directed by Sam Peckinpah; starring Warren Oates, Isela Vega, Robert Webber, Gig Young, Helmut Dantine
After being screwed in the ass by various producers and powers-that-were for thirteen-odd years, Sam Peckinpah simply made lubing up a part of his morning routine. So along comes producer Martin Baum, with the backing of United Artists, to give him free rein on the making of Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. And Peckinpah thanked them by squeezing out an utterly repulsive, rancid piece of shit that, pacing-wise, lurches on rubber legs like an accident victim in his first week of physical therapy, and displays shocking dips both in quality and in consistency of mise-en-scène and lighting (at least in its first half). Even once the action promised on the back of the video box kicks in, we’re still dealing with a crab-ridden would-be graverobber for a hero, a severed head in a sack as our title character, plus an indescribably bizarre near-rape scene that makes its victim the aggressor. If that’s not enough enjoyment for the whole family, tell Grandpa about the killer gays who mow down a family of Mexican peasants as calmly as they’d file their nails, or the father who has his pregnant daughter stripped and tortured in front of him and half the village.
And the sour little cherry atop this perversity sundae? Scenes of such casual, vicious South-of-the-border misogyny that even your little brother who owns the deluxe double-disc version of Cannibal Holocaust, and sports T-shirts from the kind of mail-order outfit that hawks rebel flags and Iron Cross rings, might mutter a “Jesus” or three.
All of which is to say, God bless Sam Peckinpah’s eternal soul and God bless this squalid, grubby, unflinching little masterpiece.
Bennie (Warren Oates) is an American dirtbag down in Old Mex, playing piano in a shithole dive behind a pair of shades and a fog of tequila breath. (Trust me, you can smell it.) Get me out of this fucking place is tattooed across his forehead when two dapper gents saunter into the joint and ask where they might be able to locate their old friend Alfredo. Dead or alive. Turns out Bennie’s former-whore-with-heart-of-gold girlfriend Elita used to shack up with Alfredo. Then, his lady love reveals: Alfredo’s already in the ground, thanks to a recent car wreck. Naturally, the dapper gents are emissaries of a Don Corleone-like crime lord whose daughter Alfredo knocked up. How hard can it be, Bennie wonders, to get proof of death from an already-dead man and deliver it up when the cash bounty for said proof looks a hell of a lot like the fastest train out of Shitsville?
Of course, one look at Warren Oates in that rumpled suit and you know the poor son-of-a-bitch ain’t gonna make it. For one thing, this is 1974 — Era of the Downbeat Hollywood Ending, a year when people lined up around the block to see Michael Corleone put a hit on his own brother, a year when not even Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway lived to see the end credits. To make it worse for Bennie, this is a Sam Peckinpah film from 1974. You want an idea of what lies in store for our fair hero? Take all that de rigueur Watergate-era cynicism, soak it in mescal and tequila, and pump it full of the decayed myths of the Old West and the macho rituals of gunplay and go-it-aloneness. Then, stick it in a filthy, fly-ridden convertible driven by a fatalistic despair, with a twenty-pound brick of sheer you-want-violence-I’ll-give-you-assholes-violence tied to the accelerator for good measure. Now, send that fucker hurtling through all comers on a mission from a vengeful God — and just before the shit hits the fan, don’t forget to laugh at the absurdity of the whole thing as you lock eyes with the nearest unsmiling pistolero and kill the last of your bourbon. If Beatty’s death in The Parallax View takes place in a glass case at the Failure of Heroism exhibit, shit, Warren Oates isn’t even in the fucking museum; he gets knifed during a lousy ten-dollar card game over a taquería on 6th Street, and his only witnesses are the guys who dump his body in the alley afterward.
In ’74, Peckinpah was just coming off of MGM’s epic cutting-room butchery of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, a move that took the rightful heir to The Wild Bunch’s throne and reduced it to a scrawny, underfed runt playing dress-up in Daddy’s suits. MGM balked at the tone poem Peckinpah shot about killing the ghost of your youthful past; what they released to theaters was a gallery of the world’s greatest Western character actors popping up with little introduction to either get blasted in slo-mo, or stand around looking grizzled while James Coburn takes solemn sips of whiskey and adjusts his hat. On The Deadly Companions, his first feature, Peckinpah went ten rounds with the producer, who barred him from tinkering with the script, then barred him from the editing. He’d tangled with the producer of Major Dundee, his 1965 cavalry epic starring Charlton Heston; Heston offered up his salary just to keep Columbia from giving Peckinpah the boot, so Columbia got its revenge in (where else?) the editing room and released a truncated version of what Sam intended. He got fired from The Cincinnati Kid for supposedly shooting an unauthorized nude scene; when the smoke from that dust-up cleared, Peckinpah found himself blackballed for having a “difficult personality.”
