Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia

Lyndon Johnson once said that “when you have a mother-in-law, and that mother-in-law has only one eye, and that eye is in the center of her forehead, you don’t keep her in the living room.” The mother-in-law that LBJ had in mind was Vietnam; Sam Peckinpah’s was Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, the labor of love that he directed, conceived and co-wrote, and saw released in 1974 to empty theaters and general revulsion. (The first detailed discussion of it I ever read was in that thoughtful tome The 50 Worst Films of All Time.)

Peckinpah had a nihilistic streak that always would have been easier to dismiss as adolescent bravura if it hadn’t been connected to his eye for beauty and the emotional power he could attach to gestures of defiance and comradeship.
The people who recoil from Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia aren’t exactly in the same league as the stuffed yahoos hooting at the premiere of Le Sacre du Printemps. Those of us who admire the movie would do no favors to our side by pretending that there isn’t plenty wrong with it, and that in fact long stretches of it are tough sledding. Yet the damn thing rewards the patience of those willing to sit down and flat-out watch it. It has a special power that’s connected to its being one of the narrowest films Peckinpah ever made. Peckinpah had a nihilistic streak that always would have been easier to dismiss as adolescent bravura if it hadn’t been connected to his eye for beauty and the emotional power he could attach to gestures of defiance and comradeship. His apparent death wish was part of a man whose work made it clear that he had a greater understanding than most of just what makes life worth living. The tension between these warring parts of himself gives a movie like The Wild Bunch much of its awesome power and mystery: you can see the dead end that its heroes are heading for, and you can feel the attraction that it holds for them, yet at the same time when you see them cut down the loss to the world feels titanic. Alfredo Garcia puts those movies in perspective by showing what Peckinpah’s nihilism looks like in its purest form. There’s no heroic scale, little beauty, and the most tender relationship is between a man who’s dead and one who ought to be. All that’s left is a vein of black humor a mile thick and a feeling of disgusted rage potent enough to blow you across the room.

It helps to try to understand why Peckinpah was in such a lousy mood to begin with. He was in an odd place by 1974, as name-famous as any movie director alive and at the height of his powers, yet boxed in. Before The Wild Bunch, Peckinpah had spent the latter half of the 1960s unable to get work in Hollywood, his firing from The Cincinnati Kid having left him with the reputation of a loser that no one could work with. After The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs, his reputation was that of Bloody Sam, the guy depicted in a Monty Python sketch as unable to shoot a tennis party on a country estate without painting the grass red — brilliant, maybe, and a money maker, but also an ornery nut with a blood-bag fetish. Peckinpah had made quieter movies, like The Ballad of Cable Hogue and Junior Bonner, but they were so different from the only kind of movie he was supposed to be able to make that they were released with little fanfare and did so little business that it was as if they’d never been made at all. And when he tried to stretch himself, begging for the chance to film Joan Didion’s Play It as It Lays, it was gently explained to him that it wasn’t his kind of material.

Then, a major phase of Peckinpah’s career came to an end with 1973’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. This, it turned out, was Peckinpah’s last Western (unless, in a sick-joke kind of way, Alfredo Garcia counts). The movie was hugely ambitious, and parts of it were remarkable, but the rushes looked mottled and hard to piece together, and it was made for MGM during the reign of James Aubrey, the infamous player known as “the Smiling Cobra,” a man who might have been put on this Earth just so that God or the devil could have the fun of seeing him not get along with Sam Peckinpah. Aubrey and Peckinpah warred over the editing until Aubrey took the picture away and released it in a semi-coherent form that played as a comic strip of several of Hollywood’s most famous character actors taking turns getting their brains blown out — a Peckinparody.

And some folks whispered that Sam, looking at the mess of footage and despairing of the work ahead, had done it half-deliberately. He’d never been mistaken for a master of diplomacy on his best days, and now he was tired and ailing and very far gone into his cups, and maybe he’d begun to fall in love with this image of himself, which a lot of other people were happy to buy into, as a tortured artist besieged by tasteless jackals. Maybe he’d get more satisfaction out of it than he would killing himself to get a movie in the best possible shape to be thrown away by the studio, again. What else was the point, anyway, if he’d never get to go West again? Peckinpah never had liked the 20th century. It was as if, as far as he was concerned, the only good thing about all this technology was that you could use some of it to restage the old West the way you liked and preserve the results on celluloid.

When the poor man agreed to do a job for hire, directing Walter Hill’s adaptation of Jim Thompson’s The Getaway, with Steve McQueen and (Christ!) Ali MacGraw in the leads, he went through the motions, staging the shootings and chases as well as anyone could, but you could smell the pointlessness coming off the screen from the next county. These dull, nice — nice! in a Peckinpah movie! — people at center, looking like movie stars and acting like ciphers, running around robbing banks and each other, for what? For money — the only thing people like James Aubrey thought movies themselves were any good for. If Peckinpah was reduced to making movies about people who weren’t really worth a damn doing nothing much worth doing, he might as well do it on his own terms.

At the start of Alfredo Garcia, we’re back in Mexico, looking at a young girl in a pastoral set-up so surreally lovely that it might be a painting; you may blink when other people walk into the frame. This disorientation effect is fair warning that a bigger one is coming. The girl is pregnant, and her rich and powerful father (Emilio Fernandez) offers a million dollars for, literally, the head of the man who deflowered her, Alfredo Garcia. We seem to be in an earlier movie period, in a romanticized yet violent fantasy of an earlier Mexico — maybe the one that the Wild Bunch fled to. So it’s jarring when men in suits take to their limousines and airplanes to spread the news of the bounty. And as the awful knowledge that we’re in the modern world sets in, the natural physical beauty we’ve seen begins to recede, as if dying on contact with exhaust fumes and television signals. It’s as if the criminal lovers of The Getaway who ended up making it to Mexico have contaminated the place, not so much because of what they are but what they serve as a reminder of — people in suits and limousines and airplanes who only fund movies like The Getaway.

