Thursday, April 9, 2009

#129: Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia


Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia
Directed by Sam Peckinpah
Written by Gordon Dawson, Frank Kowalski and Sam Peckinpah
Released August 14, 1974

There's nothing sacred about a hole in the ground, or a man that's in it. Or you... or me.

From the disturbing Straw Dogs to the seedy The Getaway to his ultraviolent ode to the demise of the Old West, The Wild Bunch, director Sam Peckinpah's films have never been known to be packed with the sunny frivolity that puts dollar signs in the eyes of Hollywood executives.

And yet Peckinpah was, like almost all great directors, still beholden to the studio system. Never forget that movies cost money, and sometimes paying the paper can make a man do brutal, undignified things.

Coming not-so-hot on the trail of his 1973 box office bomb Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is Peckinpah unhinged and unencumbered by the need to please anyone but himself. You don't have to look hard to see the movie as a sort of twisted autobiography of Peckinpah and his dealings with producers, studio execs and film critics. Even Warren Oates, the film's lead actor, said that he fashioned his character and his appearance after the director.

Oates plays Bennie, a lowlife bartender in a tiny town in Mexico who is one day visited by a couple of henchmen employed by a powerful crime boss named El Jefe. The henchmen are looking for a man named Alfredo Garcia, who abandoned El Jefe's daughter while pregnant with his child. While the henchmen offer Bennie a substantial sum in return for the titular head of Mr. Garcia, he doesn't know that the real bounty is actually $1 million.

Bennie has his own secret: he knows that the Alfredo Garcia these henchmen are hunting for has actually been dead and buried for a month after a fatal car accident. Bennie and his wife (Garcia's former lover and the only person who knows where his body is buried) must get to -- and decapitate -- the body before knowledge of the accident gets out.

Bennie's macabre journey sets off a series of disasters and murders that sends the "protagonist" into a tragic downward trajectory. As Bennie slowly loses his sanity en route to the delivery of his package, one can't help but picture Peckinpah grinning behind the camera lens, perhaps thinking just how apt the metaphor of a man bringing his evil bosses their million dollar "baby" was to his situation.

The movie itself is something different. It moves at its own pace, meandering at times and shockingly abrupt in other moments, and is punctuated by a handful of bloody, jarring gunfights. Beware of any moments of idyllic beauty, because you know a guy like Peckinpah isn't just here to watch a pretty sunset. Look for a cameo from Kris Kristofferson as a creepy biker and potential rapist.

While surely not his finest hour (The Wild Bunch is heralded as a classic for a reason), Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is a unique and strange film with a layered, career-defining performance from Oates. The actor shares a couple of tender scenes with Isela Vega as his wife Elita. Without these few moments, the movie would have no heart to shatter in front of us.

Worth noting: the DVD doesn't have many bonus features, but it comes with an engrossing commentary track from a couple of Peckinpah scholars and friends which makes a second viewing worthwhile, especially in their debate about Peckinpah's controversial portrayal of women in his films.

For more on Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia:
- Movie information at IMDB
and Wikipedia.
- Buy the DVD

The trailer for Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia:

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