Movie Review: Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974)
“It’s got guts!”
Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974)
Director: Sam Peckinpah
Cast: Warren Oates, Isela Vega, Robert Webber
Synopsis: An American bartender attempts to obtain the head of a gigolo on whose head a wealthy Mexican has placed a bounty of $1 million.
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The character of Bennie in Sam Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is one that would have suited Bogart down to the ground. Grizzled, cynical, and weary, He is a low-life drifter who allows his greed to pull him into his own personal nightmare in much the same way that Bogie did in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, a movie which this one references with a character who introduces himself as Fred C. Dobbs. Bennie’s the kind of man who gulps hard liquor straight from the bottle, sleeps with his sunglasses on, and picks crabs from his pubic hair upon awakening. He’s given flesh and form by Warren Oates (Major Dundee, The Wild Bunch), a wonderful character actor who never received the acclaim he deserved and who died too young, but he’s Oates’ impersonation of Peckinpah, right down to the sunglasses the director perpetually wore.
Roger Ebert noted that there were many similarities to be found between the destructive tendencies and dogged persistence shown by Bennie on the screen and Peckinpah in real life, and he’s right. Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia was Peckinpah’s movie in a way that none of the others could ever be, not only because it was the only film on which he retained control during the editing process, but because it feels far more personal than any of his other movies – even if it might be the viewer who interprets it as such rather than the director who intended it to be that way.
Bennie works as a piano player in a grubby little bar in Mexico, where he plays Mexican standards for slumming American tourists. One day, he’s approached by a couple of hoods played by Gig Young (That Touch of Mink, The Killer Elite) and Robert Webber (12 Angry Men). The way that Webber rebuffs the advances of a hooker – who ends up unconscious on the floor – tells us that the two men are gay, although they give such exquisitely rakish performances that the inference would be impossible to miss even if it wasn’t made obvious. Anyway, they’re looking for Alfredo Garcia, a man who has impregnated the daughter of a wealthy – and vengeful – Mexican, and now literally has a price on his head, for which the duo are prepared to pay $10,000.
Bennie knows Alfredo – he’s a client of Elita (Isela Vega), his prostitute girlfriend – and jumps at the opportunity to payroll an escape from the dead end into which his life has strayed. But it’s an odyssey that steers him towards madness and costs him what little of worth he has in his life. The closer he comes to delivering Garcia’s head – an unseen, misshapen lump that’s stashed in a sack and attracts a small army of flies – the more he comes to identify with the dead man, and realise how much they have in common. Bennie is delivering not only a hunk of rotting meat, but his own soul, as symbolised by the deteriorating condition of his off-white suit. We never really get to like Bennie, but it’s hard not to respect his inner resolve and perseverance. He’s a loser who nevertheless faces every rotten obstacle thrown in his path with a stoicism that earns our grudging admiration; in many ways, we identify more with heroic losers than winners simply because movies tend to idealise winners in a way that attenuates the flaws and prejudices that make us human.
Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia isn’t a particularly pleasant watch – it’s far too dark and misanthropic for that – but it is a compelling one; you have to keep watching just to see what will happen next, and to find an answer to why you care what happens to the kind of greedy, jaundiced character that would be most movies’ principal bad guy.
(Reviewed 17th November 2016)