Thursday, 10 February 2011

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974)

I bet he regrets wearing white

I like all the Sam Peckinpah films I've seen, but somehow this one slipped me by until now. I even tricked my wife into watching it with me by telling her it's not a Western, which is technically true. She got a bit suspicious during the opening scene, which has guys in hats riding around a Mexican villa on horseback, but after the villa's owner gives the titular order with a $1M bounty attached (the guy knocked up his daughter) a bunch of cars tear out of the place and it's clear that the film is set in the present day. Well, in 1974 anyway.

From the movie title, which is clearly one of the best ever, you might expect the film to focus on this Alfredo Garcia guy, but in fact he never appears in the film at all. The protagonist is actually this guy Bennie (a great performance by Warren Oates), a piano player in a grimy Mexican bar. He gets involved when a couple of goons come in and start asking around about this guy Alfredo Garcia. They're fucking jerks (one of them straight up cold cocks one of the prostitutes) so Bennie plays dumb, but when he makes some enquiries on his own he finds out that Alfredo has been hiding out in and around his girlfriend Elita. When he confronts her she reveals that Alfredo died in a car crash a week ago. He figures all he has to do is head out there with Elita, dig up the body, collect the head, and then turn it in for his reward. No problemo.

Bennie is a weird kind of protagonist. He's capable, but he's not really a tough guy. He's quick-witted, but he's not that smart. He's got a code of ethics, but he's no hero. Plus he wears huge sunglasses all the time, which gets annoying. He's not blind and his future is dim at best, so really the guy has no excuse. He's kind of a jerk to his girlfriend too, who doesn't really deserve it even though she seems like kind of a dimwit. At one point she gets mad at Bennie so he proposes to her, clearly as a ploy to get her to go along with his plan, and she starts crying like a baby. Women and their crazy emotions, am I right?

Of course women usually get the shitty end of the stick in Peckinpah films, and here is no exception. There's a weird digression where a couple of random bikers (one of whom is played by Kris Kristofferson) try to rape her. In typical Peckinpah fashion she starts getting into it, but Bennie manages to shoot them both before things get too Straw Dogs on us. Later, when they find the grave and dig up the body, a couple of rival headhunters knock Bennie unconscious, nab the head and kill Elita. When Bennie wakes up at the gravesite there's a long scene where he tries to revive her, but eventually blames her for the whole mess and leaves her body there. Sorry lady, maybe next time you'll have the good sense to be born with a Y chromosome.

Soon Bennie enacts his revenge on the killers and recovers the head, and from this point on I was expecting a few Hitchcockian suspense scenes as Bennie hides the rapidly decomposing head from the authorities and races to collect the bounty. Maybe a scene where he has to put his sunglasses on the head and pretend it's alive like in Weekend at Bernie's. It's not really about that kind of thing though. There's one scene where a little kid sees the bag sitting on the passenger seat, swarming with flies, but Bennie seems more concerned about the freshness of the head than getting caught. It's more about the journey, with Bennie going crazier and crazier until he's having rambling confessional conversations with the head. They laugh, they love, they develop a bond over their shared love of Elita. It's like a road movie, except that Bennie's comically mismatched travel companion is a head in a bag.

After he's developed a friendship with the head, Bennie decides that he's rather keep it and the money. After a run-in with Alfredo's family ends in bloodshed he goes on a kill-crazy rampage, working his way up the food chain until he confronts the man who issued the bounty at his fancy villa. It seems unlikely that Bennie could get the drop on so many armed bodyguards time after time, even with that clumsy expository line about him being an expert marksman in the military, but to be fair at the time they were shot the bodyguards seemed to be moving almost exlusively in slow motion. I won't spoil the ending, but this is a Peckinpah film so you know it won't end with Bennie and Al stretched out on deck chairs, sipping cocktails on the beach.

By this time in his career, Peckinpah had completed his metamorphosis into a crazy drunk fuck. Having become completely disenfranchised with the studio system, he shot this film in Mexico with a largely Mexican crew, and for once he felt he had a satisfactory amount of creative control. The end result combines the grimiest aspects of noir and westerns into one filthy, nihilistic package. It's Peckinpah's most personal film, in fact Bennie is largely based on a Peckinpah himself, which makes me fear for his soul even though I'm an atheist. Nobody liked it when it came out, but these days the critical establishment is more accepting of films where people break little girls' arms and gun down old ladies, so it's recognised as one of Peckinpah's best. I liked it too.


Karl Brezdin said...

Great review, and I really dug this film as well. I'm a huge sucker for stories that feature shady heroes with inconsistent morals where a ton of people die for silly reasons (or none at all), so this was right up my alley. More than that, I guess I just liked seeing Oates owning the screen as the lead, and this makes a nice (odd) companion piece with Cockfighter, where he also stars.

Dave said...

Well, if you want to see shady morality and a ton of people dying for no reason, you can't go wrong with Peckinpah.

Haven't seen Cockfighter, but I've heard good things so I should track it down.