Archive for Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia

All Action

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 2, 2020 by dcairns

Ben Wheatley’s FREE FIRE (2016) and Hélène Cattet & Bruno Forzani’s LET THE CORPSES TAN (2017) could be lumped together as part of a stillborn European cinema movement — the all-action movie. Critics have often — inaccurately — complained that Hollywood action movies are just continuous violence uninterrupted by plot. They do strive to give that impression, but are more likely to be following the 80s Joel Silver/Simpson & Bruckheimer format of an action sequence every ten minutes, and the cause-and-effect narrative motivation is usually very strong. Part of the reason they often feel so simplistic in story terms is that they have a this-follows-that structure, like a treasure hunt, or a guys-on-a-mission thing, and use the three-act structure religiously.

So the idea of taking literally what critics complain about is kind of an interesting one. What would it feel like if everything was an action set-piece. In theory, very intense, but in theory also, you could still tells a complex story and have interesting characters — because as writer David Gerrold once attested, you CAN and SHOULD use action as a CONTINUATION of plot and character, not as a SUBSTITUTE.

Movies usually managed the PLOT part — I remember being struck by an elaborate chase/battle in the piece of crap AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN PARIS, which left the characters and situation back where they started, so that the whole thing could have been removed without affecting the story one jot. The feeling was unfamiliar, because even the lamest action movies don’t usually make this elementary blunder. Even if the action sequence consists of Character A trying some stunt to resolve their difficulties, and the stunt doesn’t work, and they end up stuck with the same difficulties, some form of story progress will have been made, even if it’s only the discover of “Well, THAT stunt didn’t work.”

David Cronenberg, asked whether his CRASH was not just a series of sex scenes with no story or character, said he didn’t see why story and character couldn’t be developed by a series of sex scenes. The same should certainly be true of violent scenes.

Where most action movies do go wrong is in character development. Everybody becomes an unstoppable killing machine once the conflict kicks off. There is no plausible reason why Benny, the barroom piano player in BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA, should turn out to be such a skilled gunman (“able to kill four men with three bullets,” as Alex Cox may have put it — I don’t recall the exact figures) other than that Peckinpah is indulging in self-parody. Making different characters differently effective at violence is an obvious tool that’s underused — generally the leading lady is the only one allowed to be frightened or weak, leading Schwartzenegger to proclaim that women are kind of a drag in action cinema. But check out how ALIENS manages to characterize, at least in comic-book terms, a whole bunch of different characters in what is effectively a single protracted dramatic/action situation. And most of them are military folks, and they’re STILL varied.

So, LET THE CORPSES TAN is the one we watched, part of my exploration of Jean-Patrick Manchette. So far I’ve read one of his novels (Fatale), one set of comic-book adaptations (by Jacques Tardi) and seen two movies, the other being Yves Boisset’s FOLLE A TUER. He’s a writer whose work can best be described as “propulsive” and he seems like a good match for this approach.

The film isn’t actually all shooty-gun stuff, but it manages to feel like a single runaway panic attack of mayhem, hallucinations and virtuoso set-pieces. It would be fair to say it never lets up. Fiona, feeling a bit sleepy, disengaged from the “plot” entirely and just let it flow over her — maybe enjoying it more as a result. I was impressed by the style, then let down by the ending. It might seem axiomatic that if your movie is all climax, when it finally stops it will feel anticlimactic, inconclusive, but I could imagine all sorts of solutions that would have made it more satisfactory, chief among them the classic Hollywood trick of setting up a puzzle piece, letting the audience get distracted into forgetting it, and then paying it off at the end when they’re not expecting it. That doesn’t happen here.

The filmmakers have colossal panache and there are techniques here which border on the unique (every filmmaker should see it), and the whole thing looks terrific. But it seems that even with a book to base it on, they’re not great at story. It’s hard to care about anything in this psychedelic charnel-house. It’s good to see Elina Lowensohn again, and her character’s indifference to the chaos around her is intriguing, but we wait in vain for her attitude to change — since change of attitude is a defining trait of characterisation in stories. (Hollywood, with its redemption narratives, insists of wholesale character reform, but I think the minimum of development we’re entitled to is a change of APPROACH by each character.)

