Monday, October 26, 2015

Reeling Backward: "Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia" (1974)

"There ain't no more chances!"
Every other filmmaker looked at Warren Oates and surely thought, "What a great face for a character actor." Only Sam Peckinpah gazed up on his pinched, wizened features, unimpressive physique and horsey teeth and said, "That's my star."

(Well, him and John Milius, whose "Dillinger" with Oates in the title role beat Peckinpah's film to the theaters by a few months.)

Oates, perhaps in a combination of gratitude and resentfulness toward his famously exacting director, used him as a model for his signature irascible performance, going so far as to wear Peckinpah's personal sunglasses throughout most of the movie -- even scenes set indoors, at night.

You can't see very well that way, of course, or be seen, but maybe that's the point. In his Bennie, an ex-Army mook slumming his way through Mexico's seediest bars as a piano player for Yankee tourists, Oates gives the indelible impression of a man in hiding, mostly from himself.

Peckinpah was something of a south-of-the-border tourist himself, his last few movies failing to grab attention the way his masterpiece, "The Wild Bunch," did a handful of years earlier. He filmed "Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia" in Mexico using an entirely Mexican crew, and at one point vowed never to shoot in the States again. That got him in trouble with the film and television unions, who relented their boycott of the movie after the appropriate bowing and scraping.

The director, who co-wrote the script with Gordon Dawson, has acknowledged that the genesis for this film came from his friend Frank Kowalski, who suggested the idea of a manhunt for a man who was already dead.

Like much of Peckinpah's oeuvre, it's an overt reaction to and repudiation of tired Hollywood traditions. How many movies have we seen where some boss offers a rich reward for the capture, dead or alive, of some hated foe, and then we dutifully watched as the miscreant was hunted down -- or, if he was the hero, righteously overcame his pursuers?

Only Peck would short-circuit the chase in the first act, informing us that the quarry was killed in a drunk-driving accident days earlier. Bennie, starting to spin in a circle of what he knows to be a slow spiral to the bottom, sees a last chance for a payday and a fresh start by simply finding the sap's body and appropriating the head, without even having to kill anybody.

He arranges to collect $10,000 for finding and killing Alfredo from American mercenaries, not knowing they're merely the frontmen for El Jefe (Emilio Fernández), the regional crime lord who has offered a cool million for the offending head. It seems Alfredo, once regarded by El Jefe as his own son, has impregnated his teenage daughter and run off. In the opening sequence, he has the girl tortured to reveal the name of the father in full view of the assembled family, her bones breaking with a sickening crunch.

An entire army of assassins and bounty hunters is dispatched. Two of the creepiest, a pair of Americans named Sappensly (Robert Webber) and Quill (Gig Young), stumble upon Bennie's bar and ask after Alfredo. One of them knocks out a prostitute for plying her wares by simply swinging an elbow, demonstrating both their ruthlessness and queer propensities (and I don't mean the Tolkien-esh use of that word).

Bennie knows Alfredo as the former beau of his erstwhile girlfriend, Elita (Isela Vega). He learns from her that 1) Alfredo is dead, and 2) he spent several days in her company immediately beforehand. He quickly gets over his anger for her cheating, since how can you really break fidelity vows that remain untaken?

Bennie hatches upon what he thinks is a brilliant plan: he and Elita will take a pleasant car trip to the countryside to retrieve Alfredo's topmost appendage, and use the money to go someplace they've never been before and start a life as man and wife. Bennie, heretofore reluctant to commit, is so ensorceled by the idea that he even begins to refer to Elita as his missus.

Things, obviously, don't go so well. First there is an encounter with a couple of pot-bellied bikers who want to rape Elita, or kill Bennie, or both. She readily goes along to spare his life -- as a prostitute, the use of her body as a commidity is familiar to her. But Bennie, who has stated that he "shot a lot of pistols in the Army," gets the drop on the bikers and plugs 'em both.

(One of the miscreants is played by Kris Kristofferson, an odd cameo by a singer/songwriter who'd already segued into leading film roles in "Cisco Pike" and "Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid.")

The sudden incursion into violence, and Bennie's evident expertise in that area, leaves Elita shaken. Their disunion grows wider when Bennie finally reveals the reason for wanting to visit Alfredo's grave; Elita makes clear that she'll help him if that's what he chooses, but it will be their final moment together.

Vega, like many actresses in Peckinpah's films, is used mostly as a canvas upon which to paint male lust and venality, evidenced by her frequent nude scenes of the barest necessity. She has her top down more in this movie than Bennie's battered red 1962 Chevy Impala convertible.

The last act is a tragedy worthy of MacBeth. Elita falls victims to the plot, and Alfredo's head becomes Bennie's obsession and totem, as it passes hands from one interested party or another, but always finding its way back to Our Man. He begins talking to Alfredo, blaming him, then absolving him.

Bennie is less interested in the money than exacting revenge -- though, it should be noted, after plunking El Jefe in cold blood, he turns back to pick up the briefcase full of cash.

In the end, the story to me is about how we capriciously assign value to things, and how that can change in a wink. Bennie at first invests little emotional currency in his relationship with Elita, but that quickly compounds. Elita places more worth on saving Bennie's life than her own virtue. Bennie is not willing to kill for $10,000, but will do so to preserve his own pride. A man's legacy is worth nothing, but his bodily scraps will buy you into the millionaires' club.

"Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia" is a weird, glorious and brutal film. It is not Peckinpah's greatest movie but is probably his most quintessential one. If you wanted to boil Peckinpah's worldview and cinematic aesthetics down to their base elements, this is what you'd get.

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