Review: Bring me the Head of Alfredo Garcia
Acclaim and success are very different beasts when considering the director, sometimes neither matter and the films they made that chimed with them the most have been overlooked or lost in the shuffle. Take the master of suspense himself, Alfred Hitchcock, his personal favourite was Shadow of a Doubt, a film of terrific familial tension that was overwhelmed by Rear Window, Vertigo and North by Northwest. Sam Peckinpah deviated away from popular opinion too.
While he has gone down in cinematic legend with the Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs, it was the more unassuming Bring me the head of Alfredo Garcia that he had the fondest feelings for. In his own [paraphrased] words, … Alfredo Garcia was the one film that was exactly as he intended it with no producer or studio interference – it was undiluted Peckinpah. “Bloody Sam” Peckinpah’s film wasn’t lost only overlooked or lost in the wake of his big hitters, no, it featured in 1978 book “The Fifty Worst Films of All Time” and some critics counted in among the worst of the 70s, yet, the film had a special place in its director’s heart.
That very same film joins Arrow Video in 2017 with a collection of interviews to make any ardent collector weak at the knees. In … Alfredo Garcia, Warren Oates stars as the down and out bartender Bennie who has been presented with an opportunity to make enough money to escape his dead-end lifestyle and start anew. All he needs to do is bring the head of Alfredo Garcia to a powerful crime syndicate as the ever-long and ever-parodied title suggests. As bleak as that is it still goes awry when locals, his prostitute girlfriend’s conscious and competition get in the way. Distraught and defeated, Oates’s Benny – implied as being a Vietnam veteran – progressively loses his loose grip on his sanity with him eventually conversing with his former friend’s disembodied head.
Black comedy may be implied on paper but the actualisation of Peckinpah and Gordon Dawson’s script is far from comic – on the contrary, … Alfredo Garcia is a film of nihilism, unsympathetic souls and self-destruction. And it’s through those very same ideological and emotional beats that the film becomes a bit of a slog. A slow film in which unlikeable outsiders do bad things to each other and while that is far from uncommon in this realm of cinema, it has little of the style that marked out the better films peddled by Peckinpah and his peers. Other ways filmmakers have saved such dour exploits through an ensemble of colourful degenerates, and once again this 1974 film fails on that count.
The cult appeal of this film has to come from somewhere and that somewhere is a towering performance from Warren Oates. Before that, though, the first scene deserves mention. With its grime and grain, the film opens in an impressive Mexican manor house as a daughter is questioned with furious intensity about whose child she is pregnant with. As far as communicating the status quo, there is little that comes as close and it with a language barrier to contend with, no less. As the scene develops, it shows the lengths the gang boss and Father goes to for his answer – a single-mindedness and precursor to the violent descent into nihilism that Benny falls into. In this one scene, we see the DNA of the film laid bare.
To return to Warren Oates, we first see him wearing sunglasses indoors and a beaming grin with every new customer that enters his bar. With his usual patter of local girls and cheap beer he is the king of his small, insignificant domain and then an aloof, quiet duo that asks after their ‘old friend’, Alfredo Garcia. The pressure and upset painted upon his brow, while he simultaneously tries his best to keep up his sales patter, establishes Bennie from the off as a man of contrasts. His relationship with his prostitute girlfriend has an openly abusive edge, making the scene with Kris Kristofferson’s biker a tricky quandary of a man grasping what little he has. That scene and the way he treats Elita (Isela Vega) dramatises his inner battle with his violent past. When Bennie breaks, there is an inevitability born from his performance and characterisation and its only in the absolute despair that he throws himself into that we learn how finely balanced his emotional state was. To recommend a film on the basis of a performance is not something to make a habit out of, but, in the case of Bring me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, Warren Oates makes it work.
Arrow Video are commended for many a reason, chief of which is bringing the obscure and cult back into the limelight with a selection of extras that the mainstream could only dream of. The other, more universal, reason is the sleeve art. The newly commissioned artwork by Peter Strain has to rank up there with the finest the label has ever had, up there with the likes of Night of the Comet, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and the recent Bloodstained Butterfly. Art distinctive and memorable enough – when joined by a flotilla of extras – for us to recommend this release, otherwise, it’s one for the Arrow Video and Sam Peckinpah completists.