Thursday, 19 November 2015

No. 101 Sam Peckinpah - BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA (1974)


Whilst making his uncharacteristically light but pleasant western THE BALLAD OF CABLE HOGUE, Sam Peckinpah’s friend writer Frank Kowalski gave him the thinnest of premises for a movie: the title, BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA, and the idea that the subject be already dead. Sketchy as the concept was, Peckinpah liked it enough to write it with Gordon Dawson during STRAW DOGS and the result is this demented gangster film which centres around a rare lead role for the under-used Warren Oates.

The fleshed-out plot sees a Spanish mafia boss demand to know which man has shamed his daughter by making her pregnant.  Degraded by having her blouse ripped by his henchmen (a sadly frequent example of the director’s misogynism rearing its head again), she reveals the man’s identity as one of the boss’s most favoured employees. The boss orders the titular contract to be carried out. He sends Robert Webber and Gig Young to Mexico City on the trail. (This is unfortunate as by now in real life Young was so in thrall to the alcoholism that would kill him a few years later that he looks and sounds half-asleep in most of his scenes. Until he uses a machine gun near the end he serves no purpose). The hit men meet Benny (Oates), a retired military man now working as a cool-cat bar pianist in shades. No-one in the bar reveals that Garcia is known to them – and is more importantly already dead due to drink-driving. Playing his cards craftily, Benny spies a chance to make easy money by fetching them the corpse’s head for the agreed fee of $10,000, knowing the hoods will be none the wiser.

Benny sets out with his girlfriend Elita, Alfredo’s first love, and while struggling with his jealousy also has to deal with a romantic night under the stars interrupted by two bikers intent on raping his lady and stealing their food. This again needlessly allows another topless blouse-ripping, twice in forty-five minutes, by Kristofferson, who then appears to lose interest in her, suggesting impotence. The other questionable aspect of this scene is the way it tastelessly echoes the rape scenes that could have spoilt STRAW DOGS by having Elita actually encouraging him to try to take her before Oates blows him and his buddy away. It’s dispiriting to defend a director capable of real art when he persisted in sympathising with male rape protagonists instead of their victims.

Benny’s belief that the mobsters won’t know they’re being fooled is proved dreadfully wrong when he is knocked out just before decapitating the body. He awakes, half-buried to find the gangsters have killed Elita in retribution. This sets up the crazy third act where a now-unrestrained Benny makes it his life’s mission to deliver the head in a bag to the boss at all costs as some kind of honour statement mixed with a tragic tribute to his girlfriend: “I’m gonna finish this with him!”. As he drives along, he forms a bizarre attachment to his cargo, talking to the head as though it’s still the living ex-lover of Elita.

Benny shoots dead Webber and Young amongst other hoods for hire, all of whom are given slow-motion deaths in loving detail no matter how inconsequential, before arriving at the home of the mafia boss as they celebrate the girl’s wedding day. He plonks down the head, and demands half-insanely to know what was so important about this man that it cost so many lives. The chief demonstrates he is already over his original blind anger that initiated the contract, but after handing over one million dollars casually as a fee he dismisses the bag’s contents now as meaningless rubbish. This incenses Benny to the point of red rage at such disrespect to his dead lover. He goes on a cathartic gun rampage killing the boss and every employee in the room, masked by the celebratory fireworks outside before leaving. However, unlike Steve McQueen in THE GETAWAY or Dustin Hoffman in STRAW DOGS, he does not get to live another day after purging himself with violence. An army of goons fill him full of lead in his car, leaving us a last lingering image of a gun barrel in close-up.

BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA is a madcap revenge action movie that despite repeated unnecessary abuses of women features an enjoyably warped single-mindedness from Oates that helped it generate a cult appeal in common with other Peckinpah films after an initial failed release. References in TV shows and films from FLETCH to FUTURAMA have since prolonged its shelf-life.

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