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Isela Vega

Videodrone Classic: ‘Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia’

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (Twilight Time, Blu-Ray), one of Sam Peckinpah’s personal favorites of his films (and the rare Peckinpah film not to get reworked by the studio), opens on an idyllic river scene with a pregnant girl soaking her feet in the lazy current with a beatific smile on her face. In his great westerns, the river scenes are the brief escapes from violent lives in his character, reprieves in the middle of the drama before they march back out to meet their fates. This comes before the story even begins and once the spell is broken by the violence of a brutal father, a Mexican crime lord played by Peckinpah regular Emilio Fernández, and a $1 million bounty placed on the head of Alfredo Garcia, the father of the unborn child, there is little peace or paradise to be found.

Warren Oates stars as Benny, a grubby lounge pianist playing for tourists in a Mexican dive when a couple of American hitmen (Robert Webber and Gig Young) saunter in looking for information on “an old friend.” Benny thinks he’s hit the jackpot—a whopping $10,00 for giving them proof that Alfredo Garcia is dead (yes, they want his head)—but it costs him everything that matters and the tawdry treasure hunt turns into a revenge drama.

It plays like a pulp noir thriller by way of a road movie of the damned, marinated in mescal and left to rot in the desert sun. Benny’s not that smart or savvy but Peckinpah clearly loves this small-timer with his wrinkled white linen suit and clip-on tie and bad cantina sing-along songs. He may be a loser but he truly loves his philandering girl Elita (Isela Vega) and he develops more backbone with every stage of the odyssey. When he’s double crossed, he literally drags himself out of a shallow grave and returns with vengeance on his mind, fueled by rage, tequila, and a perverse loyalty to the rotting head he’s come to talk to like a father confessor. The film opened to scathing, outraged reviews (one notable exception was Roger Ebert, who called it “some kind of bizarre masterpiece”) but has since been embraced as a perverse masterpiece, the ultimate cult film in the career of a defiantly confrontational director.

Twilight Time gives the Blu-ray debut of this film more original supplements than any previous release from the label. The 55-minute documentary Passion & Poetry: Sam’s Favorite Film is a new production from German filmmaker and Peckinpah fan Mike Siegel featuring a wealth of interviews with Peckinpah actors and collaborators. A new commentary track by Peckinpah historian and Twilight Time co-founder Nick Redman with Alfred Garcia co-writer and executive producer Gordon T. Dawson is paired with a track by Peckinpah scholars Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons, David Weddle and Redman previously recorded for the film’s DVD debut. There’s a new 25-minute video interview with Peckinpah biographer Garner Simmons, who was on the set of Alfredo Garcia, and a gallery of stills and promotional art, plus Twilight Time’s trademark isolated musical score and an eight-page booklet with an essay by Julie Kirgo. Limited to 3000 copies, available exclusively from Screen Archives and TCM.

More cult and classic releases on Blu-ray and DVD at Cinephiled

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia

[originally published in The Austin Chronicle, October 22, 1999]

Nowadays, most movies look factory-made, mechanically repeating cast, storyline, or F/X from the last big blockbuster. They touch us skin-deep, ask nothing of us but box-office, kill time and vanish. In contrast, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is like getting accosted by a wild-eyed Ancient Mariner, a colorful dreg who draws you willy-nilly into his tragi-comic tale about an albatross, love, and death. The grizzled fellow’s story literally rubs your nose in the stink and sweat of Mexico, Sam Peckinpah’s earthiest haven from the Dream Factory. Playing Head‘s anti-hero Benny is anti-star Warren Oates, five-foot-three sleazebag, he of sheepish gaze and shit-eating grin. Suffering through an ever more hallucinatory journey, this latter-day Bogey pursues Peckinpavian Treasure of the Sierra Madre: a rotting head. Not politely stowed off screen, not tricked out in horror-movie makeup, but an inescapably flesh-and-blood thing that oozes, draws moscas, thunks off a car seat — and grossest insult, this revolting memento mori is flung right into our collective face!

