A Series of Crimes: Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia, by Aaron Pinkston
Despite our law-abiding tendencies, we sure do love criminals. And so does the cinema. Since the early days of film, audiences have empathized with killers, thieves and gangsters (as long as they get their proper comeuppance). This is partly an escapist tendency, venturing into worlds and with people we don’t really want to associate with in the real world, but crime films always expose something of the human condition. A majority of onscreen criminals have the same hopes and dreams as all of us, and the best of the genre shows how the temptations can make a criminal out of the viewer. Over the next few weeks I’ll take a look at a variety of crime films throughout history and from around the world, hoping to find how crime transcends time and place.
One of rebel filmmaker Sam Peckinpah’s final films, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia takes a down-on-his-luck piano player and plunges him into the criminal world of Mexico. Played by Peckinpah favorite Warren Oates, Bennie is commissioned to find a young man who knocked up a mobster boss’s daughter. El jefe is particularly cranky about it, so he offers a million dollar reward for the man who literally brings him the head of Alfredo Garcia. As a criminal, Bennie is an interesting case. We don’t know much about Bennie when he decides to go on this adventure — we don’t know where he exactly falls on the moral compass, but we also don’t know if he has what it takes to kill and man and take his head. The character isn’t the glamorous criminal type and Oates doesn’t quite fit the ideal anti-hero — he isn’t particularly attractive, effortlessly cool or dangerous. Is he, however, the everyman that allows for a point of identification. While watching Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, I couldn’t help but think of how I would respond to the situations which befall Bennie. His everyman-ness is contrasted throughout the film by the men who hire him during the opening scenes; his employers are men in well tailored suits, very white and waspy. They are also the men who are going to get a great share of the million dollar award, offering the low-level Bennie a few thousand dollars for the dirty work.
Centering on a non-criminal in a criminal world, the film smartly conceives the mission and develops its central figure before letting all hell break loose (this is a Peckinpah film, after all). Bennie becomes a criminal out of desperation, the lure of money, no matter the amount, as the solution to all his problems. Shortly after recruiting his sometime girlfriend, who also happens to be a former lover of the title character, an important twist of the mission is revealed — a circumstance which makes the character motivation a little clearer. But fully jumping into this criminal underworld has its unavoidable effects, and as Bennie dives deeper into the dirt of rural Mexico, his entire character is reflected in the craziness. The first crime we see Bennie commit (which actually comes well into the film) is basically an act of self-defense, protecting his girl from being raped by a hippie-biker Kris Kristofferson. We see in this moment, though, that he does revel in killing, which becomes increasingly clear with each gunshot. As Bennie says after one particular murder: “Why? Because it feels so Goddamn good.” Killing is not only a means of survival or personal gain, but an act he now enjoys.
Money continues to be a major factor for Bennie throughout the film, but he also draws on good old fashioned revenge as his downward spiral into crime takes complete hold. On multiple occasions Bennie has the opportunity to cash in and walk away, but he consistently takes another step deeper. At first it seems to be a simple power play for more cash, after realizing that he is an underpaid pawn in these events, he can get rid of his opposition for more gain. At some point, though, there is a breaking point with no turning back — he’s left too many bodies behind to not see this through to the very top of the chain. By the end, there doesn’t seem to be any way for Bennie to pull himself out of this situation, and Bennie must know this, too. As we know with most crime films, criminals need to be punished or go out in a blaze of glory.
Though most of his career took place during the swinging 60s, Sam Peckinpah is one of the quintessential 1970s filmmakers — the era of filmmaking most associated with young auteurs given full reign to make their films as violent and esoteric as they’d like. With Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, Peckinpah also taps into the definitive tone of the decade: gritty, pessimistic and with Vietnam firmly on the mind. If the 1950s were the height of the “American dream,” the 1970s was when that sentiment crashed and burned. The ambivalence of the American dream is fully seen in the film’s conclusion and Bennie’s ultimate downfall. If Bennie was more plugged into the system of the American Dream, he would have easily walked away with a million dollars in hand and nothing else to prove. Even though his girlfriend was killed in the journey, his newfound wealth would be victory enough. Instead, Bennie vies for anarchy, distrusting the men in well tailored suits (stand-ins for American bureaucracy) and intent on obliterating anyone in his path of needless destruction. While many Americans in 1974 were wondering what we were doing in Vietnam, Bennie’s actions seem as harsh and unnecessary.
Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia isn’t my favorite Peckinpah film, but it is essential viewing for any Peckinpah fan and is fully within his auteurist sensibility. It’s slippery and sloppy, but in mostly good ways. Bennie’s character works mostly as a blank slate, but you can never get a fully-formed read on him. As a crime film, it’s an easy slip into the genre — we will certainly see bigger, brasher and more definitive crime films ahead.