Thursday, June 9, 2011

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974)

In 2011, I'm surprised that Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia has not enjoyed a renaissance of sorts, with the least being a remake. With some very notable exceptions, Sam Peckinpah's 1974 film is remarkably modern: outlandish, over-the-top, offensive, and hyper-violent. I can imagine sitting in an audience today and hearing the chuckles of its members while Benny, portrayed by Warren Oates, drives his beat-up convertible on a Mexican highway taking intermittent swigs of tequila. "Have a drink, Al," he says as he pours some alcohol on the rotting head of Alfredo Garcia, covered in flies and resting on the passenger seat. Benny's a lovable loser, isn't he? Don't you want to cheer when he empties a clip into a bad guy (who falls down dying in a signature, slow-motion Peckinpah shot)? Like any modern action hero or any modern anti-hero, Benny has the witty one-liner--as he shoots a corpse on the ground, he quips, "Why? Because it feels so damn good." Here is a plot synopsis:A wealthy businessman, El Jefe, has an unmarried, pregnant daughter on the threshold of delivering. He demands that she reveal the father of her unborn child. Under duress, she reveals the name--Alfredo Garcia. Incensed, El Jefe makes a supreme command to his henchmen--"Bring me the head of Alfredo Garcia!" A ridiculous amount of money serves as the reward. Like sharks in a frenzy, his henchmen hit the street, looking for Garcia. Some of El Jefe's gringo henchmen create a local network, and two associates, portrayed by Gig Young and Robert Webber, find American piano player, Benny (Warren Oates) working at a tourist trap in a small village. In exchange for information on the whereabouts of Alfredo Garcia, they will pay Benny. Benny learns the location of Garcia from Elita (Isela Vega). Elita is the woman who Benny loves and she reveals that Garcia has died in a drunken auto accident. He is buried in a cemetery in a small town. Armed with this information, Benny confronts the local gringo network and makes his own demand: ten-thousand dollars in exchange for the head of Alfredo Garcia. It's a deal. The plot of Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia could be found within the leaves of any American pulp fiction novel. By its plot synopsis alone, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia seemingly sits comfortably between Peckinpah's previous pulp adaptation, The Getaway (1972), from the novel by Jim Thompson, and Cockfighter (1974), starring Warren Oates, from the novel by Charles Willeford. Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is composed of the same type of criminal scheme that intuitively every reader (or viewer) knows is too easy to pull off without a hitch. As the events of the story grow from bad to worse, intuitively also the viewer (or reader) knows that the greatest toll is taken upon the characters' psyche. A quick death is welcomed but not forthcoming. It is within this latter sentiment where Peckinpah's film stands out from his contemporaries. In my opinion, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is easily Peckinpah's most tragic and heartfelt film. There is no character more tragic than Elita, portrayed by Isela Vega. Her character is the thematic sister to Karen Black's Rayette from Five Easy Pieces (1970). Their characters and their portrayals are notable, because most often, they are seen with Post-Modern eyes: often cited as ironic characters, because both adhere to an ideal of love. So in the end, they appear tragic, because they're naive (instead of wholly genuine). Like Rafelson with Five Easy Pieces, Peckinpah's characterization is much more complex than its surface implies. One of the interesting questions within Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia which is never directly confronted is Elita knowing the exact whereabouts of Alfredo Garcia. Benny is surprisingly forgiving at Elita's answer: the last "three days and three nights" of Alfredo Garcia's life were spent with Elita. The time that the two shared were as lovers. Peckinpah's answer comes in the depiction of Elita's character and relates to ancient ideas of Fate or more modern, philosophical ideas of Determinism. Peckinpah's depiction of the world's treatment towards Elita is that of a prostitute. The famous scene of Kris Kristofferson and his buddy, as biker bandits, who raid a peaceful campfire scene of Benny and Elita, is made more powerful juxtaposed with its following sequence: at the desk of a local motel, the innkeeper attempts to refuse service to Benny and Elita, because he thinks Elita is Benny's prostitute and the two have come to use his hotel for business. The biker-bandit rape/revenge sequence and the innkeeper sequence follow from the same sentiment into wholly different and polarized scenarios: one, violent and primal, and the other, civilized and corporate. The message is the same--Elita has one identity according to the world and it's completely unfair. Unsurprisingly, Benny treats her the same way: if Elita had never spent three days with her lover, then Benny would have never known his whereabouts. If Elita never had Garcia as a lover, then Benny couldn't collect on his ten-thousand dollars. Benny's more immediately forgiving when the woman he loves is access to money. The irony, of course, is Benny not recognizing what is certain with Elita: her love for him. This theme by Peckinpah is amazingly resonant. One would never question that Peckinpah is intimately familiar with the depiction of traditional male virility and its flaws and attributes. Likewise, it is difficult to question his depiction of traditional male attitudes and their impetuses and results.Hence, it is easy to see why Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is essentially unique in Peckinpah's filmography and how influential it would become to subsequent pulp adaptations for the screen, such as James Foley's excellent After Dark, My Sweet (1990) and George Armitage's equally excellent, Miami Blues (1990), for example. Instead of typical pulp melodrama, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia delivers genuine emotion, and no tragedy would be complete without it. Understandably, it is a little too real to fit into today's ultra-hip, wink-wink cinema. Although I have to admit during the final sequence, no matter how many times that I see it, I still give a big smile when El Jefe's unmarried daughter, now a new mother, gives Benny a supreme command as he is pointing his pistol at her father. Seen in context of the whole film, it is the quintessential and ultimate sequence. Despite Warren Oates giving one of the best performances of his career, Isela Vega steals the film. While Peckinpah's slow-motion and meticulous action sequences often attract attention from his cinematography, these scenes do not over shadow Álex Phillips Jr.'s work in Garcia. Some of Peckinpah's most affecting and beautiful compositions come from this film. If Sam Peckinpah had made only one film or had made only one good film and that film was Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, then he would still be a patron saint here at Quiet Cool. Essential.

4 comments:

J.D. said...

Excellent review of this cinematic classic. I love the grungy realism of this film. By the end you almost want to take a shower as Peckinpah really immerses you in Benny's world. Easily Warren Oates' finest performance and one in which he really channels Peckinpah so much that it's kinda spooky.

Hans A. said...

@J.D.--Thank you very much. I really appreciate your kind words. I love this one, too. It might be my favorite Peckinpah.

Dr.LargePackage said...

Great review, Hans. Who are the other patron saints of quiet cool? I hope they are large and in charge.

Ty said...

Great review for a classic flick! Warren Oates was excellent as usual.