Warren Oates’ misanthropic anti-hero Bennie in Sam Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is a sleazy piano player and cheap suit, labeled a loser by murderers. His prostitute girlfriend Elita is the only one to treat him with respect, but she also loves Alfredo Garcia and gravitates towards any man that shows emotion, even those who intend to rape her. Like the most interesting noir, the movie puts the has-been front and center. Bennie is unable to adequately judge his own self worth and is barely able to defend Elita when her virtue is challenged… she’s basically undefendable.
Oates’ makes watching the movie difficult and strange. He seems uncomfortable in the role, mannered. He goes vacant in the eyes at times, during long takes. This awkwardness is enhanced by the film itself… messy, technically deficient, visibly low budget, with an echo in the soundtrack, uneven day for night filters, haphazard editing, inconsistent shot duration, and off-kilter compositions. But whether or not all this is intentional, the deficiencies strengthen the illustration of the main character: his frenzied state, the manic psychology at the root of the plot machinations. The film looks like Bennie feels, an unkempt underdog.
In the odd rape scene triggered by kris kristofferson’s biker, each participant becomes victim and aggressor at different times, leading to a haunting morality play about the complexity of primitive nature. Elita tells Bennie “I’ve been here before and you don’t know the way” just before the attack, but Bennie does learn the way, at least a little. He becomes the hero but he learns that role from whores and killers so the lessons are warped.
In the third act, as Bennie goes on a roadtrip with a decapitated head, the film arrives at its most noirish, exploring the difficulties of carting a body part around in a dusty car from one arid Mexican town to another. A head will stink, will draw flies, will need to be packed in ice, will get the attention of kids cleaning your windshield. The procedural aspects, omnipresent in film noir, underline the venality, gruesomeness and vengeance at the core of Bennie’s motivation.
Despite her weaknesses and contradictions, Elita is missed from the third act. This ultra-prostitute, manipulator of sexual situations and provider of genuine caring, is probably a misogynist wish fulfillment on Peckinpah’s part. She’s a golden-hearted stereotype but never a victim; her emotional duplicity is expected and natural and the sense of loss her absence creates is real, a successful use of an effective technical trope of noir. She provides humanity and feeling otherwise not present in the world, just as other female characters have done in the worlds of other films from Chinatown (Faye Dunaway’s Evelyn Mulwray) to Out of the Past (Virginia Huston’s Ann Miller). These stories full of repugnant characters are watchable if just one of the characters has a soul. The common viewer perceives him or herself as good at heart. They have someone to identify with and pull for, if subconsciously. Following the noir genre rules, the eventual sacrifice of the purest of them all adds a layer of resonance.