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Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (Blu-ray Review)

28 Apr, 2014 By: Mike Clark

Available via ScreenArchives.com
Twilight Time
$29.95 Blu-ray
Rated ‘R.’
Stars Warren Oates, Isela Vega, Gig Young, Robert Webber, Emilio Fernandez.

You somehow know from the title that this isn’t going to be some Olivia Newton-John musical. It is, in fact, the one Sam Peckinpah movie, according to the director himself, that he got to make without studio or producer interference, which ought to be enough to let your imagination run wild when considering the unsavory possibilities.

Look up “despot” or “wasted” in your Larry King Dictionary (an ’80s joke that dates me), and you’ll see a picture of Emilio Fernandez, who had previously played the sleaze-wallowing heavy in Peckinpah’s landmark The Wild Bunch, no winner of any humanitarian awards, he. In this case, the actor (who was also a director) plays a corrupt Mexican patriarch who rules his sprawling roost to such a degree that he can put a money figure on the head of the randy type who’s just impregnated his daughter (not that you sense that the Fernandez character has recoiled in horror at the prospect of sexual practices outside of his own marriage). What’s more, he gets no small number of takers willing to go for the bounty gold, to say nothing of poor Al’s jugular.

Cast as a piano-bar tunesmith who does a better job than others of taking on this dubious assignment, lead Warren Oates is consciously aping his director here at least in terms of appearance, including those trademark Peckinpah shades. Oates’ partner in robbing the grave of the already deceased target (trouble obviously follows Señor Garcia around) is a fairly head-on-straight prostitute played by Isela Vega, whose character is about as attractive as you can get for someone in that profession who has obviously been not just around the block but perhaps even the cosmos. A rape that ends up going in strange directions ensues — and so do countless assault-weapon fatalities. It was no doubt inevitable because this is a Peckinpah movie filmed at a time when audiences all-out expected this kind of mayhem from the director while at the same time staying away from The Ballad of Cable Hogue and then Junior Bonner, two lovely all-time personal favorites that proved he really did have dual screen personalities.

The heavies here include Helmut Dantine, who also served as a producer here and was certainly a long way from the early World War II days when he was trying to outwit Errol Flynn amid Canadian snow in Raoul Walsh’s Northern Pursuit. There’s also a presumably gay hitman duo (shades of Lee Van Cleef and Earl Holliman in The Big Combo) played by Gig Young and Robert Webber. They remind me of a friend who tells me that her mother used to yell the word “dissipated” at the TV screen whenever comedian Jan Murray showed up — and the same for hall-of-fame drummer and early pot-bust target Gene Krupa. She should have seen Young and Murray here.

I saw this movie by myself (believe me: a date was hard to get) at an old RKO movie palace very close to the White House just after Nixon’s resignation in that final Watergate summer of ’74. As with virtually every film critic aside from Roger Ebert, I found the picture disappointing and a little over the top just for the sake of it — an early indicator of what turned out to be Peckinpah’s severe artistic decline. Over the years I’ve become more fond of it — though not quite to the degree of its newfound adherents — due to its portrayal of life at the absolute bottom, the poignancy of its fatalistic Oates-Vega romance and, most of all, an obsessed Oates protagonist who is driven by obscure reasons to finish a job he has taken on despite having to put up with the battalion of flies that encircle the severed head that’s always on the passenger seat of his beat-up car. At least Peckinpah keeps what is left of Garcia wrapped in burlap (though this probably just frustrates the flies).

Head looks very much like it did at the time: hazy “United Artists De Luxe Color green” — though with somewhat more visual oomph than what we got on the old DVD version. Twilight Time pulls out some stops here, starting with separate commentaries: one with know-it-all (in the good sense) film historians Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons, David Weddle and Mr. Twilight Time himself, Nick Redman. The other teams Redman again and writer-producer Gordon T. Dawson, who wrote the excellent bio Peckinpah: A Portrait in Montage that I read almost immediately upon publication in the early ’80s. Dawson manages to hold my complete attention just by sitting on a couch and relating his experiences trying to get the book written (with the director’s cooperation) in one of two supplemental featurettes. Though Peckinpah didn’t exactly toss roadblocks in front of Dawson, he wasn’t the most dependable individual when it came to follow-through (think of Taylor Hackford trying to keep Chuck Berry’s train on the track when filming Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll).

The other featurette runs close to an hour, offering a chronicle of the production that surpasses reasonable expectations. Vega and longtime Peckinpah associate Kate Haber offer insights into why so many colleagues continued to stick with Peckinpah despite the way he acted out his demons (like, say, pumping bullets into hotel walls at night). Peckinpah regular L.Q. Jones recalls a barroom brawl precipitated by the director (which he then bailed out on) in one of the roughest parts of Mexico. Another Peckinpah colleague talks of the folks that true-blue tough guy Fernandez is said to have killed in real life — whereupon Ernie Borgnine (another Peckinpah veteran) talks of good times spent at Fernandez’s home. This sounds like all the stories of how Otto Preminger, a well-known tyrant on the set, was a consummate dinner host. 

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