for arm of each hit man. The first hint of trouble registering when he asks Sappensly and Quill "something for the ladies" implying they buy the whores a drink and Quill replies "burro piss".
|Elita and Bennie|
|Off to find Alfredo|
No product placement here, instead of a horse, Bennie's pimp mobile of choice is what-else man...., a beat to shit mid 60's, oil burnnin', red Chey Impala convertible that's seen way better days, and leaves a contrail of blue smoke as it barrels Benny down the black tops and dirt tracks of rural Mexico straight down on a decent into hell.
|The 62 Chevy Impala convertible|
|Oates (Bennie) & Vega (Elita)|
|From the heart|
|to the darkside|
Its got a lot of references to Film Noir and Spaghetti Western iconography, that cinematic memory magic, is working in this flick, so any Western & Neo Noir aficionados will feel right at home in this updated version of the Noir Film soleil/Western. There are enough plot twists, bizarre and surreal situations that any David Lynch, Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez and Cohen Brothers fans will get a kick out of this film too, Bravo!
You've either got them, or you don't.
Sam Peckinpah had the guts to bring a
new kind of violent reality to the screen in
The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs.
He's been praised and panned, awarded
and attacked. And he's kept on making
his kind of movies, his way.
His newest, set in modern-day Mexico, is a
story of violence and greed and revenge. . .
and love and courage and loyalty. It tells of
a desperate man risking everything on a
last, desperate chance. . . and a much-used
woman accepting lust only to discover love.
It's bound to provoke controversy. . .
cheered by some as a new classic in the
mold of "Treasure of Sierra Madre" . . .cursed
by others as a bloody and brutal hymn to
machismo. On one point, all can agree.
Like its maker, Sam Peckinpah,
Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia
is uncompromising, unyielding, uncensored.
In short, it's got guts"
|Bennie in cantina|
So I brought this down a few years ago to my old high school buddy who lives in East Atlantic Beach on Long Beach Island and it litterally blew him away. He couldn't stop talking about how you never see films like this anymore and how things have gotten too PC. It was as if he'd been sleep walking through the last 30 years and had forgotten how different films used to be.
He kept mentioning how you'd never see a scene like the "Bennie discovers he got the crabs after sleeping with Elita" sequence or the hero driving a beatup piece of crap Chevy, or the hero looking like Warren Oates for that matter. His wife just cracked up over the "turning Elita around so she can sleep eternally with the headless Al" grave sequence.
It was great seeing the light go on in his head. Try it out sometime.
A true companion piece in spirit to Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia is The Wrong Man (1993)
"This is most definitely the darkest film ever made and it shouldn't go without saying that it's got a lot in common with my favorite book, moby dick, one of the darkest ever written. Warren Oates has maybe the best performance I've ever witnessed. He plays a man that falls in love with a whore, ruins her, rises from the grave, goes mad with obsession over a head, talks to a rotting head in a bloody bag, asks it questions, kills at least a dozen men and succeeds willing each death with his desperation, makes a choice and never turns back, and goes has no escape from life. I have to agree with the gentlemen who did the commentary on the dvd, benny grieves much longer than any other character in cinema. Usually the hero grieves for a moment, declares his method of revenge and goes on with it. Benny, however, slowly and painfully slips into hatred and aggression towards the obsession that ruined what little life he had left and is willed into deadly action by his desperation. This film has the essential no way out theme, there is no point in the movie for a good hour leading up to it's finale that the viewer can think to themselves "why doesn't he just (blank) and get away", there simply is no choice to be made but his decline into absolute despair. Peckinpah shooting a tragedy in the 'real' unpolished Mexico, smoking barrels, whole families blown away, buried alive, rising from the grave, no way out, and a whole lot of the darkest comedy you will ever see. The scenes in the graveyard, where everything that sets the second half of the film up happens, is so good and so daunting that I thought it couldn't possibly get any better than this, this has to be the bread and butter of the film. Benny is ambushed and left for dead half-buried alive and what directly follows is some of the most disturbing stuff I've ever seen. Well what follows the most-disturbing stuff is a no-way-out rambling road trip into despair that darkly mocks a 70's buddy movie(remember he talks to the rotting fly-ridden head in the bloody bag). Every second from the graveyard on is gripping, dark, funny, disturbing, and wholly expected at the same time. No one could have done such an anti-hollywood dirty, dark, and depressing film better than Peckinpah, and no one has since nor probably ever will."
-dave jenkins SLWB
The film was reviled when it was released. The reviews went beyond hatred into horror. It was grotesque, sadistic, irrational, obscene and incompetent, wrote Joy Gould Boyum in the Wall Street Journal. It was a catastrophe, said Michael Sragow in New York magazine. ''Turgid melodrama at its worst,'' said Variety. Martin Baum, the producer, recalled a sneak preview with only 10 people left in the theater at the end: ''They hated it! Hated it!''
I gave it four stars and called it ''some kind of bizarre masterpiece.'' Now I approach it again after 27 years, and find it extraordinary, a true and heartfelt work by a great director who endured despite, or perhaps because of, the demons that haunted him. Courage usually feels good in the movies, but it comes in many moods, and here it feels bad but necessary, giving us a hero who is heartbreakingly human--a little man determined to accomplish his mission in memory of a woman he loved, and in truth to his own defiant code.
The film stars Warren Oates (1928-1982), that sad-faced, gritty actor with the crinkled eyes, as a forlorn piano player in a Mexican brothel--an American at a dead end. When a powerful Mexican named El Jefe (Emilio Fernandez) discovers that his daughter is pregnant, he commands, ''bring me the head of Alfredo Garcia,'' and so large is the reward he offers that two bounty hunters (Gig Young and Robert Webber) come into the brothel looking for Alfredo, and that is how Bennie finds out about the head. He knows that a prostitute named Elita (Isela Vega) was once sweet on Alfredo, and he discovers that the man is already dead.
