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