Director: Sam Peckinpah
A film where vastly more people have heard of it than actually seen it is always interesting. While it didn’t exactly finish his career: he’d go on to Cross of Iron and, er, Convoy and The Osterman Weekend and (thanks Wikipedia) end up directing Julian Lennon videos, Alfredo Garcia certainly marked the end of his A-list status as a director. Its a film that’s become famous for the vitriol of the reviews at the time: most famously ‘Bring Me The Head of Sam Peckinpah’ and for the way its title has seeped into usage by people who’ve never seen the film, unless Graeme Garden is in fact an aficionado. The last few decades have seen its slow ascent from ignomy to cult status. Now its viewed as Peckinpah’s most autobiographical film – not least for the titanic amounts of alcohol consumed by its protagonist.
The plot is indeed as described: a Mexican gangster boss offers a huge reward for the head of the man who impregnated his daughter, prompting hitmen to scour Mexico. Warren Oates plays a hard-at-heel pianist and bar manager Bennie who picks up the conversation in a bar, and smells a big payday. He gets himself hired by the American hitmen chasing the vanished lothario. Bennie’s girlfriend, who has had a thing with said Alfredo, knows that in fact the unlucky gigolo is already dead and buried. The bulk of the movie comprises a road trip into hell, in which Oates’ greed strips him of everything and everyone.
So far so good. Why did it bomb at the time? The script is a collection of action movie cliches from start to finish – from the titular line itself to the final confrontation. The pace is often slow, yet crucial sequences are often rushed through so the storytelling can get confused. Oates’ character Bennie is deeply unlikeable, a series of shrugs and mutterings in seventies anti-hero style. There are no other characters to speak of, except his girlfriend whose talk of domestic bliss and making of picnics strikes a jarring tone in the relentlessly macho world of the film. Everyone else, from Kris Kristofferson who has a cameo as an aggressive biker, to a succession of swarthy men with moustaches and guns, gets to move the story along without engaging the audience.
So why the fuss? Oates is an anti-hero, in an anti-movie. The road trip brings no wisdom, it pushes Oates to the edge of madness. Fuelled by booze and sun, Bennie spends much of the last act talking to Alfredo’s head beside him on the passenger seat. The slam-bang editing allows Peckinpah to pull off scenes that have a wierd dream-like power: a roadside shoot-out is paused while everyone involved waves at a passing tourist bus. Bennie at one point wakes in Garcia’s grave, and we’re as unsure as he is for some minutes what has happened.
Then there’s the look. Bennie’s white suit becomes progressively dirtier as he is literally pushed deeper into the filth with every act. The Mexican settings recall Leone’s spaghetti western visuals. The Americans have eye-poppingly mid-seventies suits with lapels and ties that hurt the eyes. Hotel rooms are a riot of beige and smoked glass. Oates’ boat-like car is from the same Detroit production line as Hunter S Thompson’s Great White While.
With its b-movie script, unforgiving violence and seventies vibes there is no question that Quentin Tarentino, amongst many others, has had his finger on the pause button here. Alfredo Garcia is not a particularly easy watch, but as an exemplar of the bitter cynicism of the mid-seventies its hard to beat. Peckinpah can’t resist Nixon’s image (on the cover of Time) making an appearance. Hmm. Good time to watch it if you haven’t.
Might appeal to people who enjoyed:
Tarantino and Rodriguez, Easy Rider, Vanishing Point, Two Lane Blacktop and all those seventies road movies