In Monte Hellman’s The Shooting, a lengthy shot simply holds on the face of Warren Oates. The longer it lasts the more handsome Oates seems, he is motionless and his eyes squint under his hallmark furrowed brow. And then he moves his mouth, and you realise it must be one of the strangest mouths to grace any human being on earth. There’s never been any actor quite like Oates, he was one of a kind, utterly unique in every respect, and brilliant beyond recognition.
Alfredo Garcia marks one of only a handful of films in which Oates was given a lead role, and boy does he leave his mark on it. A synopsis is hardly necessary, the films title is emblematic of the plot. Needless to say, the head of Alfredo Garcia becomes the object of desire for Bennie, a down-and-out pianist playing Guantanamera in Mexico for chump change. When ten large is offered for the said head, Bennie sets out with his lover Elita, a prostitute, and former mistress of Garcia to find the crown and claim the jewels.
Critically savaged and a box-office flop, Alfredo Garcia is still regarded by some as among the worst films ever made. For others it is Peckinpah’s last masterpiece, his most personal film, and contains Oates’ most sublime performance. Amongst the violence and absurdity is an elegiac Oates, most beautifully visible during a roadside picnic in the gentlest scene in Peckinpah’s oeuvre. Despite this tender scene the film is transgressive even by Peckinpah’s standards. When Garcia does enter the plot, this lucid road-movie really switches gears and becomes very violent, yet remains heartbreakingly affecting despite the self-induced despair of Bennie’s situation.
On the back of Pat Garett’s failure, Peckinpah drunk himself half to death on Alfredo Garcia, ostracising practically everyone around, him including his good friend Oates. Oates’ performance is an imitation of this Peckinpah, so much so that he took to wearing the directors clothes and sunglasses, as well as adopting his drinking habit. As much as Peckinpah tried to self-destruct, it was sadly Oates who died first, at 53. Alfredo Garcia is the last picture they would make together, and in my opinion the best. The film is about as hard to come by as Garcia’s head, but if you find it grab it. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.