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Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia(1974)


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A title long utilized as a takeoff point for jokes and spoofs, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is actually one of Sam Peckinpah's better pictures, at least from the autobiographical point of view. As the last film made before the director's career dissolved in alcohol and drugs, it shows a personal commitment difficult to perceive in any of his subsequent work, with the partial exception of his one war movie, Cross of Iron. Peckinpah's crumbling personality is strongly felt in the tale of a no-account gringo on a godforsaken mission on the back highways of Mexico, steeling himself for the terrible things he must do with a constant flow of booze.

Thoroughly dissipated lounge pianist/drifter Bennie (Warren Oates) sees a way out of his moral and physical decrepitude when a bizarre opportunity comes his way: through the underworld figure Max (Helmut Dantine), land baron El Jefe (Emilio Fernández) puts a huge bounty out for the delivery of the head of Alfredo García, the man who impregnated his daughter. Bennie discovers that his quarry has since died, and takes to the road with his sometime-lover, call girl Elita (Isela Vega). His idea is to do some midnight grave robbing. Little does Bennie realize that Max's unscrupulous operatives Sappensly and Quill (Robert Webber & Gig Young) have tipped him off only so that they can steal his prize and collect the reward themselves. A biker (Kris Kristofferson) threatens Elita with rape, and more ugly adventures await Bennie on the road to fulfill his mission.

In mainstream audience terms Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is a thoroughly nasty crime tale featuring a despicable and physically filthy hero. A scene guaranteed to clear old ladies from theaters sees Bennie pouring alcohol onto his underwear in an attempt to kill the lice he's picked up. Its gross-out aspects aside, the show has plenty to offer Sam Peckinpah addicts. What is possibly the director's most freewheeling, off-the-cuff movie has a fine performance from Warren Oates in one semi-improvised scene after another. The actor seems either drunk or hung over at all times, yet he delivers his stream of consciousness dialogue like a master. Oates' brief tenure as a leading man (Dillinger, Chandler) was surely squelched by this outing, which Peckinpah praised as his only movie released that retained his full vision.

Frank Kowalski and Sam Peckinpah's original story is a grabber that combines the director's marketable screen violence with a morbid theme that might have Edgar Allan Poe pause. For at least half an hour Bennie races his car across the Mexican countryside, while on the passenger seat next to him rests a human head in a gunnysack, partly packed in ice. Bennie carries on philosophical and personal conversations with the decapitated noggin while flies buzz around the car interior. He sometimes splashes liquor on the cabeza that he'll soon swap for cold cash. It's deliriously creepy, a sick expression of what a man's gotta do to get ahead by in the modern West. Separating Bennie from the other bounty killers is his personal relationship with the severed head. He soon needs to know why someone wants it so badly.

Peckinpah mounts a number of impressive scenes in bars and on the road, and most of his actors behave as if slumming South of the border for a few extra bucks. Robert Webber and Gig Young's intimidating pair of homosexual hit men are given minimal exposition. Scenes in the low-rent hovels of Mexico City carry an all-too depressing sense of realism. By contrast, the formal doings in the palatial hacienda of El Jefe are like something from an earlier century, with a priest and nuns looking on, and a gallery of black-clad women observing through veils. Too much of an old-school warlord to be the ringleader of a modern drug cartel, El Jefe brings back associations with The Wild Bunch -- actor and director Emilio Fernández is thoroughly in charge here, and a thoroughly scary presence.

Unfortunately, this is where Peckinpah's lousy judgment kicks in. Alfredo Garcia is packed with lazy and stupid exploitation scenes. The most insulting sees American biker Kris Kristofferson and a pal simply show up on the road, and escort Elita away from Bennie for sex at gunpoint. The dull scene (shot day for night) seems to exist only so that Peckinpah can include yet another indulgent shot of a woman's clothing being ripped away. That Elita gives herself to her rapist voluntarily shows Peckinpah's latter-career ineptitude with female characters (no slur on Isela Vega's brave performance). As was the case with the beautiful but meandering Pat Garrett and BIlly the Kid, the Kristofferson scene could be removed entirely without a disruption in continuity. It's just padding, with another pal of Peckinpah making a cameo appearance to help make the movie marketable.