About three years crawled by with his name on the Pay No Mind list posted at the security gate of every studio in town. Even The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs were released to theaters in slightly castrated versions; and when Sam did the kind of elegiac, reflective, non-bloodbath-oriented stories that might counter the Monty Python parodies and the clucking tongues of Reader’s Digest critics, the studios repaid his efforts by dumping these films onto the bottom half of double-bills and giving them the kind of proud promotional push a married businessman might give to his bastard offspring from a one-eyed underage prostitute with a cleft palate.
So quite understandably then, Alfredo Garcia is where Peckinpah finally said fuck it and resigned himself to going down with middle fingers in the air. That fuck it, followed by another glug of Campari, is certainly audible when you’re looking at close-ups that don’t quite match during the sitting-under-a-tree scene between Bennie and Elita, or when you’re seeing day-for-night that isn’t particularly convincing and lighting that varies from shot to shot in some sequences. Ultimately, it’s not even a technical issue. Sure, the woozy, uncertain tone of some of the early scenes brings front-and-center the alcoholic haze we saw seeping into the cracks around Pat Garrett. Sure, during Alfredo’s first inning, the Peckinpah genius at montage and tension-building seems to have been confiscated by Customs during his drive into Mexico. But it’s the undisguised weariness that Peckinpah’s captured here — that’s the fuck it.
It’s countless tequila-sodden nights spent wallowing alone in loss and recriminations. It’s the litany of broken films and broken marriages — years of his life devoted to something, and for what? It’s the betrayals by producers who swore to protect his vision. The way he was used by star-fuckers during his Bunch-era heyday, then tossed aside. The way he was written off by critics and disdained by the boys up in Burbank as the drunken bum at the party that no one invited. It’s the air of disillusionment, the acceptance of failure, the embrace of the futility of trying to buck the system, the understanding of the Cain-slays-Abel-then-fucks-his-wife nature of a world run by bloodless businessmen in gaudy penthouse suites that Peckinpah assays here — that’s the fuck it.
Chinatown and Godfather II (as well as Peckinpah’s own Westerns) keep their darkness safely confined to the Mythic American Past; Alfredo Garcia wants us to know that’s all horseshit. That Old World dragon’s never been slain, the film taunts us. You just kicked it under a rug before the party began. And there it is — a writhing lump on the floor of our post-Sixties soiree, the one that everyone keeps stepping over and ignoring, even as its muffled grunts cut through another smiley-faced anecdote or another round of back-slapping regarding Nixon’s resignation or Bush leaving office. Nein! shrieked the cultural guardians like the German advisor in The Wild Bunch, Veef left all zaht behind now! Vee haff Vimmin’s Lib! Zhere iss und Black Man in office! Vee haff purged all ze throwbacks und malcontents from zociety und vee are marching forward into the glorious sunset of our thoroughly modern future! Vhutt iss ziss Peckinpah talking about?!
Indeed, how dare Peckinpah dump all this ancient savagery in the lap of our sophisticated modern world? How dare he insist that Yesteryear is still there in our closets and under our collective floorboards, its little black heart beating just as steadily as ever? Peckinpah removes his shades for a clear-eyed look at a world where the big guys doom the little guys to horrible deaths from behind polished oak desks and never have to smell the bodies. (Pure coincidence, those Dick Nixon “cameos,” right?) He looks around the dirt pit he’s in and sees us clawing each other’s throats for a mere piece of cigar tossed down by those with dominion. And I’ll be damned to an eternity of Sandra Bullock flicks if he doesn’t have a good laugh over it.
Look, I know we’re all a bunch of too-cool-for-school, totally with-it hipsters drowning in our postmodernism, who hoot at The Exorcist and snicker at Kim Novak dropping like a cheap dummy past the mission window in Vertigo. With the right pinch of ironic detachment, everything’s “funny” now. But I mean it when I call Alfredo Garcia a warped black-comic fantasia that beat Lynch and Tarantino to the punch. I’m talking the fuck-it-all humor of the utterly desperate; the kind of stranded-in-a-shitty-part-of-town-with-a-dead-cell-phone-at-2-in-the-morning, $12-left-in-your-bank-account-and-your-girlfriend-just-announced-she’s-pregnant laughter that emanates from people too far along in their fucked-upness not to laugh.
I’m talking about a bus full of American tourists passing through a potential roadside massacre, and the way everyone puts the standoff on hold to be Picturesque Mexican Peasants and wave at their gawkers. I’m talking about Bennie’s thoroughly Seventies way with wardrobe coordination and the way his clip-on tie comes off just as he’s trying to show what a cool operator he is. I’m talking about the competition Bennie feels with his girlfriend’s dead lover, and the way that desecrating Alfredo’s grave becomes a final ritual he has to undergo so that the two of them can be happy. I’m talking about Bennie’s ensuing friendship with the severed head as he confides in it, consoles it, bonds with it; the way he calls it “Al” and picks it up with tender loving care mere seconds after slaughtering everyone in the room. I’m talking about Robert Webber surveying the handy annihilation of an entire family with glowing professional satisfaction, about the creepy-old-people-in-Mulholland-Drive grin that Gig Young wears as he mows them all down as effortlessly as he’d peel an egg after a nice hot bath. I’m talking about the payoff in the way that Bennie retrieves a business card with some crucial information. I’m talking about Peckinpah’s emphasis on the details of fighting putrefaction and keeping the flies off your best damn friend in the whole damn world.
