Thursday, 4 August 2011

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974) - Sam Peckinpah

Pretty much the last of Peckinpah's essential films, this nearly western from '74 is famous for Peckinpah having final cut, making it one of the few films that was released the way the man intended. Just like Orson Welles before him, producers and studios loved to chop about Sam's films. Thankfully a fair few of his greatest flicks are now back to the way Sam entended them to be. Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia has always been just the way Peckinpah envisioned it though.

In some Mexican backwater local gigolo Alfredo Garcia has managed to get the local mob boss's daughter up the spout. So being a typical mob boss he demands Garcia's head, with a huge cash sum for whomever manages the task. Peckinpah regular Warren Oates plays ivory tinkler Bennie, who thanks to his girlfriend having recently had a bit on the side with Alfredo happens to know what no one else does - that Garcia has just shuffled off this mortal coil. So off he sets, girlfriend in tow to decapitate the corpse and earn enough money to quit the rat race for good.

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia scores instant points with me for being so unique, I can't think of another film that is like this. It's part road movie (but then again maybe not, since how many road movies end up where they began?), and part gutter romance. The whole story feels like it could have been ripped straight from the grooves of Dylan's '76 album - Desire. Everyone in the film looks like they could do with a hot bath and a bowl of soup. Oates' Bennie is a throwback to the sort of character Bogart would have inhabited back in the 40's, in fact the film has a distinct touch of the John Huston's about it. Oates makes Bennie totally believable despite the fact that he's on one of cinema's strangest journeys. He starts off being a loveable rogue type but ends about as far away from that as you can get, without it ever feeling forced. I guess it's that old adage about having a good script and good actors being half the battle. It would be hard to imagine Steve McQueen (another Peckinpah regular) as Bennie for instance. In fact I'm hard pressed to think of anyone other than Warren Oates in this role since he made it so much his own, in much the same way that Nicholson did with R.P. McMurphy. Peckinpah peppers the rest of the film with a cast of unknowns (to me anyway), Isela Vega as Bennie's woman Elita is the only person who comes close to the amount of screen time allowed Oates. It's very much him and Peckinpah that dominate the film. Plus we never even get to see the title character.

Every town looks really run down, but once we're out on the road we get to see the real beauty of Mexico, it looks totally lush. Normally road movies make quite a big deal out of their cars, think of Sailor's '66 Ford Thunderbird in Wild at Heart, or Bullitt's 1968 mustang fastback. Not here though, the cars in this film look shittier than any you have seen on screen before. Welcome to planet Peckinpah. Now if the perma-sweaty people or bloody action scenes aren't enough to let you know that you're watching a Peckinpah film, then the editing surely is. It's that great thing he does during action scenes, slowing the action down and filming it from multiple cameras so that you can see exactly what happens. Even his dodgier later films have these great moments.

That's not to say that this is only blood and gore slo-mo action, because the best moments in the film also happen to be the tenderest. My favourite is the five minutes we spend with Bennie and his gal making plans for the future under a tree in deepest Mexico, although the wonderful little scene in a shower comes a very close second. Of course being Peckinpah we get two girls having their clothes ripped off (one of them even gets a busted arm thrown in for free), and Kris Kristofferson attempting to rape Elita.

From the moment Bennie desecrates Garcia's grave things tumble downhill fast for him, and anyone with even just a basic knowledge of Peckinpah will know how the film has to end. It's structured in such a way that scenes mirror each other. Using the digging up of Alfredo Garcia's grave as the cutting off point. Once the grave has been opened the film essentially runs backwards, repeating each scene until it finishes right where it began. Things change so much for Bennie during his mission/journey (his whole life philosophy alters), which means the same set up takes on a different hue, such as that shower scene, or the meeting between the heavies and Bennie in their hotel room. It's a perfect structure in that way, something I'd first noticed in a Melville film.

I don't think 'bloody' Sam gets the props he deserves because of the controversy surrounding many of his films, coupled with the fact that he managed to overshadow them by being such a larger than life figure. If you love the man then you've seen this numerous times already and probably have drinking games to go with it. If you're not up to snuff with yr Peckinpah films however then this is as good a place as any to start. Be warned though, you'll want to see everything Peckinpah made after watching this. Yep even Convoy.

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