The “savage poetry” that Martin Scorsese says he finds in the work of the legendary director Sam Peckinpah is attributed most commonly to more popular genre films like The Wild Bunch, but the term takes on a deeper, stranger meaning when applied to Peckinpah’s crazy and altogether fascinating 1974 film Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. The film wasn’t well-received in its time, but has come to be regarded as perhaps the director’s most personal and fearlessly conceived project. (Perhaps it now occupies the same place in Peckinpah’s oeuvre that Vertigo does in Alfred Hitchcock’s. The film certainly looms large over Tommy Lee Jones' wonderful recent directorial effort The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada.) It’s the sort of work that seems all the stronger and more complex because of its flaws, obsessions, reveries and digressions. And it reveals Peckinpah’s conflicted attitudes toward violence, machismo, power and especially women more nakedly than his other movies. There is at base a sense of the artist attempting, however crudely, to lay his troubled heart bare.
Like previous Peckinpah films, Alfredo Garcia concerns rape and revenge, blood and money, and takes place in a milieu where women are alternately humanized and humiliated. It takes a quintessential loser—Benny (Warren Oates), an American piano player in a seedy Mexico City bar—and places him in a position which grants him bargaining power and the promise of previously undreamed-of riches, and yet none of his choices ultimately work in his favour. He learns of a bounty placed on the titular Garcia, a notorious womanizer responsible for impregnating the daughter of a powerful, mysterious figure (played by Emilio Fernandez, a filmmaker apparently more insane than Peckinpah), and shortly thereafter finds that Garcia has even seduced Benny’s girl Elita (Isela Vega). Unbeknownst to his pursuers, Garcia has since died in an accident. Benny patches things up with Elita and decides to track down Garcia’s corpse, dismember it, and bring his head to those seeking it personally, so he can collect the reward. But among such hardened criminals, Benny, the diminutive gringo, is far out of his element.
Alfredo Garcia becomes, among other things, one of Peckinpah’s thinly veiled studies of male virility. Benny’s so concerned with conquering his own sense of impotence that he ironically places the woman he loves in grave danger. In scenes that utterly define the tone of the film, once Benny comes into contact with Garcia’s decapitated head, he begins conversing with it, partially out of respect for Garcia’s famed ability to please women (even Benny’s). Yet despite all this, Benny’s love for Elita feels real and often moving. Both are damaged figures invested with great emotional idiosyncrasy by the performers. Oates, one of the great faces in American movies, especially gives a marvelous performance, partly an imitation of Peckinpah himself (though, especially in voice and posture, he reminded me a lot of Tom Waits in his late-’80s incarnation). He’s so uniquely funny, tenderly transparent, weirdly sympathetic, this dust-caked, poor man's knight errant with the receding hairline in his one ugly white suit, the oversized sunglasses that he even wears to bed, and the pitiful tough-guy poses he fumblingly strikes around the heavies.
Life is cheap in Alfredo Garcia (the sadistic slaughter of an entire grieving family is only one of the film’s horrors), but it is nonetheless abundant, with rural Mexico in all its genuine colour, character and squalour (the selection of beat-to-shit jalopies in this movie is slyly hilarious in itself) filling the background. At times you’re not sure how it all fits together, and the film’s controversial scene in which a potential rape victim sympathizes with her attacker is, to say the very least, deeply unsettling and just maybe not much more than stupid. But Peckinpah was never interested in moral clarity; instead, in Alfredo Garcia, we seem him ruthlessly stripping away every last pretence of honour, order and causality from the action movie genre. Jim Kitses calls it a western, which I'll happily buy, so long as the sunset we ride off into is sapped of any and all sentimentality.