Forgotten Films: Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia (1974)

A70-8736It’s always fun and enlightening to viddy a cult curio that has established a crazed reputation over the years such as Sam Peckinpah’s BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA, his most bugfuck personal masterpiece. After the success of THE WILD BUNCH (1969), STRAW DOGS (1971) and THE GETAWAY (1972), Peckinpah finally gained the 70’s cinema privilege of Final Cut, which he’d been denied on his previous films, all edited against his vision. So Bloody Sam decided to take total advantage of his contract and deliver a filthy, searing treatsie on the nature of greed and obssession, filtered through Peckinpah’s cynical, romantic, misanthropic lens.

garciaThe story by Frank Kowalski, Gordon Dawson and Peckinpah is simple and ludicrous: a cruel gangster known only as “El Jefe” (Emilio Fernandez), outraged that his daughter has been made pregnant by her lover, Alfredo Garcia (uncredited), demands his head as proof of his death for one million dollars. A slick criminal organization represented by Robert Webber and Gig Young (surrogates for Team Nixon, whom Peckinpah called “killer apes in suits”) seek out information from Bennie, a lounge loser ex-pat who entertains the customers of a Mexican whorehouse. That our anti-hero is played by the late, great Warren Oates is enough engine to drive the picture to memorable madness.

By this time in his career, Oates was becoming one of the go-to character actors of the era (thanks to Peckinpah) and he had transcended his hick cowboy movie roots as “GTO” in Monte Hellman’s brilliant TWO-LANE BLACKTOP (1971), showing his range as actor and human being. As Austin Pendleton once told me about working with him on THE THIEF WHO CAME TO DINNER (1972), “He couldn’t do anything that wasn’t true.” To that end, Oates honors (sic) his wild director by using him as the character’s template, even wearing Peckinpah’s creme suit and dark sunglasses through the whole of the film. I can’t think of any cinema antecedent to the scene where Bennie pours Tequila over his crab-infested crotch. Although Warren Oates only had a few lead roles, he made each one count (even in DIXIE DYNAMITE) and BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA is one of his finest, bravest performances.

Since Bennie is involved with Alfredo Garcia’s previous lover, Elita, a prostitute played with quiet strength and carnality by Isela Vega, he offers that he can track down Garcia’s body for 10 grand, unaware of the million dollar bounty. Their tangled relationship is the lonely heart of the picture, with Bennie hoping his reward money can take him and Elita far from their dingy dusty existence. Of course, Peckinpah’s misogyny comes into bloom again, and like most of his other heroines, Elia is nearly raped by a sensitive biker played by Kris Kristoferson in a cameo. But it’s a mistake to take this alcoholic Bennie for a weakling; after he warns the bikers, “You two guys are definitely on my shit list,” he dispenses his own brand of Yankee vengeance.

bring_me_the_head_of_alfredo_garciaThe bloody journey to Garcia’s head continues with diminishing pleasures for the doomed lovers. Bennie becomes fixated on their mission as Isleta finds his obsessive pursuit revolting. And once Bennie comes into contact with Garcia, the movie becomes a surreal tragi-comedy, with Oates developing a twisted, caring relationship with his crimson, fly-specked head-in-a-bag. To reveal more would deprive you of the film’s dark, weird surprises. I particularly like Webber and Young as the quiet, vicious, possibly homosexual hit-men. Though the film is a metaphoric death-trip, there are plenty of action scenes with Peckinpah’s patented kinetic naturalism. And despite his conflicted feelings towards women, he allows them the final triumph of sensitive strength over Man’s brutal chaos, as El Jefe’s reign of barbarism comes to an end under the watchful, approving eyes of his female familia.