Critics circa ’74 treated it like the perfect date film — that is, if your date was a degenerate whore or a tranny streetwalker you’d picked up in front of a taco truck at 2 a.m. Regular people were no better. My mother, a woman who introduced me to Blue Velvet and laughed her ass off at Dennis Hopper’s helplessness while brutalizing Isabella Rossellini, couldn’t sit through it. In my old video store days, I’d eagerly recommended this to a co-worker — a fan of Italian gore flicks who could chomp popcorn through monkey torture in Faces of Death. He had to turn it off after the first ten minutes; from then on, my hours spent working with him consisted of what-the-fuck-is-wrong-with-this-guy looks that not even convicted child molesters have had to endure. Yet, large portions of the film aren’t just “funny”; goddamn it, they’re funny. And it’s taken a thirty-year shift in audience perception — post-Twin Peaks, post-Pulp Fiction, post-any manner of “shocking” Asian cinema — to swat away the flies and grime and filth and see what was there all along.
Critics said Oates was a mere character actor who wore the occasional lead role like an ill-fitting suit. Pauline Kael described him as a “man used to not being noticed.” If that isn’t the perfect physicality for playing Bennie, I don’t know what is: used to life as a schmuck at whom people toss five-dollar bills and ignore (hence, the shades), suddenly thrust by circumstance into a role as avenging angel in service of a morality the little swamp rat never knew he had in him. Isela Vega is likewise perfect as Elita. Watch her as he cracks the lid on Alfredo’s cheap coffin and readies that machete in his tentative grip. She’s nothing less than the very specter of Bennie’s conscience staring him down (those “damn eyes” becoming a motif in his deranged rants), nothing less than his tattered remnant of a conscience retreating from him in horror, and finally abandoning him altogether. It’s that look of hers — that mirror of horrified morality reflecting just how low he’s willing to crawl to salvage even a crumb of the American Dream from a shit-filled gutter — that fuels the entire second half of the film.
Bennie might as well have expired at the film’s midway point, with all that transpires after simply a dying man’s fever dream of redemption as he withers away in the Mexican sun. (How else to explain his imperviousness to bullets, or the suddenly crackshot marksmanship of a whorehouse piano player?) No matter. By the law of a jungle filled with killers vying for their shot at the Golden Fleece, Bennie becomes The Lion. And at last, The Lion faces down his malevolent God: the rich pig whose title command set this whole wretched saga in motion. “Here’s the merchandise you bought” is exactly right: it’s what reveals this erstwhile exercise in cheap nihilism for what it really is — a moralist treatise that might have made Will Hays proud. Nobody gets away clean in Bennie’s world; everybody pays for their hubris, their greed, their careless flouting of the laws of human decency. Crime pays but the fortune you’re staring at means nothing when you’ve destroyed everything you were — everything you might have been — to obtain it.
For such a mindless celebrator of violence, Peckinpah sure couldn’t stop underscoring the sheer meaninglessness of all those deaths: the civilians caught in the crossfire just so Pike Bishop and his boys could make off with bags of steel washers, the shattering of Amy Sumner’s psyche just so her husband can finally feel like a man, twenty-odd people ground underfoot in a battle royal for Alfredo’s rotting noggin like ghetto children struck by stray bullets during jump-rope — casualties, all, of a rage that’ll never meet its intended target. Alfredo Garcia is the real ending to The Getaway. It’s what happens when Nixon’s America infects the Mexican countryside with its greed and savagery and violence; when the modern world of corporate murder in three-piece suits blithely waves its suitcases full of dinero, its ladies-in-waiting and its Coca-Cola chairs in the face of a land where tenement shacks, beat-to-shit family cars and little boys who wipe the gringos’ windows for a couple of pesos define a way of life.
Maybe Peckinpah’s characters lived out such a headlong rush to the grave because Peckinpah did himself. But his rage at the shit we’ve made of the world — our enemies, our elected leaders, us with our middle-class apathy and willingness to live with corruption and gimme-moreism — that’s a rage riper than the head on Bennie’s passenger seat. It’s a rage whose stench fairly coats Peckinpah’s body of work dealing with the twentieth century — a rage which grows only stronger, the faster Alfredo Garcia makes the suicidal running leap toward its inevitable conclusion. Be it homegrown casualties of an endless war abroad or that long-fought reckoning with the stranger in the mirror — sooner or later, we all have to face the “merchandise” we’ve bought.
And no one gets away clean.
©2010 Scott Is NOT A Professional Film Critic
(This piece was originally posted April 14, 2010 to the now-defunct blog Scott Is NOT A Professional Film Critic.)