The director's trashy instincts also yank the rug out from under his otherwise lyrical and dramatic opening. El Jefe's pregnant daughter is put on trial and tortured to make her give up Alfredo García's name. As if unable to think of any other bit of business to add to the scene, Sam has two of El Jefe's retainers strip her as well. The grindhouse audience surely approved but it comes off as simply coarse and lazy filmmaking. Peckinpah may be a "Gutsy maverick" but by this time his movies use women almost exclusively as exploitable, abuse-able objects.

Peckinpah's action scenes seem self-parodies addressing his unfair reputation as a violence-mad hack. Warren Oates slings a mean .45 automatic, but Peckinpah's slow-motion shots of blood spurts and exploding bric-a-brack are filmed and edited as if the movie were on automatic pilot. A roadside machine gun slaughter simply assembles uninspired coverage from Peckinpah's multiple cameras, as extras line up for the express purpose of being mowed down. The only thrill is seeing the gleeful faces of Gig Young and Robert Webber as they hose down the location with machine gun bullets. Peckinpah's violence in his gripping Straw Dogs showed some ingenuity but here the tension doesn't pick up until Bennie shoots up a gangland accounting office, and then goes all radical/existential/murderous in the tiled court of El Jefe. He finds himself surrounded by six trigger-happy Mexican marksmen, yet mysteriously beats them all to the draw. The last we saw of Pike Bishop in The Wild Bunch he was aiming for the sky as if trying to shoot God Almighty. For the final shot of Alfredo Garcia, Peckinpah's editors give us the hollow visual of a machine gun firing directly at us, the audience. Far out, man...

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia has been on both worst and best movie lists for forty years, so it must be doing something right: critics and fans deeply committed to the Tao of Sam overlook its faults and see it as Peckinpah's ultimate expression of rage: the warlord and the mob are surrogates for those hated suits at the movie studios. For this viewer the film is a definite mixed bag, an outrageous story just barely put across by a director who has lost all sense of proportion about himself and his craft. With Warren Oates embodying Peckinpah right down to the heavy dark glasses, the artist does make his statement -- a commitment to a drunkard's notion of personal honor.

The Twilight Time Blu-ray of Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is a beautiful transfer of a movie that's not looked all that great in earlier DVD editions. It's amusing to hear commentator Nick Redman wondering about the state of the original camera elements. What we see looks pristine, while Redman was apparently monitoring a far less attractive file copy. MGM and Deluxe Digital's transfer is so good, we can see when cameraman Álex Phillips Jr. changes lens filters for the close-ups of Bennie and Elita's long "will you marry me" scene by the side of the road.

Twilight Time appears to have invested in special extras for this edition. The old commentary with the 'Peckinpah Posse' of biographers (Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons, David Weddle) has been carried over, and a newer one lets Nick Redman prompt associate producer & writer Gordon T. Dawson about his ten years working with Peckinpah. Dawson concurs that the director was in full self-destruct mode by the time Alfredo Garcia went before the cameras. Sam was better when drinking than when doing drugs, because with the alcohol he'd eventually pass out and give his minders some peace. Dawson's description of Peckinpah's behavior indicates a director that was rarely prepared, absented himself from the set, couldn't remember his own instructions and heaped abuse and blame on everyone around him. Yet Dawson misses him deeply.

Filmmaker and Peckinpah expert Mike Siegel offers two comprehensive interview documentaries, made in 2013. Passion and Poetry: Sam's Favorite Film (55 minutes) gathers numerous Alfredo Garcia actors and personnel for an hour-long making-of show. A Writer's Journey (25 minutes) sticks with biographer Garner Simmons, who was present for the filming in Mexico and played a small role as well. A third item puts Jerry Fielding's music score behind a montage of ad posters and artwork for the film. Six TV spots and the original trailer are also present.

By Glenn Erickson
There are a lot of good things to say about Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, but the best is the simplest: it actually lives up to its title. What were the chances of that? It is literally impossible to imagine a Hollywood studio making this booze-soaked south-of-the-border tale of dismemberment, murder, brutality, revenge and - yes - love today. No way. I think the "notes" a present-day studio head would send back about the script would be longer than the script itself. But Sam Peckinpah did indeed make Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia for United Artists, when the one-time director-friendly studio was in the midst of multi-film relationships with Martin Scorsese, Hal Ashby and Woody Allen, in addition to Peckinpah. It's safe to say only the UA of the 1970s would have let Peckinpah make Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, just as it's safe to say only Peckinpah could have made this blend of revenge drama and romance - or, at least, only Peckinpah could have made it work.