Peckinpah means for his Head, his movie, to be hard to take. Every frame, cut, dissolve, line of dialogue, performance is chosen, sewn together to weave a seamless, searing pattern, its style inextricable from its substance. This black-humored parable exposes cruel conception and labor, the ugly agony of an outlaw artist’s desperation to make movies in spite of heartless moneymen in Muzak’d executive suites — and his own self-crucifying sins. Pulling critics and consumers down into the bloody muck of his artworld getting born, Peckinpah revels in images of himself as whore, martyr, vengeful creator.

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Peckinpah Doesn’t Sing Along

Sam Peckinpah
Sam Peckinpah

Sam Peckinpah, arguably the foremost American director to emerge during the sixties, developed—not to say cultivated—a persona that made his name virtually synonymous with “excessive screen violence.” While the accent was often placed on the noun, the first adjective also fit: Peckinpah was a man of appetites—the Randolph Scott character in Ride The High Country (1962) humorously cites “Appetite” as a book of the Bible—and excess was something that, when Peckinpah thought it called for, he embraced. He was capable of subtlety and emotional precision (as in the lyrically evocative Ballad Of Cable Hogue, 1970) and his excesses were purposeful; his blue-nosed detractors showed how badly they were missing the point when they claimed his violence was gratuitous. Still, from both choice and instinct, the place we now call over the top was one he often visited. Altogether an ornery cuss: combative and so confrontational the highfalutin term “transgressive” might almost fit if it didn’t sound so self-conscious and his sensibility hadn’t been, at bottom, so old school. And he willfully, almost wantonly worked without a net, and not always in a good way: given the chance recently, I couldn’t bring myself to revisit Straw Dogs (1971), which I recall all too vividly as having little to sustain the gothically creepy violence beyond pretentiously half-baked—and more than half-daft—pop anthropology, leavened with misogyny.

At his best, he could examine the moral and dramatic dimensions of masculine codes of conduct, loyalty, and integrity in a shifting and shifty western landscape with enormous force and power, orchestrating them to a sublimely resonant and cathartic culmination in the baroquely apocalyptic final shootout in The Wild Bunch (1969). High Country has a final shootout, with some of its resonance flowing from the Joel McCrea character’s statement of the Peckinpah moral code circa 1962: “All I want is to enter my house justified.”

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Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia

[Originally published in Film Comment Volume 17 Number 1, January/February 1981]

“Ah know you. You’re the guy in the hole.”
—Gold Hat to Fred C. Dobbs, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

Toward the end of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, just before his self-shattering execution of Kris Kristofferson’s Billy, James Coburn as Pat Garrett stops to exchange a few words with a coffinmaker, mysteriously at work in the gathering dusk. Addressed as Will, this artisan declines the offer of a comradely drink, then leans over his handiwork and says, “So you finally figured it out?” The speaker is Sam Peckinpah, and he seems to have something more in mind than Garrett’s determining that his quarry can be found within the adobe walls of Fort Sumner.

The effect of this apparition and query is disorienting, to say the least. Scarcely the artist off paring his nails in the wings, Peckinpah, instigator of this and so many other desperate quests for self-definition, materializes in the midst of mythic action as if to ascertain the degree of enlightenment his own imaginative creation has achieved. He even provides his principal player with a last rueful cue for action: “Ya better get it over with. ”

That’s all one hears in the theatrical release prints of the film: this dark, broody, heartbreakingly beautiful movie was to become, at the hands of MGM president James Aubrey, one of the most mangled works in Peckinpah’s much-mangled oeuvre. For whatever reason, network-TV prints of the picture include some reinstated scenes and parts of scenes (while lacking, of course, much of the R-rated material on Panavision view in theaters). On TV, the two foregoing remarks form part of a longer speech. Over the child’s coffin he is working on, the grizzled framer of death-as-apotheosis announces his own projected itinerary even as his latest stellar surrogate approaches the end of his particular road: “Know what I’m gonna do? Put everything I own right here [in the coffin], bury it, and leave the territory.” And then: “When are you gonna learn you can’t trust anybody—not even yourself, Garrett?”

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