Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
"LAST OF THE MONSTER KIDS" - Available Now on the Amazon Kindle Marketplace!

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Director Report Card: Sam Peckinpah (1974)

10. Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia

The root of “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia” began in 1970, during the production of “The Ballad of Cable Hogue.” Frank Kowalski presented Sam Peckinpah with the title and the premise. The director kicked the script around for several years. The fallout of “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid” turned out to be the perfect time to make it. It would be another Peckinpah film that would be largely misunderstood upon release. Roger Ebert considered it one of the best films of all time. The Medveds considered it one of the worst. Audiences ignored it. Over the next few decades, it would become one of the director's most enduring cult classic.

A Mexican crime boss known only as El Jefe discovers that his daughter is pregnant. After she is tortured, she reveals the name of the man responsible: Alfredo Garcia. Jefe puts a million dollar bounty on Garcia's head and just his head. When hitmen begin snooping around his bar for leads, down-on-his-luck piano player Bennie decides to pursue Alfredo himself. He believes the money could change his life and drags his girlfriend, Elita, along with him. And thus a journey into Hell begins.

Peckinpah claimed “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia” was his most satisfying film, the one that most matched his vision for it. Perhaps this is because the film is obviously the director's most personal work. Bennie is clearly based on Peckinpah himself. He's a self-destructive alcoholic who sacrifices his own honor in pursuit of a big payday. He struggles against authority along the way and manages to screw it all up, partially out of a self-sabotaging instinct. As more of his life falls apart, he becomes more unhinged. It's very easy to spot parallels between the protagonist, his journey, and the director's own life. “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia” inhabits the nihilistic, self-hating world of its director. The film is a sweaty, blood and booze soaked journey through a self-interrogating Hell. The destination is catharsis but, pointedly, not redemption.

It's fitting that Warren Oates, one most of the director's most frequent collaborators, would star in such a personal project. Oates supposedly pattern his performance after the director, wearing Sam's trademark sunglasses throughout most of the film. It's easily among the veteran's actor's best performances. Bennie has a likable veneer. When we first see him, playing piano and shooting the shit, he seems like a down-to-earth guy. He's even playful at times. As his quest becomes more self-destructive, as he looses what he loves the most, an anger and entitlement creeps into Oates' performance. This quickly sours into an even uglier pathetic quality. By the end, Bennie is constantly drunk to drown out the horrible regrets. It's an unhinged and impressive performance from Oates.

What makes Bennie's courtship of death and destruction tragic is that it didn't have to be this way. His relationship with Elita is beautifully lived-in. Their scenes together have a natural, deeply intimate feeling. They joke around together, playfully teasing each other in bed. They have many peaceful moments together, such as driving down the road or enjoying each other's company under a tree. The two seem to compliment each other. Isela Vega is extremely good in the role. She seems totally comfortable with the material, having an easy and natural chemistry with Oates.

And he throws it all away for money. The conflict between personal honor and capitalism has certainly cropped up in Peckinpah's films before. Like men selling out long-standing friendships for gold in “Ride the High Country” and “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.” In “Alfredo Garcia,” the pursuit of riches is nothing less than self-destructive. Elita criticizes Bennie's goal of digging up Garcia's body, considering the desecration of a grave an act of sacrilege.  But Bennie persists. By the time he has acquired Garcia's head, and lost an awful lot because of it, he begins to actively question why this man's life was worth the death of so many others. Which, when compared to the lust with which Bennie once pursued the award, can only come off as self-critical. Having lost everything, Bennie is questioning his own greed. But it's too late now to really make a difference.

Another reoccurring element throughout Sam Peckinpah's films is the casual way men abuse women. This forms a part of “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia” as well. It begins early, when El Jefe stripes his daughter and has her tortured. A hit man slaps a waitress to the floor in Bennie's bar. A group of bikers corner Bennie and Elita, one of them taking the woman off with the intention to rape her. Bennie kills the assailants, seemingly more because they've hurt his pride than because Elita is in danger, as the woman seems oddly serene about the situation. Even minor interactions, like when a hotel manager assumes Elita is a prostitute, can be read by this theme. The movie's entire plot is sent in motion because a man believes he can control a woman's sexuality. All the violence is a side-effect of the mistreatment of women by short-sighted, power-hungry men.

“Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia” was filmed and produced entirely in Mexico, which Peckinpah found to be a very freeing experience. He was determined to capture Mexico as he knew it on camera. The result is probably the grimiest version of Mexico ever put to screen. Every surface in the film is seemingly covered with dirt. Bennie passes through small villages, composed of homemade buildings in dirt fields. The hotel Bennie and Elita visits barely seems to be standing in. Peckinpah was not exaggerating, as the film was largely shot in real locations. He doesn't dehumanize or disrespect the people who live in these places. However, all the locations were picked seemingly to emphasize the deteriorating nature of the protagonist's mind.

This is also apparent in the increasing absurdity of the film's second half. After Elita's death, Bennie starts to drink more and the film grows stranger. He carries Alfredo's head around with him. He often converses with the decapitated cranium, calling it “Al,” and treating it like a friend.  He takes it with him everywhere, determined to personally deliver it to El Jefe. As two separate Letterboxd reviewers have pointed out, he seemingly takes the head onto an airplane with him. Yet that's not the only strange behavior put on-screen. The hit men pursuing Bennie are seemingly in a homosexual relationship, an odd sight in Peckinpah's hyper-macho world. One of Bennie's contacts surrounds himself with fawning women in bikinis while reading a magazine with Richard Nixon on the cover. Some of these surreal images even seemed to be played for comedy. Following a shoot-out on a Mexican hill, one old man is left standing, his hands up the entire time.

As originally written, Bennie was to survive the film. During filming, Peckinpah changed his mind. Instead, Bennie murders El Jefe on his daughter's order. He then drives off and is gunned down in a hail of machine gun fire. Bennie has nothing else to live for, having lost his love and delivered the head. His mission – to make the man truly responsible for this bloodshed pay – is complete. His self-destructive journey has reached its inevitable conclusion. The film's final image is a close-up of the guard's gun barrel, spitting fiery death until it comes to a stop. It's among the most haunting endings in Peckinpah's entire career.

So there's an almost dream-like quality to parts of “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia.” In this context, the director's trademark slow motion takes on a new quality. Now, as gunned-down men fall into their death throes in slow-mo, it takes on an oddly balletic quality. There may be no honor in death but there is an odd beauty. Aside from the trademark slo-mo, of which there's quite a bit, “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia” also features another Peckinpah trademark: Cramped and isolated interiors. Almost every building in the film, even churches and the large mansion where El Jefe lives, have a sweaty and uncomfortable quality to them. The rolling vistas of his Westerns, which this movie sort of is, are long gone. This is a more uncomfortable visual experiences.

As it's mostly focused on Bennie and Elita, the film does not have a large supporting cast. However, a few faces pop out. Emilio Fernandez plays El Jefe. Speaking very little English, Fernandez still manages to make the character intimidating, a man that blusters and rages in a frightening fashion when he doesn't get his way. Gig Young as Quill, one of the two gay hit men hunting Bennie. Apparently the choice to make the couple lovers was Young's and it certainly adds a new dimension to what probably would've been undistinguished villain roles otherwise. Lastly, Kris Kristofferson has a small part as the biker who attempts to rape Elita. As in “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid,” Kristofferson hides a threatening energy underneath a charming smile, which works well for this small role.

“Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia” would be another box office failure for Sam Peckinpah. However, the movie has since made its mark. First off, the awesome title has been referenced and parodied countless times over the years. Secondly, it's now frequently regarded as one of the director's best movie. By going to a very personal place, and allowing himself to get a little strange, Peckinpah create a singularly powerful motion picture experience. It's probably my favorite of his movies, a true cult classic and a bold personal statement. [Grade: A]

No comments: