Sunday, May 3, 2009
BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA (1974)
In 2007, I wrote an article for the Australian fanzine, BETTIE PAGINATED, and the title was "Why 'Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia' is the Greatest Movie Ever Made..."
Hyperbole, of course! It's not. In fact, no film is, that's a subjective call. But it tops my list. A brutal, dark odyssey that is equal parts road trip movie, thriller, and black comedy, “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia” is a meditation on greed which Sam Peckinpah co-wrote and directed, no doubt inspired by his favorite movie of all time, “Treasure of the Sierra Madre.” Also, at it's core, is a moving and heartbreaking love story. Make that unrequited love. Doomed romance. For all of these reasons and more, it is not only my favorite of all Peckinpah films, it may be my favorite film, period.
It's also notable for not only being the purest of Peckinpah's film (no studio interference as with his previous films, basically financed and produced like an independent film), but perhaps his last great film....the films that followed, from "Killer Elite" to "Osterman Weekend," were lame studio assignments that dovetailed and coincided with the negative impact of Peckinpah's drug and alcohol abuse.
I know I am not alone in my affection for this cult classic, which bombed in theaters. Roger Ebert was one of the maligned film’s few and most vocal supporters among movie critics when it was released in 1974. When “Alfredo Garcia” was released on DVD in 2005, the savvy British music and movie magazine, UNCUT, named “Alfredo Garcia” the best DVD release of the year, putting “Alfredo” ahead of contemporary releases such as “Sideways,” “Crash,” “Syriana,” “Batman Begins,” and many other movies that arrived in the U.K. on DVD that year.
[Here's my oil painting tribute to the movie, which I completed in 2004. It's called "Bennie Gambles His Future and Loses His Soul in the Process," and it sums up how haunted the Bennie character is by Elita throughout the second half of the film, which make for some truly heartbreaking scenes.]
In “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia,” Warren Oates plays Bennie, a world-weary, down-on-his-luck gringo piano player working in a Tijuana bar who learns that there’s a bounty on the head of one “Alfredo Garcia,” one of the former “boyfriends” (or clients?) of Bennie’s girlfriend, Elita (Isela Vega), a former prostitute who is struggling to leave her old profession behind. There is a bounty on Alfredo Garcia’s head for $10,000. When Bennie learns through Elita that Alfredo has recently died and that she knows where his grave is, Bennie goes on a quest to cash in on the head, taking a reluctant Elita along for the ride.
Elita pleads with Bennie to forget about the $10,000 reward. She’s a simple woman who loves to strum an acoustic guitar and sing for her man. She yearns for a simple life – to marry Bennie, to run away to some remote town and settle down – and she wants to leave the corrupt world behind. But Bennie becomes obsessed with obtaining the money. He believes that only after cashing in on Garcia’s head will he and Elita be able to live the life Elita longs for.
Ironically, it’s the reformed prostitute who is the film’s spiritual core. Elita operates as Bennie’s conscience throughout the film; the nagging voice reminding Bennie how spiritually corrupt his quest is, how immoral. This causes much tension on their road trip. When Elita questions Bennie’s intention to dig up Alfredo Garcia’s grave as immoral, unethical, even unholy, Bennie invalidates her, dismisses how holy Alfredo’s grave is, shouts at Elita to “Shut up!,” as if trying to drown out the conscience in his own mind.
It is only at the halfway point of the movie (the story’s turning point) when Bennie and Elita are ambushed at Garcia’s grave and only Bennie wakes out of it alive, that Bennie realizes that Elita was right. By then, it’s too late. Elita is dead, and Bennie spends the latter half of the movie driven to drink, longing for her, haunted, hearing her sing in Spanish to him in his head…as he sets out to retrieve the head of Alfredo Garcia stolen from the grave during the ambush and settles some scores with the men behind this doomed mission.
Nowhere is Elita as Bennie’s conscience more apparent than in the scene just prior to the graveyard ambush, in which Bennie and Elita are in their rented room not far from the cemetery. Elita beckons Bennie to go with her to church, and Bennie shrugs it off. Elita closes her eyes and cries, as if this is the final stake through this angel’s heart; a final stake through Bennie’s soul. Back turned to Elita, Bennie does not witness her infinite sadness, but we the viewers do…and it is the last time Elita speaks before the next scene – her final – right before her death in the cemetery ambush scene. Bennie, in effect, has killed his conscience, his soul…in the name of avarice and money.
The scene in which Bennie arises from Garcia’s grave and realizes that Elita is dead is the turning point of “Alfredo Garcia.” Hyper-symbolic, Bennie himself might as well be dead from this point on. He is literally a dead man walking, rising from the grave, whose mission has now changed. Yes, he still wants the $10,000, but for a new reason: revenge. He wants to understand the reasons behind this cursed mission that has led him to lose the one thing he truly values in his world: Elita.
Walking-dead Bennie, looking skeletal in his mirrored shades and his white suit, turns into an Angel of Death out for vengeance, systematically taking down one hit man after another on his quest to reach El Jefe (Emilio Fernandez), the man who put the bounty on Garcia’s head (which, in actuality, is $1,000,000, however Bennie was subcontracted by a pair of American hitmen, Quill and Max, played by Gig Young and Robert Webber).
Bennie’s suit becomes another piece of symbolism. As Bennie’s journey wears on, the white suit becomes increasingly sullied, grungy, dirty--perhaps a reflection of the corruption of Bennie’s decrepit soul.
By movie’s end, Bennie not only takes down his adversaries in a suicidal Peckinpah-style bloodbath (that echoes the climactic ending of “The Wild Bunch”), but is himself taken down in the process; the inevitable suicidal, self-destructive act which Bennie spends the entire second half of the movie speeding towards.
There’s a scene in “Alfredo Garcia” that has baffled many and sparked much debate among the Peckinpah scholars on the DVD’s commentary track: Garner Simmons, Nick Redman, Paul Seydor and David Weddle. During the sequence where Bennie and Elita are assaulted by a pair of biker thugs, played by Kris Kristofferson and Donnie Fritts, while out on a picnic, Bennie and Elita are separated, and Kristofferson moves to lead Elita away at knifepoint to another spot where he intends to rape her.
As Kristofferson and Elita go off, with Fritts’ biker training a gun on Bennie, Bennie swears he will kill Kristofferson’s character, to which Elita tells Bennie: "No, you won't, Bennie. I've been here before, and you don't know the way." Once away from Bennie, Elita takes charge of the situation, and becomes the sexual aggressor, leading Kristofferson into a sexual situation. Bennie gets the upper hand on his gunman and rescues Elita from Kristofferson in time to see that she has initiated the love-making. He flies into a jealous rage, because he (like Seydor, evidently) does not understand Elita’s motivation.
Seydor, on the commentary track, calls this passage of “Alfredo” the movie’s one false note:
"I'm not sure that I've ever actually felt this sequence fully works, and I freely confess that I don't understand it in full...but it certainly is compelling."
The question is, why does she do this? [walking toward the biker] She could just stand here…There’s a nightmarish romanticism and eroticism going on that’s not fully contained by the manifest themes of the movie.”
But I strongly feel that Seydor is way off base here. It may, the rape attempt scene may well be one of the film’s most honest and powerful notes. As a former prostitute trying to go straight, Elita relies on her power – sex – to turn the tables and keep her and Bennie from being assaulted or harmed. Of course, Bennie, as a male prone to jealous emotions, as he only sees the surface, and believes Elita has been having fun at his expense. But as a prostitute, the sex does not mean the same thing to Elita as it does to Bennie. She is somewhat jaded to its sanctity, having made sex her profession. Sex with the biker is meaningless to her. Here, she uses her most reliable tool – her body -- to try and save their lives.
Ultimately, “Alfredo Garcia” symbolizes the unrealized promise of both Oates as an actor and Peckinpah as a filmmaker.
For Oates, this film showcased his potential as a leading man in a way that his few other leading roles, primarily “Dillinger” and “Two-Lane Blacktop,” only hinted at. Unlike the other Peckinpah films that Oates had roles in (“Ride the High Country,” “Major Dundee,” “The Wild Bunch”), Oates was not regulated to second or third banana status. In “Alfredo,” Oates’ disintegrating Bennie is the movie’s focal point, and Oates delivers a performance that is intense, as his character goes through a range of emotions that none of his other roles afforded him. Bennie really demonstrated what Oates was capable of; a charismatic, unglamorous kind of actor with a rugged, everyman lineage that goes back to the original sexy beast star Humphrey Bogart. More than any other actor of his generation, Oates radiated that unique mix of vulnerability and toughness that perhaps only Bogart, Brando, and Dean before him had nailed. Like Bogart, Oates could've been that oddball leading man sans the matinee idol looks. It's a shame he didn't carry more films of "Alfredo"'s quality in his prime.
For Peckinpah, “Alfredo Garcia,” by all accounts, was the filmmaker at his purest and most unbridled. Financed independently, “Alfredo Garcia” (unlike “Ride the High Country,” “Major Dundee” and “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid”) did not encounter any studio interference. Unfortunately, Peckinpah mirrored Bennie’s downfall in real life (according to “Alfredo”’s co-writer, Gordon Dawson, he based the Bennie character on Bloody Sam). “Alfredo Garcia” appears to be the last great Peckinpah masterwork, as the director spiraled further into a tempest of alcohol and drug abuse and, worst of all for us cinemaphiles, impersonal studio assignments that were bad enough to threaten Peckinpah’s potent legacy as an original, groundbreaking filmmaker. Latter Peckinpah such as “The Killer Elite,” “Convoy,” and “The Osterman Weekend” – films that Peckinpah had no hand in writing – could not consistently support Peckinpah’s brilliance. “Alfredo Garcia” is no doubt the dividing line between classic Peckinpah and the rest.
Sam Peckinpah was sort of the Quentin Tarantino of his day in the sense that he was controversial and he got reamed for the gratuitous violence of his films. But unlike Tarantino, who exploits violence for entertainment, Peckinpah did not merely employ violence for violence’s sake. His movies were violent because he wanted to show the folly of men and their macho ways, the folly of avarice and violence. He wanted to show the aftermath of violence, its consequences. Whereas Tarantino’s movies exploit violence, Peckinpah’s films were ultimately anti-violence.
Unlike Tarantino’s characters, who do not rise above the prerequisite trait of “bad-ass,” Peckinpah’s characters brimmed with moral complexity. One of the best examples of this was in “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid” starring James Coburn and Kris Kristofferson in those respective titular roles. The “good guy” law man, as portrayed by Coburn, had a sliminess and a sadistic streak that often made him appear as cutthroat, cunning and evil – perhaps worse – than Billy the Kid. After all, Coburn’s sheriff is prone to humiliating men at gunpoint (the grocery store scene in which he instructs Bob Dylan’s Alias to read the can labels) and cheating on his wife with multiple partners (i.e. hookers) -- all at once! Likewise, Kristofferson’s Billy, the “bad guy,” comes off as affable, likable, a charmer, a ladies’ man – perhaps the friendliest outlaw one will ever encounter…were it not for the fact that he is not above shooting a man in the back, as he does often throughout this film. Via this kind of character complexity, Peckinpah deliberately blurs the line between our notions of “good” and “bad” and complicates our attempt to find relatable character. Peckinpah, in “Pat Garrett,” in not interested in us “sympathizing” for any character in the way that studio films, at their phoniest and most manipulative, attempt to do. He is more interested in telling stories about men as they are – flawed! As in life, Peckinpah’s people are not saints or pure evil, but often paradoxes and contradictions. With “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid,” Peckinpah seems to challenge viewers to question authority and perhaps identify in small quantities with the criminal element.
Peckinpah was a much more original thinker than a rock star director such as Tarantino, who liberally quotes and paraphrases scenes and devices from older and better movies in his work (a list too long to list here, but begins with stealing outright from Stanley Kubrick’s “The Killing” and “Taking of the Pelham 1-2-3” in “Reservoir Dogs”). Tarantino even lifted from “Alfredo Garcia” in the “Four Rooms” anthology he did with Allison Anders, Robert Rodriguez and Alexandre Rockwell. Yet again, a guy traveling with a head in a bag.
Peckinpah may have been influenced by his favorite filmmakers, but he contributed new vocabulary to the language of cinema. As a filmmaker, Sam Peckinpah was very much his own man. And "Alfredo Garcia," for me, was an eye-opener, conveying so much all at once. It's a film that works on so many levels, I'm surprised it wasn't taken more seriously back in its day. But such was the embarrassment of riches that was 1970s Hollywood: "The Godfather," "Chinatown," "The Last Detail," "Network," "The Passenger," "All the President's Men," "Harold and Maude," "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," "Young Frankenstein," "Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother," on and on and on. Will Hollywood ever be so vital again? Well, not this decade!