Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974, Sam Peckinpah) – Classic

“There ain’t nothing sacred about a hole in the ground or the man that’s in it.”

Sam Peckinpah’s bleakest film is one of his most personal. Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is nasty, brutish and embittered, but also romantic in its own drunken way; part wish fulfilment and part death wish. The late, great Warren Oates is in his element as Bennie, a cynical barroom pianist in a Mexican drinking hole who foolishly accepts a gig to bring the head of a philandering young stud to an angry Mexican crime boss.

Two hitmen walk into Bennie’s bar looking for Alfredo Garcia. They offer Bennie the chance to earn some cash by finding Garcia. Bennie meets their associates, the money me, who sit in a lifeless office sipping brandy and smoking cigars. It is easy to imagine these suits as being Hollywood executives and Peckinpah as Bennie forced to deal with these snakes to get the money he needs.

Bennie is given four days to deliver Alfredo Garcia’s head and it had better match the picture he has been given. Otherwise Bennie will be the man they come after. Robert Webber and Gig Young are genuinely nasty as Sappensly and Quill, the two hitmen with a relationship that seems to be modelled on Mr Wynt and Mr Kidd from the James Bond film Diamonds Are Forever (Guy Hamilton 1971).

Bennie knows Alfredo Garcia is already dead having met his end in a car crash. He searches out Elita (Isela Vegas) who knows where Garcia’s body is buried. Bennie and Elita become an item though he loses her when he crosses the threshold between life and death by digging up the corpse of Alfredo Garcia and sets himself on a confrontation with his paymasters.

Although famed for the violence present in his films, Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is a slow-moving affair. It moves at a drunkards pace, with Warren Oates shambolic protagonist realising too late his dreams of a life on the open road with his girlfriend and his £10,000 are impossible.

In its own perverse way it is a love letter to Mexico, even though the place is presented as being extremely dangerous. In its quieter moments though, Peckinpah makes the country look like heaven. Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is fatalistic offering little hope for Bennie, nor for its director who by then had tired of Hollywood interfering in his work. Critics hated the film on its release describing it as nihilistic, but really it’s a sentimental work by a man who was big enough to admit he’d had enough.

Chungking Express (1994, Wong Kar-Wai) – Classic

“At our closest point, we were just .01cm apart. 55 hours later I was in love with this woman.”

Wong-Kar Wai’s Chungking Express proved to be his breakthrough movie internationally. Kar-Wai’s previous film, the elliptical Days of Being Wild (1991) won him acclaim, but was a box-office failure. Chungking Express contains certain genre elements; a femme fatale, a cop, a drug dealer, but Kar-Wai is more concerned with romantic longing.

Filmed in and around the Chungking Mansions, a huge residential building in Hong Kong that also contains bars and fast food joints and serves as a meeting point for the city’s ethnic minorities, Chungking Express tells two stories, both about cops and their love lives. Cop No 223 (Takeshi Kaneshiro) becomes infatuated with a mysterious blonde haired woman (Brigitte Lin) he nearly bumps into when chasing a criminal. Cop No 663 (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) begins a flirtation with an eccentric fast food worker (Faye Wong).

Wong Kar-Wai made Chungking Express while taking time out from his martial arts epic Ashes of Time (1994), a troubled production which went over budget. Chungking Express is the antithesis of the expensive and elaborate Ashes of Time. Together with his cinematographer Christopher Doyle Kar-Wai shot Chungking Express fast and on location. This seemingly improvised style of filmmaking recalls the French New Wave. Doyle makes extraordinary use of artificial lighting in the cramped interiors of the Chungking Mansions.

Wong Kar-Wai gives a sense of time moving on, with shots of clocks changing throughout the film, and occasionally speeding up the film so passers by move rapidly past his protagonists suggesting they are out of step with everybody else. The first segment sees Cop No 223 ruminating in voiceover about the break-up of his relationship, loneliness, and the possibility of finding love while he is still young. The first story is noticeably shorter than the second, which makes sense given Kar-Wai intended Chungking Express to be a three part movie.Kar-Wai would eventually film this final storyline as the full-length feature Fallen Angels the following year.

As entertaining as the first story is it pales in comparison to the second as Faye (Wong) falls for Cop No 663. Bizarrely, her attraction leads her to break into his flat at every opportunity and to become increasingly hard to get. The boyish figured, wide-eyed Wong is astonishing. It may be that Kar-Wai felt he might as well shelve the third part and concentrate on Wong and her will they/won’t they/what is she doing? jousting with Tony Leung’s bewildered beat cop.

Funny, affecting, and rapturous, Chungking Express is the perfect starting point for those unfamiliar with Wong Kar-Wai’s work. Despite being about urban loneliness and heartbreak the film is directed with a lightness of touch that offsets the melancholy. It aches with the possibility that something magical might just be waiting around the corner.

Le Silence de la Mer (1949, Jean-Pierre Melville) – Classic

Le Silence de la Mer will surprise those who only know Jean-Pierre Melville for directing thrillers like Le Samourai (1967) or Le Cercle Rouge (1971). Melville’s debut feature is a wartime drama about a German officer Werner von Ebrennac (Howard Vernon) who moves into the home of an elderly man (Jean-Marie Robain) and his niece (Nicole Stephane) in occupied France.
The only form of resistance available to them is silence, so they refuse to speak to their guest. Respecting their patriotism, von Ebrennac does all the talking instead. He describes his upbringing in Germany and his lifelong affection for France. Von Ebrennac reveals himself to be a cultured, civilised man with a love for French literature.
Von Ebrennac also believes the war will bring France and Germany closer together though his idealism is eventually shattered by his colleagues in Paris. The old man and his niece agree he seems decent, though they acknowledge they cannot ever talk to him out of loyalty to France. Melville’s derives tension from little moments, a clock ticking for example, or a facial expression, rather than conventional dramatic means.
Though an early representation of the ‘good German’ may have seemed insensitive coming only four years after the Occupation Melville opens the film with a statement condemning Nazi barbarity and the complicity of the German people.
While Le Silence de la Mer is notably different to Melville’s later Americanised genre films, his use of stillness and silence would be recurrent throughout his career. Von Ebrennac may be unusually loquacious for a Melville protagonist, but he shares the bruised romanticism and the existential despair common in his later movies.
Howard Vernon is remarkable as von Ebrennac. Tall and striking-looking, Vernon is first seen arriving in the doorway and entering out of the darkness like the monster in a Universal horror film. In Vercors novel, von Ebrennac is a handsome, blonde Teutonic figure, while Vernon with his sharp, haunted features is much more unconventional.
Based on a famous novel by the Resistance writer Vercors, Le Silence de la Mer is a milestone in French cinema. Melville hired Henri Decae, a young photographer with no experience of working in film to act as director of photography. Melville and Decae take a minimalist approach using unusual camera angles and close-ups to convey meaning.
This approach was revolutionary and created a new language for film. Melville directed Le Silence de la Mer without any formal training or industry connections. The use of voiceover, location shooting, and Melville’s refusal to play by the rules influenced the Nouvelle Vague. Robert Bresson’s minimalistic filmmaking style clearly owes a debt to Le Silence de la Mer.