Warren Oates

Better In The Dark #142: BITD Goes Down The Existential Christmas Road

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In this, the last BiTD episode of 2012, The Guys Outta Brooklyn revisit The Summer (now Winter) Of Speed to examine a trio of films where the cars are secondary to psychological introspection and angst! Join Tom and Derrick as they express their love of Two-Lane Blacktop! Enjoy Derrick’s reminiscences about seeing Vanishing Point in the theaters! Laugh as Tom tries to cover up how he misremembered Zabrinskie Point! And decide for yourself whether ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’ is a charming seduction or date rape! If you like Pina Coladas, you best get to clicking!

BETTER IN THE DARK
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Two-Lane Blacktop

1971

Universal Pictures

Directed by Monte Hellman

Produced by Michael Laughlin

Written by Rudolph Wurlitzer

Right from the start I’m going to tell you that most of you who decide to watch TWO-LANE BLACKTOP after reading this review aren’t going to like it. And I’m going to tell you why so pay attention:

TWO-LANE BLACKTOP was made during a period of American film when experimentation was encouraged and indulged.  Filmmakers weren’t worried about product placement or how much a movie made on its opening weekend.  They didn’t care about rewriting all the heat out of a screenplay to ensure that the characters were likeable or relatable. They gave you a movie with characters and respected the intelligence of you, The Viewer to decide if you liked them or not.  TWO-LANE BLACKTOP is a road movie more concerned with capturing the mood of a period of American history than giving you a thrill ride or a meaningful character study.  Now I say this because for a generation brought up on CGI Summer Blockbusters, By-The-Numbers Action Movies, Generic Romantic Comedies and Lame Ass Horror Movies, TWO-LANE BLACKTOP can be a frustrating 102 minutes to watch.  And unless you’re willing to open your mind and explore the existential nihilistic worldview of the movie you oughta give it a pass.

Now, for those of you who are still with me…

The Driver (James Taylor and yes, that James Taylor) and The Mechanic ( Dennis Wilson and yes, that Dennis Wilson) travel up and down western U.S. highways in their highly modified 1955 Chevy two-door sedan.  The battleship gray beast of a car looks like it’s about to fall apart but it’s fast enough to catch rabbits.  They spend their time picking up money in street races and live out of their car.  They never talk about anything that is not related to the care and maintenance of the Chevy or racing.  They never make small talk or chitchat and never refer to each other by name.  We never find out how they met, where they came from or why they are living this life.

The movie gets even stranger when they pick up The Girl (Laurie Bird)  Or I should say that she picks them up.  She’s a hitchhiker and simply gets into their car without asking them and they drive away with her in it as if she had been travelling with them all along.

They keep passing a 1970 Pontiac GTO being driven by Warren Oates, who thinks that The Driver wants to race.  He catches up to them at a gas station and a race is proposed.  They’ll race to Washington D.C. from their present location in New Mexico.  The winner gets the loser’s car.  Now don’t go getting hung up on this aspect of the movie as nobody makes it anywhere near Washington D.C. by movie’s end.

In fact, nobody really seems anxious in any way, shape or form to win the race.  There’s one point where GTO needs a new part for his car and The Mechanic offers to help him.  The Driver stops along the way to participate in races and GTO picks up every hitchhiker he runs across.

The only real acting in the movie is done by Warren Oates as GTO.  His attempts to connect with other people consists of giving them rides to their destinations while telling elaborate stories about his background.  To various hitchhikers he claims to be a former test pilot, a scout for movie locations and an ex-race car driver.  He’s the only character who appears to aspire to a better life somewhere and there’s a nice scene where he tries to talk The Girl into running away with him.  There’s another really poignant scene where GTO gives an old lady and her granddaughter a lift to a cemetery so that they can pay their respects.  Even though he doesn’t have to, he quietly waits for them.  And look for the scene where a gay hitchhiker clumsily attempts to seduce GTO.  It’s a great “Who The Hell Let Him In This Movie?” moment as it’s Harry Dean Stanton, of all people.

