Tuesday, August 28, 2018
Director Report Card: Sam Peckinpah (1974)
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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]