As stated, this is Sam Peckinpah’s most crazed film, and of course, the one of which he was most proud. The movie’s atmosphere is so grimy that I actually took a hot bath after it was over. The sweaty cinematography by Alex Phillips (who later shot a myriad of exploitation efforts like THE DEVIL’S RAIN, SORCERESS and SURF II) keeps you in the hothouse ambiance throughout. The final apropos image perfectly sums up Peckinpah’s cinematic state of mind here, this celluloid bullet to his audience and perhaps his own career as he would never again make such a personal work. Like Warren Oates at the violent climax, he’s had enough of the free-market gang-bang and he’s going out in a blaze of dirty glory. BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA is Peckinpah’s crippled swan song to Hollywood and belongs in the pantheon of great bizarro films from the 70’s.

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14 Responses to “Forgotten Films: Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia (1974)”

  1. interesting about final cut for peckinpah, bennie scarred me for life (i clearly remember seeing ‘alfredo garcia’ and ‘dillinger’ fairly close together when i was a kid; because of that warren oats – even tho i knew he was just an actor – imprinted on my brain as this great tragic figure of my youth)

  2. Guilty Admission: Still haven’t seen DILLINGER. Will fix this week. I’m on another official Warren Oates binge.

  3. Christian…

    Peckinpah just called. (Yeah, I know, I couldn’t believe it either.)

    You aren’t hardcore enough to watch his awesome shit.

    He’s also a HUGE LexG fan.

    You’re welcome.

  4. I have a copy of his Playboy interview and you don’t, doctor.
    Hardcore FAIL. Thank you.

  5. Yeah, because I’m not 57 years old.

  6. Well, 16 year-olds aren’t allowed to buy it.

  7. “The movie’s atmosphere is so grimy that I actually took a hot bath after it was over.”

    Heh, ain’t that the truth! This is one down ‘n’ dirty film as only Peckinpah could produce. He and Warren Oates were always pretty simpatico over the years but no more so than on this film which really has to be seen to be believed. It is definitely my fave Peckinpah film and prolly my fave Oates film as well. That scene between him Kristofferson is one for the ages and there is such a tangible feeling of violence that when it finally does erupt you really feel it. Incredible stuff.

  8. I’m sure Werner Herzog must love this one above all. If he were to remake it with Klaus Kinski…Hell, Warren Oates and Klaus Kinski in a movie together woulda been something…

    The whole Kristofferson scene is odd because it comes out of nowhere after this long emotive scene between Oates and Vega. For a moment you’re in a Cassavettes film, then the bikers show up and it’s Peckinpah AIP!

  9. Hah, Peckinpah AIP. Gotta remember that one. But I know what you mean about the tonal shifts… it’s what keeps the viewer off-balance…

  10. I found myself laughing out loud towards the end — it’s as if you’re going mad with Oates…

  11. Another great write-up of a Peckinpah film that only now is getting the appreciation and respect it longed deserved. I have to thank J.D. for his review, and for pointing me to yours and this blog-a-thon. I didn’t see it when it first came out in ’74, but I did show it at a theater where I was the projectionist for a short while in ’76. Made a definitive impression then, and it still does. There are two images I most associate with this film. The first, is the leading poster of your review. It is elegantly brutish with its dirty fist grasping the locket (you get the feeling it was yanked off the girl’s neck). Postured against the dark background, it gives it that heart of darkness sensation to the eye. The second is, naturally, that last frame of the film with that smoking gun-barrel. If that doesn’t tell you it’s a Peckinpah film, nothing will. Thanks for this.

  12. christian Says:

    Thanks for the nice words. That’s cool you actually projected back in the day. What theater was this? Do you recall the audience response?

    Yes, the poster is dark and fascinating. And of course the final image speaks for itself. And Peckinpah!

  13. I remember it only played for only one week (and it was the second feature on the double-bill), but other than my reaction, I don’t recall the audience’s. I started a series on my stint last spring, and it covers some of the details about the theater (Huntington Park Warner), in case you’re interested. Thanks.

  14. Yeah, the poster is a real eye-catcher to be sure. It’s as hard and uncompromising as Peckinpah himself!

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