The Girl sleeps with both The Driver and The Mechanic but doesn’t seem to enjoy it much and eventually leaves them, as enigmatic as when she joined them.  The film ends with the race to Washington, D.C. unfinished and the characters still where we first found them: on the endless road.  There’s a constant mood of elegant sadness in the very soul of this movie.  These are characters who have no past and no future.  It’s all about their cars and the road.

And I suppose that if TWO-LANE BLACKTOP has any meaning that it’s that we all lose sight of the goal in our lives by the distractions along the road.  That’s what I get out of it, anyway.  What you’ll get out of it is something entirely different.  It’s not a movie for everybody but it is a movie worth seeing.  Enjoy.

102 Minutes

Rated R

Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia

1974

United Artists

Directed by Sam Peckinpah
Produced by Martin Baum
Screenplay by Sam Peckinpah and Gordon T. Dawson
Story by Sam Peckinpah and Frank Kowalski

A young pregnant girl is ushered into the cavernous den of her father, a powerful Mexican industrialist/crime lord. The room is filled with family, friends and a doctor stands nearby. The industrialist has only one question for his pregnant daughter: “Who is the father?” She refuses to identify him. Three times he asks and three times she refuses. He motions to two of his men. One holds the girl down while the other, with a casual ruthlessness, breaks her arm. The girl collapses to the floor, sobbing while her mother rushes to her side, along with the other women in the family and the doctor. The doctor whispers to the girl and she hands over a locket with the picture of a man inside. It’s given to her father who recognizes the man and issues a simple order to his army of hired guns and assassins: BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA.

I related the above scene because I know that many readers of my reviews are women (God Bless ‘em, every one) and so might be sensitive to such a scene of brutality involving a girl who looks to be around 16 years old. Be advised that this scene happens in the first five minutes of the movie and Sam Peckinpah is just getting warmed up. If you think the first five minutes of BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA are horrifyingly sadistic and savagely brutal then you must not know your Peckinpah. Trust me, there’s a lot more to come during this movie. If you’re a sensitive soul as you read further you may just decide that this movie isn’t your bag and decide you don’t want to see it. Well, that’s why I write reviews for you, my friends.

The mercenaries and hired guns spread out across Mexico, hunting for Alfredo Garcia. The father has placed a million dollar price on the head. Just the head, mind you. But it’s got to be intact and plainly identifiable as Alfredo Garcia. Two American bounty hunters, Quill (Gig Young) and Sappensly (Robert Webber) wind up in a dingy fifth rate bar/whorehouse where they meet piano player Bennie (Warren Oates) who is sick to death of playing “Gunatanamera” for half-drunk tourists looking for ‘local color’. Bennie soon strikes a deal with the two men. He thinks he can find Alfredo Garcia for $10,000. Quill and Sappensly agree. With the condition that if Bennie doesn’t produce results in four days, there will be no hard feelings when they kill Bennie. Call it a breach of contract clause.

Bennie tracks down the beautiful Elita (Isela Vega) a hooker he knows has been sleeping on and off with Garcia. She’s also been sleeping with Bennie more off than on lately and he thinks it has something to do with Garcia. Turns out that Alfredo Garcia is dead and Elita knows where he’s buried. Bennie and Elita sneak out of town to go dig up the body so Bennie can get the head. But it’s not that easy. Bennie finds the body and takes the head but he has to fight for it in a truly grisly battle to the death where Elita is killed. Bennie puts the head in a burlap sack and as the movie goes on he forms a weird sort of bond with the head. He calls it “Al” and speaks as though it can hear him. Bennie starts to see that he and “Al” have a lot in common as he defends the head against all who try and take it from him. And Bennie decides to take “Al” directly to the man who asked for the head. It’s a confrontation that will end in a horrendously bloody shootout fueled by booze, grief, hatred and revenge.

BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA is by no means a fun date movie. In fact, there’s a good chance you’ll be depressed after watching it. Unless you’re like me and actually enjoy this kind of take-no-prisoners storytelling. It’s not a pretty movie to watch. You can almost taste the sweat and dirt on the characters. It’s an extremely violent movie, even by today’s standards. But this is a Sam Peckinpah movie and one of Peckinpah’s major strengths as a director and as a storyteller was that he knew how to show violence. And I mean real violence. After a fight or shootout in a Sam Peckinpah movie there’s no high-fiving or throwing off glib wisecracks. The survivors are exhausted, traumatized and oftentimes surprised to find themselves still alive. Peckinpah directed “The Wild Bunch” which has what I think is the best shootout ever filmed and the movie’s graphic violence is legendary. In fact, the movie was reissued in 1993 with an NC-17 rating because of its violence. BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA isn’t quite in that category but its close.

The movie is worth seeing just for the performance of Warren Oates alone. A major character actor, Mr. Oates had few opportunities to star in a movie and after seeing this one, I wish he had. As Bennie he goes through an amazing range of emotions and situations, from wanna-be tough guy, to drunken slob, to tender lover and finally, grim avenger. It’s an Oscar worthy performance and supposedly, Mr. Oates adopted a lot of the personal mannerisms of Sam Peckinpah himself to use as Bennie. The sunglasses he wears throughout the movie were a pair he stole from Peckinpah.

Isela Vega is remarkable as Elita. She’s simply fascinating to look at and has a mature sexuality I find irresistible. This isn’t some anorexic pop tart trying to play a woman. This is most certainly a woman in body and soul and the scenes between Vega and Oates are amazing to watch in their raw frankness. They have a scene where they wake up the next day after having sex and the scene is amazingly natural in that they act as if the camera isn’t there. You know what I’m talking about. They do the things that people do after waking up from a night of boozy sex that might make you squirm uncomfortably if you’ve ever been there.

Gig Young and Robert Webber almost seem to be winking at the camera sometimes as they play their bounty hunter characters. They’re obviously having fun. There’s a great scene where they first meet Bennie and one of the bar’s whores tries to come onto Webber’s character. Webber cold cocks her without blinking an eye and the bar empties out in 4.1 seconds, with the whore’s girlfriends picking her up and carrying her out. I wouldn’t even spoil it for you by relating Bennie’s comment here. But you may find yourself laughing out loud and then wondering just why you laughed. And there’s a great bit where Bennie asks the Gig Young character what his name his. Young smirks as he answers; “Fred C. Dobbs”. Which shows me that the character Young plays was well aware of the parallel between the situation they were in and “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” And keep your eye out for a young Kris Kristofferson as a biker rapist.

So should you see BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA? I would say yes for a number of reasons: Sam Peckinpah was one of the greatest director/storytellers we’re ever gonna see and this movie is his dark, twisted masterpiece. It is so uncompromising in its vision that I honestly think it couldn’t be made today. The performance of Warren Oates is masterful. There are scenes of unrelenting psychosis as he drives toward his rendezvous with Hell, talking to the head of Alfredo Garcia that may make you think Mr. Oates is actually drinking real tequila from that bottle he keeps next to the head. You can see where notable film directors Quentin Tarentino and John Woo got a lot of their influences in this movie. But it’s a movie that shouldn’t be seen unless you’re willing to go where it’ll take you. There’s a part in the movie when Elita allows herself to be taken away to be raped and she says to Bennie; “I’ve been down this road before and you don’t know the way” I kinda get the impression that Sam Peckinpah thought the same way about directing BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA.

112 minutes
Rated R

The Wild Bunch

1969

Warner Bros-Seven Arts

Directed by Sam Peckinpah

Produced by Phil Feldman

Screenplay by Sam Peckinpah and Waylon Green

Based on a story by Waylon Green and Roy N. Sickner

THE WILD BUNCH represents a lot to me personally.  Besides being one of the greatest Western movies ever made.  THE WILD BUNCH was my first “grown-up” movie that my father took me to see.  Just the two of us went and we went to a Chinese restaurant for dinner afterwards to talk about the movie.  It was a great day and there’s not many days from my childhood that remain as vivid as that particular day.  It also was the first Western I ever saw in a movie theater and so began my overwhelming love for the genre which is just as fierce today.