He and Elita love each other, in the desperate fashion of two people who see no other chance of survival. He needs money to escape from the trap he is in. He will dig up the body, steal the head, deliver it to El Jefe, and then he and Elita will live happily ever after--a prospect they honor but do not believe in. During Bennie's odyssey across the dusty roads of Mexico, many will die, and the head, carried in a gunny sack, will develop a foul odor and attract a blanket of flies. But it represents Bennie's fortune, and he will die to defend it.
The parallels with ''The Treasure of the Sierra Madre'' are obvious, starting with broken-down barfly down on his luck, and when Gig Young's character says his name is ''Fred C. Dobbs,'' the name of Bogart's character in ''Treasure,'' it's a wink from Peckinpah. Dobbs is finally defeated, and so is Bennie, but Bennie at least goes out on his own terms, even though his life spirals down into proof that the world is a rotten place and has no joy for Bennie.
''Alfredo Garcia'' is a mirror image of formula movies where the hero goes on the road on a personal mission. The very reason for wanting Alfredo Garcia's head--revenge--is moot because Garcia is already dead. By the end, Bennie identifies with the head, talks to ''Al,'' acknowledges that Al was the true love of Elita's life, and puts the stinking head under a shower where once he sat on the floor and watched Elita, and tells it, ''a friend of ours tried to take a shower in there.''
The sequences do not flow together, they bang together, daily trials under the scorching sun. Of all the extraordinary scenes in the film, the best is the one where Bennie and Elita pull off the road for a picnic, and talk long and softly, tenderly, to each other. Kris Kristofferson, who plays a biker who interrupts this scene, recalled years later that it was supposed to end with Bennie confessing he had never thought of asking Elita to marry him. ''But the scene didn't stop there,'' he told Garner Simmons, author of Peckinpah: A Portrait in Montage ''She [Vega] didn't stop. She says, 'Well, ask me.' And he says, 'What?' And she says, 'To marry you.' And I swear to God, Warren just looked like every other guy who's ever been confronted like that. But he didn't break character. He says, 'Will you marry me?' And then she starts crying. And every time I saw it, it broke me up. Warren said to me: 'I just knew there was no place to hide in that scene. She had me, and I was cryin', too.' ''
Then the two bikers appear, and the one played by Kristofferson intends to rape Elita. She knows Bennie has a concealed gun but the bikers are dangerous and she tells the man who has just proposed to her not to risk his life, because, as a prostitute, ''I been here before and you don't know the way.'' It is the sad poetry of that line that expresses Peckinpah's vision, in which people find the courage to do what they must do in a world with no choices.
The film's screenplay and story, by Peckinpah, Gordon T. Dawson and Frank Kowalski, has other dialogue as simple, direct and sad. When Elita questions the decision to cut off Garcia's head, Bennie tells her, ''There's nothing sacred about a hole in the ground or the man that's in it--or you, or me.'' And then he says, ''The church cuts off the toes and fingers and every other damn thing--they're saints. Well, Alfredo is our saint.'' Later, there is a hint of Shakespeare, even, in Bennie's remark to the sack: ''You got jewels in your ears, diamonds up your nose.''
The thing is, Oates and Vega are so tired and sweet and utterly without movie-actor affect in this film. They seem worn out and hopeless. These are holy performances. Maybe the conditions of the shoot, and the director's daily personal ordeal, wore them down, and that informed their work. David Weddle, who wrote a book on Peckinpah named If They move ... Kill 'Em!, quotes Gordon Dawson as a daily witness on the location. Dawson had worked with Peckinpah many times before but refused to ever work with him again: ''He really lost it on 'Alfredo.' It tore my heart right out.''
Peckinpah was a tragic drunk, and booze killed him in 1984, at 59. When I visited the Durango, Mexico set of his ''Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid'' (1973), he sat in a chair under an umbrella, his drink in his hand, and murmured his instructions to an assistant. ''The studio screwed him so thoroughly on that picture that he got sick,'' Kristofferson told me. ''There were days when he couldn't raise himself up from his chair.'' When Peckinpah visited Chicago to promote ''Alfredo Garcia,'' he sat in a darkened hotel room, wearing dark glasses, hung over, whispering, and I remembered that in the movie Bennie even wears his dark glasses to bed.
Booze destroyed Peckinpah's life, but in this film, I believe, it allowed him, or forced him, to escape from the mindless upbeat formulas of the male action picture, and to send Bennie down a road on which, no matter how bad a man feels, he finishes his job. Some days on the set there must not have been a dime's worth of difference between Peckinpah and Bennie.
Sam Peckinpah directed "The Wild Bunch" (1969), the best Western I have seen, and he brought in a lot of box office money in a career that included "Straw Dogs" (1971) and "The Getaway" (1972) He came up as a writer on TV Westerns, starting with ''Gunsmoke'' in 1955, and in his earliest Western as a director, "Ride the High Country" (1962), he starred the old-timers Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea in a story of two professionals hired to do a job. ''The Wild Bunch'' was also about aging men whose loyalty was to one another and not to society.
A real director is at his best when he works with material that reflects his own life patterns. At a film festival, after ''Pat Garrett'' had become the latest of his films to be emasculated by a studio, he was asked if he would ever make a ''pure Peckinpah'' and he replied, ''I did 'Alfredo Garcia' and I did it exactly the way I wanted to. Good or bad, like it or not, that was my film.''