Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia

"Nobody loses all the time."

The basic idea for 'Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia' was Frank Kowalski's: a crime boss puts a bounty one someone's head, but with the twist that said individual is already dead. Peckinpah worked with Gordon Dawson (who had done some uncredited script work on 'The Ballad of Cable Hogue' and was associate producer of that film and 'The Getaway') on the screenplay. Producer Martin Baum was looking for a project for his newly formed company Optimus Productions. He had a deal with United Artists and, on the basis of a palimpsest of Peckinpah and Dawson's script (just 25 pages), he green-lighted the production. Peckinpah was hot from 'The Getaway' and 'Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid' was about to go before the cameras.

'Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid' turned into a war between Peckinpah and MGM head honcho James Aubrey. David Weddle, in his biography, portrays a weary and defeated Peckinpah at the helm of 'Alfredo Garcia': "the production proceeded smoothly, but a blanket of melancholy settled over the company. It wasn't like the old days. Something had happened to Sam; the flame in those hazel eyes had flickered out." Maybe, maybe not. I find it difficult to watch 'Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia' and entertain the notion of a lifeless and unmotivated Peckinpah calling the shots. An exhausted Peckinpah, yes; a Peckinpah retreating to Mexico like Pike Bishop or Doc McCoy; a Peckinpah going a little crazy, losing it a bit. But not a defeated Peckinpah. Peckinpah was a true maverick and 'Alfredo Garcia' is the single most maverick film on his CV. It's also unique in being the only thing he made that wasn't fucked with at some stage of production. "I did 'Alfredo Garcia'," he said later, "and I did exactly what I wanted to, good or bad, like it or not. That was my film."

Amen to that.

Mexican crimelord El Jefe (Emilio Fernandez) has his daughter tortured until she gives up the name of the non-Jefe-approved individual who made her pregnant. His name? Well, the clue's in the title. Jefe's heavies start combing Mexico, among their number Sappensly (Robert Webber) and Quill (Gig Young). Flashing around Alfredo's photograph in a seedy bar, they come across Bennie (Warren Oates), a down-at-heel American making a meagre living pounding out 'Guantanamera' for the tourists on a tinny old piano. Bennie says he'll ask around. Bennie has an inkling that his on-off girlfriend Elita (Isela Vega) - a sometime hooker, sometime lounge singer - might know Alfredo's whereabouts, having recently had a fling with him. Bennie discovers where Alfredo is and that he's not going anywhere. A car accident has rendered him recently deceased. Bennie and Elita take off for Alfredo's final resting place, with Sappensley and Quill making it clear they'll come looking for him in four days. A couple of bounty hunters tail them. En route, a couple of bikers harrass them. Then they arrive at the graveyard and things just get worse ...

There are two common misconceptions about 'Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia':

1) It's about a man who commits grave robbery and becomes a killer for a million dollar bounty. (Actually, it's not until the last scene at El Jefe's hacienda that Bennie realises the true value of Alfredo's head; up till then he's done what he's done for a mere couple of thousand.)

2) It's a nihilistic film.

'Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia' is many things, including bleak and cynical, but it's certainly not nihilistic. And for every bleak or cynical aspect of the film, there are plenty of moments that are tender, romantic, poetic and surprisingly funny. The first time I saw 'Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia' was at Nottingham's Broadway Cinema as part of their now sadly defunct Shots in the Dark Festival back in the early '90s. It was a straight-down-the-middle divisive viewing experience. Half the audience found it uproariously funny, the other half sat there in stony silence. I loved it immediately and knew that I'd just seen something unique; a true one-off.

One of the most gratifying discoveries I've made in scouring the internet for information and resources on Peckinpah as part of this project is just how much love there is for 'Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia'. I've long been of the opinion that it's a film more heard of than seen. And not always appreciated by those who have seen it. Paul Seydor, quoted in Weddle's biography, remarks "Fifty or a hundred years from now people will be looking back on that film the way we look back on Faulkner today. Professors used to get fired or denied tenure for arguing that Faulkner was a great writer; today he's recognised as one of the greatest American writers. People will look back on us and wonder why we failed to understand 'Alfredo Garcia'."

From what I've come across on the net, I'd hazard a guess that, thirty five years down the line, the rennaissance Seydor anticipated is already under way.

I've linked to all of these posts previously, but it's worth doing so again. An article at Technicolor Dreams identifies the film as "Peckinpah's crippled swan song to Hollywood". JD at Radiator Heaven delves behind the scenes and finds how attuned Peckinpah was to the "dirt-poor parts of Mexico that you will not find in a tourist brochure any time soon". For JB at The Phantom Country it's a study of male virility, while Kim Morgan at Sunset Gun tunes into the film's romanticism. All of these writers love 'Alfredo Garcia' wholeheartedly and all of them find something specific to love about it, something personal to them. Between their various posts, they find so many facets that there's probably no need for me to write any of this. But in the spirit of flying the flag for Peckinpah's most misunderstood film, here's my 1,500 words anyway.

'Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia' unfolds like a waking dream equally suffused with melancholy and inspired gallows humour. It establishes narrative perameters and motivations coterminous to plot-driven crime cinema, then disinterestedly shucks off all narrative considerations and meanders off into the realms of ... well, pick your own description: mood piece, tone poem, art film, head fuck, all of the above. It's a film so rich in ambiguity and so entirely its own that it defies conventional analysis. Which is why I'm going to abandon the approach I've taken in the previous articles in this month's blog-a-thon; why, instead, I'm just going to list, at random, a handful of the reasons 'Alfredo Garcia' occupies the place it does in my cinematic affections.

I love how tenderly, grubbily and believably the relationship between Bennie and Elita is brought to life. How Elita's previous life still riles him ("You're a lyin', cheatin', no-good, two-bit bitch," he grunts at one point, the turn of phrase leaving little room for ambiguity), yet how protective he is of her, how righteously indignant he gets at the motel owner who remembers Elita as a hooker and refuses her a room - Bennie sets the man straight in no uncertain terms and secures "the best room in the house". Bennie and Elita, as a couple, are fiery, passionate, argumentative, tender, rock solid together and totally vulnerable. Peckinpah threw himself headfirst into relationships and often saw them self-destruct. He knew the territory.

I love how the story essentially steals back from Charles B. FitzSimons the basic set-up of 'The Deadly Companions' (odyssey with corpse), taking what is little more than a gimmick in that early and severely compromised film and here demonstrating in unflinching and fly-blown detail the logistics of hauling a decomposing body part long distance. (Great scene: Bennie stops at a cantina to buy ice for an ad hoc head/refrigeration procedure. A kid notices the putrid burlap sack in Bennie's passenger seat, flies swarming around it, and asks about the contents. "Cat," Bennie replies. "Dead cat. Belonged to a friend of mine.")

I love how the set-up offers a very strong, identifiably genre-based hook, how the melding of imagery redolent of the western films and 'The Getaway' seem to point in a certain direction, only for any semblance of a traditional/generic narrative to devolve, fragment and segue into something weird, hallucinogenic and indefinable the further into his (and Peckinpah's and the audience's) heart of darkness Bennie journeys.

I love Bennie's monologues with Alfredo's head and how they develop out of his conversations with Elita earlier in the film. "The church cuts off the feet, fingers, any other goddamn thing from the saints, don't they?" Bennie postulates, evoking the sacred object as fetish in order to justify a spot of grave-robbing: "Well, what the hell? Alfredo's a saint. He's the saint of our money." Later, Elita gone and the money of no use to Bennie, he berates and abuses Alfredo: "You've got jewels in your ears, diamonds up your nose ... You son of bitch, I'll be damned if she's not keeping the best part of you company."

I love Bennie's shabby white suit and indifferent attitude to his musicianship. He makes me think of a bizarre filmic parallel universe where Dirk Bogarde's Von Aschenbach in 'Death in Venice' gets down with his more earthy side, ends up in some Mexican backwater and gets over the whole Tadzio thing with the help of a flame-headed and voluptuous siren.

I love that the film simultaneously plays to and flies in the face of the tired old criticisms of misogyny and violence levelled at Peckinpah.

Yes, the women in the film are ill-treated, but they are proud, strong and defiant and so much more knowing than the men ("I've been here before," Elita tells Bennie at one point, in a line which kicks that much harder once you know the context, "and you don't know the way." El Jefe's daughter, too; she withstands her father's power games for as long as she can before confessing Alfredo's name; in the final minutes of the film, however, she's the one in control who gives Bennie leave to do what he's been fixing to do since that awful moment in the graveyard. Yes, there is gunplay and blood squibs explode: Peckinpah's doing it deliberately, taking the piss out of the people who see nothing in his films beyond the corpuscle content. Bennie blows an antagonist away, then pumps a superfluous bullet in his dead body. "Why?" he asks himself. "Because it feels so goddamn good." Note to everyone who hated the film back in 1974: this was a joke ... at your expense. So's that bravura final shot (Peckinpah's way of shrugging his shoulders and saying "okay then, if that's all you'll give me credit for, then here it fucking is"): freeze frame - close-up - the barrel of a smoking gun - "directed by Sam Peckinpah" stamped across it.


J.D. said...

Thanks again for the shout-out and the excellent take on this great film. It really is something special and Warren Oates is just un-freaking-believable in it. Easily the best thing he's ever done in a career with loads of top notch performances.

Neil Fulwood said...

Yeah, it's a damn shame Warren Oates didn't get more leading roles. He just goes for it in 'Alfredo Garcia'. It really is the definitive Oates performance.

xtian said...

Thanks for the referal and yes, it's clear this film is having a nice appreciative resurgence. I agree about the sensitive nature of Oates' romance - that scene under the tree is almost uncomfortable for its intimacy. To bad Peckinpah burned himself out, but that was who he was.