The danger of a movie that’s continuous movement is that it could all become paradoxically static. LET THE CORPSES TAN slams into that obstacle at 100mph, and the fact that the impact doesn’t slow it down is part of the problem.

Bring Me the Head of Fred C. Dobbs

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 1, 2014 by dcairns


Spoiler alert — this is a key moment from THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE and I’ll be discussing it in detail so turn aside squeamishly if you haven’t seen this film in the 66 years since it was made ~

At 2.33 Gold Hat (Alfonso Bedoya) brings his machete down on Fred C. Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart). At 2.34 he takes a step back and looks at his messy handiwork. At 2.35 he kills Fred all over again, in what looks to be the exact same shot or a different take of the same.

At 2.37 he gets momentarily distracted by something to his lower right.

At 2.39 there’s a high angle shot in which we can see a pool of water with a rippling surface and a trace of darkness.

According to regular Shadowplayer Randy Cook, this sequence was originally supposed to show Bogie’s decapitation and his head rolling into the pool. In Robert Rossen’s draft screenplay we find the sequence described thus ~

“THE REST WE SEE REFLECTED IN THE BRACKISH WATER OF THE POOL: The stroke of the machete, then the figures of the three bandits standing, eyes downward, looking at something on the ground. The water in the pool begins to darken. Gold Hat looks up from the ground to the machete in his hand. He touches his thumb and forefinger to the tip of his tongue, then he tests the cutting edge of the blade. The waters of the pool are growing darker and darker.”

Huston, being a director, would probably have ignored the stuff about reflections in a pool. Anytime a screenwriter describes a camera placement, you can be sure the director will do something different. Then again, Rossen’s script was an adaptation of Huston’s pre-war draft. Huston, I think, subsequently adapted it back.

Randy suggests listening to Max Steiner’s typically emphatic score, which accompanies the action closely, a style known as “mickey-mousing.” If you close your eyes at the moment of the first mighty chop, you can easily picture the score accompanying the bouncing of a prop head into a pool. Thump thump splosh.

“Huston had seen terrible things in the war and may have thought the time was right to show something like this,” suggests Randy. “Also, as we know from the ending of THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING that he found severed heads funny.”

Bogart reputedly complained, “What’s wrong with showing a guy getting his head cut off?”

So what was deleted? Also – there are plenty of shots of makeup tests of Bogie for this film — he wears various lengths of beard and wig, courtesy of Perc Westmore and his team. So why has no prosthetic head of Humphrey Bogart turned up?

I’m trying to mentally reconstruct the sequence as it originally stood.

As originally edited, the second chop would not have existed. The shot at 2:37 would have run longer, making it clear that Gold Hat is following the movement of something close to the ground.

The high angle showing the pool to Gold Hat’s right would have started a touch earlier, showing the splash, and lingered as the blood started to srain the pool. No severed head need be shown, since the splash could be produced by any heavy round object. Maybe a weighted canteen containing dark dye.

This explanation strikes me as credible — Huston may have expected to get away with such a sequence, introducing a grisly idea using suggestion and enlisting the audience’s imagination. Then Jack Warner would have choked on his cigar or Joe Breen would have had a conniption, and the sequence would have had to be re-edited. To make things cheap, they didn’t want to change the length of the scene because that would mean rescoring, so they rearranged some shots and added a second death-blow from Gold Hat, ironically making the scene MORE violent, although measuring such things is very subjective. Steve McQueen doesn’t think his 12 YEARS A SLAVE is particularly violent as it only contains, to his mind, six instances of violence — fewer than any PG-rated action film. But the effect on an audience has little to do with the number of violent moments or even how explicitly they are presented — most of the violence in FUNNY GAMES occurs just off-camera, but I think it’s laughable to claim that makes it more pure or decent.

This debate won’t be settled probably ever, but I’m glad to say I may have settled why Humphrey Bogart’s severed head hasn’t turned up on eBay.

BUT — nothing is settled. There are accounts that swear there was a severed head, and there is this ~



Proof that Bogart’s face was cast for a life-mask at about the right time. He does wear a lot of different beard and hairpieces in the film, so it could have been for that. If Humphrey Bogart DID have a spare head, what’s become of it? Maybe it was water-soluble. Maybe Bogie got drunk and dropkicked it off a cliff. Maybe it was carried off by a gila monster. Maybe Warren Oates found it years later…?