Their stand-ins are all over the place. As the heralds of the bounty, Gig Young and Robert Webber are smartly dressed, affably colorless, corporate hit men. They aren’t outlaws, they’re professionals, probably with good tax lawyers and friends at Halliburton, who function as cogs in a larger machine; they probably worked their way up from the mail room. If the new world can’t support outlaws, it’ll have to do with a lesser breed of hero than we’re used to from Peckinpah, which considering what some of his heroes were capable of is an unnerving thought. Cue Warren Oates.

By this point, one may have begun to wonder if Peckinpah’s message is that not only can the world no longer support any kind of nobility, it can’t even justify basic competence, not even from one of the world’s greatest moviemakers.
Oates plays Bennie, an American stranded behind a piano in a dive in Mexico. He introduces himself, without much justification, as Fred C. Dobbs, the most pitiable and doomed of all Bogart heroes. Yet he’s decked out in shades and a little mustache that, together with his slight build and air of dissipation, give him a surprisingly strong resemblance to Sam Peckinpah. A physical resemblance, anyway — Oates was one hell of a great character actor, but he had so much less natural charisma than his director that your first reaction to him here is that daddy’s shoes sure do look big with junior clomping around in them. This effect is probably not wholly intentional, but the thing is, it can’t be said to be wrong for the character. Pauline Kael once wrote of Peckinpah that “his moral judgments … [are] based less on what his characters do than on what they wouldn’t stoop to do.” (In Hollywood, people take more pride in what they’ve said no to than in what they’ve done.) Even grading on a curve like that, Bennie’s standards are nothing to fly from the flagpole. He’s so desperate for money that he takes an interest in the bounty as soon as he hears about it, but it’s when he learns from his lover, Elita (Isela Vega), that Alfredo is already dead and buried that he really springs to the task. 1974 was a long time ago, and we’ve had the chance to get used to being asked to root for assassins and other lowlifes, but it’s still a bit of a novelty to see a movie hero who so happily makes the career transition from killer to grave robber.

By this point, one may have begun to wonder if Peckinpah’s message is that not only can the world no longer support any kind of nobility, it can’t even justify basic competence, not even from one of the world’s greatest moviemakers. After that stunning opening sequence, the craftsmanship on display in Alfredo Garcia seems to disintegrate before a viewer’s eyes. There are scenes, such as a long one of Oates sitting in bed playing exterminator on his own body, that seem designed to clear half the theater, and other scenes less startling but even more pathetically handled — such as a crappy-looking, poorly pieced-together roadside picnic that Bennie and Elita enjoy during their romantic jaunt to claim the dead man’s head — that seem designed to clear the other half. Die-hards may have just started reaching for their coats at the halfway mark, when Bennie, right at his moment of triumph, is clubbed in the head and unceremoniously dumped in Alfredo’s grave, along with the murdered Elita and what’s left of Alfredo, by thugs who make off with the head.

It’s when Bennie emerges from that grave that Alfredo Garcia kicks into high gear. Bennie severs his relationship with Elita, bitterly condemning her for her decision to stay dead in the grave with Alfredo, and sets back on his quest. And Peckinpah’s directing itself gains a new lease on life. The action regains its old crackle, starting with a shootout in the middle of nowhere that reunites Bennie with the head as well as with Webber and Young. More amazingly, the beauty of Mexico, as if replenished by fresh blood, begins to reappear in the frame — not that Bennie, focused on obtaining ice so that he can pack Alfredo’s head properly, is apt to notice.

As a would-be movie star he’s an unobtrusive presence in search of a part, but as a walking dead man he’s scarily potent and convincingly dangerous.
Is Bennie reborn or undead? Either way, he’s now a man without fear, as they say in the “Daredevil” comics, and he performs with the scary intensity of the wholly single-minded. Oates’s performance now begins to make sense. As a would-be movie star he’s an unobtrusive presence in search of a part, but as a walking dead man he’s scarily potent and convincingly dangerous. The “dog soldier” notion of the existential hero whose strength is his indifference to whether he lives or dies is by now a stale action movie cliché that has been explicated by such deep thinkers as Steven Seagal and B.A. Baracus, but for Peckinpah it’s not just a conceit. He’s the one guy sitting in the office cubicle who really means it when he says that there are times when, if he could kill the boss, even if the security guard took him down an instant later, it would still be worth it just to see the look on the bastard’s face. Bennie patently doesn’t care and so is beyond reason. Where he once, like many a self-deluded American working slob, identified with those who pay him, that was back when he thought he had a future, and cared about climbing up the ranks to join them. Now, with his future buried and the stink of death on him, he identifies with the head on the car seat next to him.

Though it’s regrettable that Alfredo Garcia is so uneven, things are what they are, and it may be that Peckinpah needed to slack off in the first half — muttering , “What the fuck, it’s only a movie” — to get to the part he clearly really wanted to make and ram it home with such effectiveness. Black comedy, nihilist statement, punk gesture and end-of-the-road Western, it gives you a one-of-a-kind heady rush taking the popular idea of not giving a fuck as far as it can go — farther than most people who claim to be attracted to the idea of not giving a fuck would ever dream of going. That’s what Bennie does in the movie. It is also, for better or worse, what Peckinpah did when he made the movie.