March 25, 2014
The story of Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is told through the fabric of Warren Oates’ white polyester suit. It’s a flamboyant object covering up a quivering, self-loathing mass of flesh. And soon it gets covered in enough blood to match his insides. Director Sam Peckinpah dove right into production on Alfredo Garcia after the scorched earth war that was the Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid shoot, on which he battled MGM head James “The Smiling Cobra” Aubrey over final cut and lost. Thanks to producer Martin Baum, he had complete freedom on Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, and what he produced is a bloody burlesque of his own delusions of masculine grandeur. Now out in a limited edition Blu-ray from Twilight Time (available exclusively through Screen Archives), which faithfully reproduces the rotting browns of Peckinpah’s Mexico City, the movie remains one of the grimmest self-portraits in movie history. Or, as Howard Hampton memorably put it, “the picture glows with the dying light by which failure sees its true reflection.”
Driving up to film The Ballad of Cable Hogue in 1970, dialogue supervisor Frank Kowalski pitched Peckinpah on a story idea. He had a title and a basic scenario, about an assassination that required proof: the target’s severed head. They worked on the concept for years, even in England when Peckinpah was making Straw Dogs. The script was eventually written by frequent collaborator Gordon Dawson, a producer since Cable Hogue. With The Getaway (1972) a bona fide hit, Martin Baum was able to secure funding from United Artists just on the story idea. Baum had just formed the independent Optimus Productions, and secured a distribution deal with UA. They were given forty-six days and a budget of $1.5 million. Without any studio oversight, and a sympathetic producer in Baum, Peckinpah would be able to make Alfredo Garcia his way – which meant organized chaos. Peckinpah was a functional alcoholic, though his erratic behavior was indulged by some, and exhausted others. Dawson refused to work with Peckinpah after Alfredo Garcia, telling biographer David Weddle that the director was, “into a lot of weird doctors. Every time you wanted to get him out of his trailer he was hooked up to an IV of some sort.” Garner Simmons, who was on set for the production, reports a more convivial atmosphere. Emilio Fernandez, who plays El Jefe, the patriarch who orders the hit on Alfredo Garcia, was complimentary on the set, saying, “John Ford was my master and mi compadre. Sam Peckinpah is my son — no, my grandson.”
At this point the myth of Peckinpah has seemed to eclipse Peckinpah the artist, with his off-camera adventures more well-documented than the films. On Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, the two seem to blur. Warren Oates plays Bennie, an insecure hack who croaks “Guantanamera” to drunk tourists in Mexico City, playing to the crowd for tips. Like Peckinpah’s vision of the company Hollywood man, he’s pitching the lowest common denominator to the masses. In his white leisure suit and windshield-sized sunglasses he’s the most clownish of Peckinpah’s anti-heroes, indicative of the self-loathing undertone to the film. Peckinpah is sending up his own reputation as a loose cannon, depicting Bennie’s escapades as curdled burlesque, as when he attempts to cure crabs by pouring whiskey down his pants.
If Bennie is the director, El Jefe is the studio head, with his hired goons Sappensly (Robert Webber) and Quill (Gig Young) his unit producers, who enforce their will with humorless efficiency, much like Aubrey, a fixer brought in to cut costs. Sappensly and Quill wear suits and win influence with money more than force, as the mob business has become as corporatized as the studio structure. The coldly impersonal depiction of mob bureaucracy recalls Point Blank, though Bennie is no killing machine like Lee Marvin’s Walker. He’s an insecure alkie who get his revenge in spite of himself. His only strength lies in Elita (Isela Vega), a nightclub singer who has taken pity on this sad sack. Their love is impossible, almost alien to the world they inhabit. They live in a dank hole that Bennie seems happy to decay inside until Sappensly and Quill make their offer. He can make thousands if he can locate Alfredo Garcia, with the intimation of even more if he is “discovered” dead. Bennie sees this as his escape from loserdom, a way into the light of riches. Hence long passages of Bennie and Isela snuggling underneath a tree, dreaming of couple things like vacations, when earlier their lives were constricted to bars and flophouses.
These dreams are delusions, and are very literally buried in the ground, where his leisure suit starts to gain layers of sweat, dirt and blood, getting closer to the color of his own sunburnt skin. Bennie goes a little mad, engaging in spurned-lover arguments with the detached head of Alfredo Garcia, who was once Elita’s lover. Peckinpah frames Bennie’s (and his own) future as one of a ranting crank, railing at the injustices of his life. It is bitterly mordant commentary on Peckinpah’s own career. The style and tempo are as uncertain as Bennie’s psyche. There is a lot of panning and zooming in the frame, as if Peckinpah is unclear of what he wants to focus on. It is a sloppy looking movie, bobbing and weaving to find its center, which usually ends up on Warren Oates’ deeply lined face, as if each indignity carved a new valley in his forehead. Peckinpah’s patented slow motion is used sparingly in the action sequences, weaning himself off the tic that made him famous. Instead the gunfights end in a few trigger squeezes, each click bringing Bennie closer to his desired end.