True, taken all for all, Alfredo Garcia may not be Peckinpah’s best work–that right’s reserved for the technical, thematic and generic revolution that was The Wild Bunch (1969)–but without a doubt it has to be considered a masterwork, as well as the writer/director’s most personal film–a disillusioned tale of love lost and hopes trampled, fusing the Bunch‘s ultraviolence with the more intimate (but no less bloody) character study Straw Dogs (1971).
Reviled by certain reviewers, then and now, as one of the worst movies ever made (allow me to cry fowl here and now on the Medved brothers’ Golden Turkey hoopla), such knee-jerk responses owe as much to the relentlessly bleak subject matter–despite the vein of black humor shot through the film–and pessimistic conclusion, which in retrospect makes the death-driven carnage at the end of The Wild Bunch seem like a dry-run, as they do to the accuracy of the more calumnious allegations leveled against him: that Peckinpah was washed-up, a hopelessly non-functioning alcoholic, content to simply repeat his pet obsessions in lockstep from project to project.
(Such charges are badly mistaken on the face of it, since they fail to account for the minor-key, elegiac and largely violence-free The Ballad of Cable Hogue , starring Jason Robards, and Junior Bonner  with Steve McQueen as an aging rodeo star.)
Adding to an aura of autobiography laced throughout the film, the late great character actor Warren Oates (in one of his all-too-few leading roles) turns the part of Bennie–an ex-Army, expatriate drifter and sometime piano-player–back in on the director, fashioning a second self, down to donning the man’s trademark dark sunglasses.
The film opens on an idyllic scene–a visibly pregnant young woman basking in the sun by the shore of a lake. Peckinpah and DP Alex Philips Jr. indulge an almost Impressionist mood, the lambent setting sun filtering through the overhead foliage and dappling the lapping water, all the better to shatter it when two henchmen descend upon the girl and haul her away. Turns out her father, El Jefe (played by renowned Mexican director Emilio Fernandez, also the villainous Mapache in The Wild Bunch), is none too pleased about the state of affairs. When the girl refuses to name the father, El Jefe tortures the name out of her, resulting in the eponymous command.
We first see Bennie mid-gig in a rundown Mexico City tourist bar, plying the borrachos with yet another rendition of “Guantanamera” (a tune that, significantly, mixes politics and personal loss.) On the wall behind him, there’s some funny-money dollar bills, emblazoned with Tricky Dick Nixon shooting his signature double-victory salute, clearly on display. (Nixonian imagery recurs in a later scene.)
Two executive-suit-clad hit men, Sappensly (Robert Webber) and Quill (Gig Young), approach Bennie for information on Alfredo Garcia’s whereabouts, offering him a fast, easy payoff. As they leave, Quill gives his name as “Fred C. Dobbs”–the reference to John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1950) establishes rapacity and paranoia as the dominant mode of the film. The film also subtly suggests–by the way Sappensly rejects the tender mercies of one of the saloon’s putas with an elbow to the face, as well as Quill’s response (during the climactic shootout) to Sappensly’s death–some unspoken, possibly polymorphous, bond between the two men. (One thinks of the Gorch brothers in The Wild Bunch.)
Scenting easy money, Bennie barges in on girlfriend Elita (Isela Vega) while on the clock at a nearby bordello, demanding information about Garcia, with whom she has had a long history. In this and other scenes with Elita, Oates gets to strut his stuff, effortlessly conveying Bennie’s mixed feelings of money-lust and jealousy. In a subsequent scene, when he sneeringly refers to Garcia as Elita’s primer amor, or first love, his delivery registers anger, bitterness and resentment simultaneously.
Bennie visits the bagman’s hotel to extort more money for his information, and one of the bodyguards can be seen reading the Time “Man of the Year” issue with Nixon on the cover. In addition to capturing perfectly the free-floating, post-Watergate malaise of suspicion and mistrust, it also prefigures Bennie’s ultimate downfall, turning his defiant response to one of the managerial types who dismisses him as a loser into a terrible irony: “Nobody loses all the time.”
Elita is willing to do whatever Bennie wants, as long as she thinks it will bring them closer, even trying to pass off their gruesome road trip to Garcia’s grave as a romantic “picnic.” Along the way, Elita tries to convince Bennie not to allow his reach to exceed his grasp–a plea that falls on deaf ears. Bennie only wants to take the money and run: “I’ve been no place I wanna go back to, that’s for damn sure!” Happiness, for him, is always just around the next turn in the road.
It’s easy to imagine their subsequent encounter with a couple of overly friendly outlaw bikers might stand, at least implicitly, as Peckinpah’s rebuke to the bogus martyrdom at the end of Easy Rider (1968). One of the men holds Bennie at gunpoint, while the other (Kris Kristofferson, contributing a cameo, a year after he’d starred in Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid) leads Elita off into the underbrush. When she warns Bennie not to make trouble, telling him,”I’ve been down this road before, and you don’t know the way,” her resignation and desire to protect him are affectingly palpable.
Staring down the guitar-strumming vagabond, Oates spits out the film’s funniest line: “You two guys are definitely on my shit list!” But the scene’s tone quickly shifts. Bennie gets the drop on his captor, knocking him unconscious with a frying pan. When he stumbles on the biker and Elita making a little splendor in the grass, it’s evident the sight brings Alfredo Garcia to mind. Bennie responds to this erotic encroachment by blasting away both bikers.
Now the film moves inexorably into its sanguine endgame: the jaws of doom spring shut on Bennie and Elita like the bear trap at the end of Straw Dogs. Doubly determined to get his man (at least in part), Bennie lets Elita in on the gruesome stipulations for the reward money. Understandably horrified, she agrees to finish the trip, but at the cost of their relationship. She wants out. Bennie, however, believes she’ll come around after he’s flush.
His logic is a perverse blend of capitalism and Christology: “Listen. The church cuts off the feet, fingers, any other goddamn thing from the saints, don’t they? Well, what the hell? Alfredo’s our saint. He’s the saint of our money, and I’m gonna borrow a piece of him. There ain’t nothing sacred about a hole in the ground or the man that’s in it. Or you. Or me.” It’s a thoroughly secularized world–and the only value that inheres in things is whatever the market will bear.
The film’s final shot–a freeze-frame on a machine gun mid-blast–caps the carnage with a symbolic summation: Violence begets violence. And even those with nothing to lose somehow manage to lose it all.