Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974)

4 stars out of 4. Immortal film.

“I been here before and you don’t know the way.”

A film that is balanced completely on a single swing of a shovel, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is also one of the most unfairly ridiculed of all films. Typically disregarded as low budget 70’s trash with a title used for laughs, Alfredo Garcia is instead a distillation and advancement of Sam Peckinpah’s favorite themes. He went off to Mexico and made this completely without studio interference. If  only we could all do the same.

Alfredo Garcia is a film that exists on its own time and in a place that seems so completely real that from the opening titles you completely believe everything that unfolds. It essentially is a feature film composed of all the little scenes that make Peckinpah’s previous films so lifelike. Patched together into a single story these moments sear into our memories and make the films truly come alive. For Alfredo, they are the film.

Shot entirely on location in Mexico and with a Mexican crew, Alfredo takes on a realism that really makes the film work. You see a Mexico that hasn’t been examined, a land of real people living in poverty yet still proudly defiant. It is a naked portrait of the characters and of the land itself.

The plot is beyond simple. The daughter of El Jefe, (Emilio Fernandez in another wonderful villainous role) who is some sort of major crime lord, has become pregnant by Alfredo Garcia. El Jefe declares an open bounty of $1 million to anyone who can “bring me the head of Alfredo Garcia”. This sends a multitude of people out to Mexico City in an ever widening net to catch the rogue father. After searching though every stopover and local watering hole, two men come into a bar and begin talking to the American expatriate piano player.  Bennie (Warren Oates) is a disillusioned man whose life has gotten away from him. He says he knows nothing about Alfredo, but in fact everybody knows of the guy. Only Bennie’s girlfriend Elite knows where he is. She admits that he has already died in an accident after admitting that he was her lover and more passionate about it than Bennie will ever be.

This turn drives Bennie back to the agents of El Jefe, where he tells them that he will bring them Alfredo. What follows is a journey into the heart of the Mexican countryside and into an even deeper hell.

The darkness inherent in Peckinpah ratchets up to almost unbelievable levels for the entirety of this film. The entire film feels almost as if it were an exercise in foreshadowing with everyone in any capacity seeming doomed. This goes on and on until that shovel appears. The film then has a rebirth, becoming an unbearable out and out descent into violence and madness after the greatest cinematic resurrection since The Mummy’s Curse.

The Warren Oates performance is usually referenced as being largely based on the director’s persona. In fact some have even said that Oates actually plays Peckinpah in the film. Whether this is true, there is enough of Sam’s presence that the film is undoubtedly his. Oates has no sense of an actor, his Bennie is a tortured soul with no point to any actions. He is a completely and utterly washed out shell of a man. Thus with this “assignment” essentially dropped in his lap he once again has a purpose and with his mentioned Army background takes to it much like a soldier would to a new set of orders. Taken along for the ride unwittingly is Elita (Isela Vega) who at once seems to exhibit the pure qualities of nature and the warm-hearted goodness of the Mexican people. She does not know why Bennie want to see Alfredo’s grave, but when finding that Bennie wants to sell his head reacts against this idea as it is unnatural and wicked. She pleads with Bennie to give up this task, that it will only bring greater darkness and destruction upon them. But Bennie cannot do this anymore than he cannot breathe. Like Bogart’s unforgettable Fred C. Dobbs in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (often referenced in this film) the task has become a personal crusade, the desire for money is also the promise of freedom from any and all constraints. However mad the dream may be, it is still a great dream.

Many speak of the more standout moments in the film, but there is one small Peckinpah touch that gets to me every time. In a small hotel room, Elita is revealed to be sitting in the shower with the water raining down upon her head. This is a representation of our lowest points, where even the cathartic nature of the hot water cleansing our bodies cannot rinse off our fears. I’ve even put this into my own films.  And Bennie comes to her and finally says “I love you” without any provocation. That they then continue their quest gives this touching moment the bad flavor of being Bennie’s attempt to convince her to keep going with him.

Upon release, the film was decried as a debasement, an exploitation movie gone wrong, filth, trash and utter garbage. Very very very few like Roger Ebert saw it for what it actually was. Now  with the passage of time it becomes easier to see the film’s true nature and really sink your teeth into its context. No this isn’t a mere exploitation movie. There’s nothing exploitative about it at all. It is absolutely heartfelt, made by a man who never beat around the bush in anything. Peckinpah: “I did ‘Alfredo Garcia and I did exactly what I wanted to, good or bad, like it or not. That was my film.”

Yes, it damn well is. In the end, that’s exactly what it is.

25 people will die, all because of Alfredo Garcia.

“Why? Because it feels so god damn good.”

Yes it most certainly does.

EDITIONS: In 2005, MGM finally released the film on DVD with a nice 1.85:1 transfer with 16:9 enhancement. The transfer is nice and clean with very little print artifacts. Grain is consistent and pleasing, and the mono soundtrack is clear in Dolby 2.0. The almost mandatory commentary by the usual bunch of Peckinpah scholars is more down to earth than some of their other recorded tracks and is very informative for fans of the film. The film has been released on Blu-ray in Spain which seems to use the same transfer, bumped to 1080p with the sound presented in mono PCM. Importing this disc is recommended as it will likely take MGM/Fox about 5 years at least to even think about a mainstream US Blu-ray release.

Wishful thinking, Al.

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Filed under 4 stars, Film Directors, Film Review, Immortal Films, Sam Peckinpah

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