Like most any Peckinpah "hero," from the violent gunmen of The Wild Bunch to the title character in the relatively sweet The Ballad of Cable Hogue, Warren Oates' Benny is a deeply flawed, emotionally wounded man. He's in a sort of self-exile in Mexico, where he plays at a dingy piano bar for tourists and thinks he finds a way out of his hole when a pair of slick Americans (Robert Webber, Gig Young) come into the bar looking for a man named Alfredo Garcia. As the movie's opening sequence has shown us, a wealthy cattle baron (Emilio Fernandez) has uttered the movie's title after learning that Garcia seduced his teenaged daughter and got her pregnant. The Americans are two of the cattle baron's many operatives who've fanned out across Mexico, because the rich man will give a million dollars to the man who brings Alfredo Garcia's head to him. Benny knows Garcia, but doesn't let on. When he not only discovers that his girlfriend Elita (Isela Vega) cheated on him with Garcia the week before (they were old flames), but that Garcia died in a car accident soon afterwards, he returns to the Americans and tells them he'll go kill Garcia and bring them the head. They give him four days to do it, and the promise of $10,000 if he succeeds.

The resulting trip will bring a lot of blood, sweat and tears to both Benny and Elita, who he brings along to direct him to Garcia's grave (she doesn't initially know the real reason he wants to go there). Although Benny claims the trip is to get them money to start a new life in the U.S., the prospect of beheading the man who had sex with his woman for three nights is no doubt partially why Benny is so hellbent on seeing his mission through. For various reasons, the trip brings reluctant Benny to finally emotionally commit himself to being with Elita long-term. Neither a deadly run-in with two bikers (Kris Kristofferson, Donny Fritts), in which one tries to rape Elita (a complex yet problematic scene in which Elita seems to derive pleasure from the predicament) nor Elita's disapproval once she learns Benny wants to behead Alfredo can deter the guy from using the head to secure a future.

It's a fool's gambit, for sure, but what good movie about an American south of the border isn't based on similar desperation (at one point, Young's character references The Treasure of the Sierra Madre)? Just how foolish becomes clear in the second half of Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, when the male brutality towards women, the cold, Nixonian evil of the cattle baron (whose opulent estate masks his business-like network of malevolence) and the dog-eat-dog power struggles of the first half erupt into full-blown bloodbaths. These bloodbaths comprise Peckinpah's oddball redemption for Benny, who, like Lee Marvin in Point Blank becomes driven by principle, by the need to confront those who did him wrong and for the simple desire to salvage some purpose from the ordeal. As Benny explains when he finally gives Garcia's head to the land baron: "Sixteen people are dead because of him, you and me."

So, of course, there is madness to Peckinpah's mayhem. As is always going to be the case in a movie like this, the violence will put off some people. But beneath the gunplay (often rendered in Peckinpah's trademark slow-motion), there's tenderness in Benny and Isela's unconventional love and political relevance in the Nixon-inspired (and Hollywood-inspired?) commentary on power run amok. The movie also offers gritty Oates at his unrepentant best and in his heyday. The Peckinpah regular gave a number of ornery characters an almost lyrical quality, and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia came during a stretch of memorable movies that also found him in Peter Fonda's The Hired Hand and the Monte Hellman duo of Two-Lane Blacktop and Cockfighter. Not surprisingly, all these movies share an outlaw quality with Oates.

The new Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia DVD includes a very strong audio commentary featuring Peckinpah biographers Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons and David Weddle. I was afraid the commentary would be something of an "I know more about Sam than you" contest, with each expert trying to outdo each other, but I'm glad to say I was wrong. The authors are obviously previously acquainted with each other, and offer a lively roundtable discussion of the still-powerful and at times still-astonishing Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia.

For more information about Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, visit MGM Home Video. To order Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, go to TCM Shopping.

by Paul Sherman