Sam Peckinpah may have had his faults but by God, could the man direct a movie.  And THE WILD BUNCH, along with “Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia” and “Ride The High Country” represents what I personally consider his holy trinity of Westerns.  And yes, even though “Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia” is set in modern times, it is a Western.

But in a way, THE WILD BUNCH is set in modern times as well.  The gang of aging outlaws we follow through the movie don’t carry the time-honored six-shooters we’re used to seeing in a Western.  No, these guys pack .45 automatics and pump shotguns.  That’s because the movie’s set in 1913.  Times are changing rapidly, thanks to technology, represented in the movie by the railroad, automatic weapons and automobiles.  Pike Bishop (William Holden) Dutch Engstrom (Ernest Borgnine) Lyle and Tector Gorch (Warren Oates and Ben Johnson) Angel (Jaime Sanchez) and Freddie Sykes (Edmund O’Brien) are The Wild Bunch and their latest job has gone totally bust.  They attempt to rob a Texas railroad office and end up being ambushed by a posse of bloodthirsty yet hopelessly incompetent bounty hunters (Peckinpah regulars L.Q. Jones and Strother Martin among them) led by Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan) who once was Pike’s best friend and rode with The Wild Bunch.  He’s been released from Yuma with one mandate: hunt down and kill his old partners or get sent back to Yuma.  He really doesn’t want to go back to Yuma.

They end up with bags full of washers instead of gold.  The failure of this job brings the gang to a painful conclusion: times are changing and as Pike says; “We’ve got to start looking past our guns.” There’s no more wild west for these guys to roam and they’re getting too old for this line of work.

Pike and the others make a deal with the Mexican General Mapache (Emilio Fernandez) to rob an Army train transporting guns and ammo and turn it over to him.  Mapache’s willing to pay them enough to retire on but Angel’s not willing to steal guns for Mapache.  Mexican himself, Angel argues that Mapache’s nothing but a petty tyrant, setting himself up as general to exploit his own people.  Angel also doesn’t appreciate Mapache having stolen his woman.  But due to the presence of a German munitions expert/military advisor (Fernando Wagner) it’s pretty obvious to ex-military men like Pike and Dutch that Mapache’s ambitions are anything but petty.  Angel agrees to help rob the train if he can have some guns to give to his village.

And so The Wild Bunch goes off to pull what they hope will be their last job.  But it’s a job that will test their rough code of loyalty to each other.  A job that will end in bloody vengeance.

There’s really not much I can say about THE WILD BUNCH that you probably already haven’t read or heard about your own self.  It’s rightly earned its reputation as a masterpiece of filmmaking.  And more than 40 years after it was made it still is considered one of the most violent movies ever made.  In 1993, the movie was resubmitted to the MPAA ratings board for the movie’s theatrical re-release and the board slapped it with an NC-17.  Hard to argue with that one, considering the astronomical body count.  And especially that apocalyptic final shootout in which The Wild Bunch massacres an entire army in a suicidal orgy of gunfire that has to be seen to be believed.

But it isn’t just the violence that makes this movie so outstanding for me.  It’s the perfect cast that is nothing less than convincing in every shot.  The themes of trust and betrayal between men who try to be honorable in a world and profession that won’t let them.  The moody interludes between the characters.  Such as the quiet talk between Pike and Dutch as they lie beside a campfire.  Or the conversation with an old Mexican bandit.  Or the ending which carries the promise of a new Wild Bunch.

If you’ve seen THE WILD BUNCH then you know what I’m talking about.  If you haven’t, I don’t know why you’ve waited this long.  It’s a masterpiece, plain and simple.  If you’ve never seen it, Netflix it at your earliest opportunity.  If you have, what the hell, see it again.

143 minutes

Rated: R