Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974, Sam Peckinpah)
Sam Peckinpah is a director whose body of work went mostly unappreciated during his prime. He was a man intent on making film in his own idiosyncratic ways, with personal touches sprinkled throughout all of his films. Some may be wondering what is so special about a director making a film in the manner he or she sees fit, but the reality of Peckinpah’s career when looked back on by film historians (which Between the Seats absolutely does not pretend to be, just in case people get any funny ideas) is that his artistic inclinations frequently clashed with those of the large American studios. The times have changed drastically since the 1960s and early 1970s, and what seemed shockingly violent back then comes across as tame to many younger viewers today. Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, which has been referred to as one of Peckinpah’s most personal films, was, like many of the director’s other projects, rejected by movie goers and critics alike upon its initial release. Time has been somewhat kind to it however and a recent viewing of it on DVD prompted the author to share some thoughts in a review.
The film opens with a preview of what is to come in terms of tone and mood. In a remote but wealthy Mexican home, a young woman, most likely a teenager, is brought to her father, El jefe, by a group of the man’s henchmen. With plenty of witnesses observing the scene, among them religious sisters and still more henchmen, the father asks his daughter who ‘the father’ is. The audience immediately understands the nature of the situation. When the girl refuses to reveal the truth despite her father’s insistence, the latter has her arm broken. Through pain and tears she eventually utters the name ‘Alfredo Garcia’ after which the patriarch immediately send his men off to find the bastard responsible.
It is a tense scene which refuses to hold back, something Peckinpah himself was notorious for, or considered notorious depending on to whom one spoke. Much like in a film reviewed here a few weeks ago, The Wild Bunch, the director can really go to town with the violence if the scene asks for it, which is an important distinction to be made from films which feature gratuitous violence. Another ingredient prevalent in the man’s work is the psychological darkness which shrouds his characters. There are frequently sad, frustrating and maybe even disappointing reasons why his characters behave the way they do. That is one of the best ways to begin describing Alfredo Garcia’s main character, Bennie (Warren Oates), a small time piano player in a Mexican bar. Happenstance sees is that the men looking for Alfredo Garcia put their trust in Bennie on the night they walk into his bar. Benny is no bounty hunter, but he seems a bit sharper than everybody else in the room and actually admits to knowing the man by name. It would appear that dear Alfredo was recently seen with Bennie’s current woman, Elita (Isela Vega), who explains to him that Alfredo is in fact already dead after a car accident. Bennie’s new employers want proof of the man’s passing, and so he takes Elita with him to Alfredo’s grave…
As mentioned above, Peckinpah characters often have a darkness about them as well as bitter or sad pasts which in effect help create the paths they tread in the world of the movies. Bennie, once in the United States army, is reduced to playing tunes for tourists in a little bar. The opportunity to make some decent money is too grand to pass on, despite that he must complete a grisly task in order to collect the bounty. Whatever decisions made in the past lead him to the bar where he plays for paltry sums while customers buy him drinks. His decision to fetch for the head of Alfredo Garcia is another stepping stone in his descent towards a personal hell. Warren Oates interprets the character in a very intelligent manner. For Oates, Bennie is a rather depressing figure, frequently drinking (the true telltale sign being when he spits out a mouthful of water at a restaurant despite that he is incredibly thirsty) and behaving as if he has nothing to lose. It is an offbeat yet fascinating performance from an actor who was in a lot of movies but few people seem to remember him. The character’s trademark are the sunglasses he wears, which serve a multitude of functions: maybe without them he looks completely drunk, maybe they are to shield his emotions from those around him, particularly Elita who continuously invites him to get married to move away with her, and maybe the glasses are there simply to make him look cool. There is not much coolness about a man whose life is unfulfilling to the point where he accepts to cut off a person’s head for money, but that may very well be the image Bennie (and the actor Warren Oates) want to showcase. In the end, it indeed makes him look cool even though the audience knows full well that Bennie is in trouble from the moment he accepts the mission which is...less cool.
The film is populated by a people or groups of people who eventually regret whatever decisions they have made or shall make. Elita, Alfredo’s family members who try to stop Bennie from following through with his mission, a couple of Mexican blokes who make an attempt to steal the severed head, the men who hired Bennie, and eventually Bennie himself for choosing to be a part of the whole affair instead of running off with Elita when he had the chance. Peckinpah seemed intent on making a movie about regret, about making the fatal implications of making the wrong decisions. What is interesting about this aspect is how the director chooses to explore it. There is not much action during the film’s first half. Much of what transpires during the film’s first hour is the beginning of the search for Alfredo Garcia and the exploration of Bennie and Elita’s relationship. Some of the scenes play a little bit too long (again, as was discussed in our The Wild Bunch review, Peckinpah had a knack for giving characters down time and to let the world of the film breath and evolve), but all in all the film’s pacing is adequately split up into two halves. Using that strategy, by the film’s end it feels as if all the characters have received their just deserves for having made poor decisions. In the case of some, the viewer may not have wanted to have seen them pay for their mistakes because they were ultimately alright, but the film is less forgiving in that respect.
There are plenty of more popular and arguably superior films in the director’s filmmography, but Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia remains quintessential Peckinpah and it just might represent his cinematic tastes in their most raw form.