An American bartender and his prostitute girlfriend go on a road trip through the Mexican underworld to collect a $1 million bounty on the head of a dead gigolo.
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Like its director, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is bold and uncompromising, engendering passionate reactions from its audience. Universally reviled by critics when it first appeared in theaters in 1974, the film’s place in the cannon of American cinema remains controversial. While some critics still contend that the movie shows the regrettable decline of Sam Peckinpah’s skills because of alcoholism, others consider it as innovative as any film of Hollywood’s Second Golden Age.
A Mexican patriarch places a $1 million bounty on the head (literally) of the man who impregnated his daughter. As bounty hunters arrive in Mexico to search for Alfredo Garcia, Benny (Warren Oats), an American piano player in a brothel, who was an acquaintance of Alfredo Garcia decides to steal the head from the grave and claim the reward. Bringing his sometime girlfriend Elita (Isela Vega) who knows where Alfredo Garcia is buried, Benny begins his bloody journey.
By its plot itself, Peckinpah is implicating a number of genres: the Western, romance, action, and “quest” films. At each turn, he subverts our expectations. For instance, despite their journey together, we get the distinct impression that not only did Elita love Alfedo Garcia more than Benny but also she would love anyone who could provide the best offer. Even the “buddy” film is sent up gruesomely, when Benny has “conversations” with Alfredo Garcia’s dismembered head. The unnaturalness of the dialogue gives the impression that even the characters themselves know that they are in a genre movie. One hitman calls himself Fred C. Dobbs, the name of Humphrey Bogart’s character in The Treasure of Sierra Madre.
The character of Benny is undoubtedly autobiographical. Peckinpah battled both internal demons and studio executives his entire career. Just as Benny drinks throughout his quest, Peckinpah could barely finish the film because of his alcoholism. In Alfredo Garcia, Peckinpah refuses to compromise his artistic vision as much as Benny refuses to surrender in his mission to bring the head of Alfredo Garcia for his reward. After this film, no studio would allow Peckinpah to make a film without interference. With his oversized sunglasses and blood and dirt stained white suit, Benny is far from the traditional cinematic anti-hero, but Oats manages to blend grimness with humor in his performance so that we empathize with his ordeal.
Not merely a cult classic, the film’s legacy is significant to this day. Peckinpah was already groundbreaking with his frank depiction of violence in The Wild Bunch, but here he manages to make the violence even more explicit by, paradoxically, increasing its stylization. With memorable dialogue laced with black humor and unexpected sequences, it has influenced many of today’s directors, most notably Quentin Tarintino. Every character who appears on screen is memorable (a hitman receiving a pedicure stands out), but the quirkiness never seems too cute because it serves as a constant reminder of the absurd conceit underlying the plot. Alfredo Garcia was maybe too far ahead of its times.
The film’s contributions are not only stylistic. Thematically, Peckinpah updates the image of man following his own code against an uncaring world, and how ultimately how that code has no meaning. Repeatedly, Benny could give up or even receive a partial reward for his efforts, but he refuses until he sees it through. However, even that idea is subverted. The code is not based on some noble goal but rather some unexplainable internal motivation. Benny is a Rick Blaine in a world where there are no clear good guys and bad guys, and all anyone can rely on is themselves.
If there is a larger theme, it is the limited power of money even when the entire world seems to spin on mercenary motivations. The plot is put in motion by the bounty, but Alfredo Garcia quickly becomes about Benny’s inner mission. When Elita questions the morality of removing Alfredo Garcia’s head from his grave, Benny compares his plan to the Catholic tradition of venerating the body parts of saints. In a memorable line of dialogue, Benny states: “Maybe Alfredo Garcia is our saint, the saint of money.” At the end, though, he takes his money as an afterthought. But Peckinpah does not revert to cheap optimism. He is too cynical to allow Benny to ride off into the sunset. Benny does not survive Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. Then again, no one else has figured out how to survive this world either.