The Top Five Warren Oates Films

Raul Vantassle busts out a sweet list of the best films starring Warren Oates. 

July 5th marked the birthday of the distinctive character actor Warren Oates (1928-1982), who brought a unique sense of intensity and believability to the characters that he played. Critic David Thomson provides a great description of Oates as being “on first sight grubby, balding, and unshaven. You can smell whisky and sweat on him, along with that mixture of bad beds and fallen women. He’s toothy, he’s small . . . and he has a face like prison bread, with eyes that have known too much solitary confinement. But the eyes bulge and shrink in a sweet game of fear and courage. And for some of us Oates is the only human being in pictures” [1]. This combination of looks and believability are what made his characters and performances so notable. In celebration of his birthday and great career, we list his five best performances.

The Wild Bunch (1969)
Despite not playing one of the main characters, it’s hard not to include this important western on the list. Oates is probably best known for his role in this and the other Sam Peckinpah directed films that he appeared in. He plays one half of the Gorch brothers, who are in an aging gang of outlaws that are looking for that one final score so that they can retire. While William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, and Robert Ryan are the obvious stars of this, Oates was a main part of the group of outlaws that the story is about and has some moments in which his character stands out. Plus he was involved in what is quite possibly the most memorable and violent finales in cinematic history.

Two-Lane Blacktop (1971)

Directed by Monte Hellman, this is a road trip story about two young men drag-racing across the country in a 1955 Chevy. They meet a middle aged man only referred to as GTO because of his car and agree to race to Washington D.C., with the winner getting the loser’s car. In reality this race turns into something that is more about companionship on the isolated open roads than about actually winning. Despite the story being about the two car junkies, Oates’ character GTO ends up becoming the defunct lead because of the fact that the other two rarely speak during the picture. What Oates gives us is a man that is insecure with himself and spews wild tales in the hopes of impressing the people that he meets on the road. He has achieved his dream of owning and driving a GTO, but is now all alone. The race is merely an excuse for some type of friendship. This is considered one of the seminal road movies and is usually ranked high along with Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces.

Dillinger (1973)
Oates portrays the '20s gangster John Dillinger who becomes 'Public Enemy Number 1' after a shoot out kills five FBI agents in Kansas City. A full review of the recent blu-ray release can be read here What makes his performance as Dillinger so special is a combination of him looking almost identical to the real man, his arrogance that is offset by his insecurities, and his violent eruptions that are based on basic human faults and weakness.

Cockfighter (1974)
This is by far one of the most underrated and underappreciated films that were made during the 1970’s, featuring one of Warren Oates best performances and the underappreciated direction of Monte Hellman. Oates appeared in a total of four of Hellman’s movies. In this one he plays Frank Mansfield, who has vowed to remain silent until he wins the Cockfighter of the Year medal, something that he highly covets. He loses almost everything he has on a side bet with a former friend Jack (Harry Dean Stanton) and must start all over, borrowing money from an old girlfriend to buy a new cock and forming a partnership with another cocksman to get a shot again at the medal. What makes Oates’ portrayal of Frank special is the fact that he conveys a great deal of emotion and charisma with barely uttering ten lines in the picture. The subject matter is tough for some people to deal with and that caused this to be the only movie that producer Roger Corman lost money on during the 1970’s. There are some very graphic scenes involving cockfighting and birds getting killed in them.

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia 1974
This was a somewhat controversial collaboration between Oates and director Sam Peckinpah that was critically reviled upon its release but is now considered by many to be a bizarre masterpiece. Oates plays Benny, an American piano player living in Mexico who hears about a million dollar bounty for the head of a dead gigolo. This sends him on a violent road trip with his girlfriend and a corpse’s head in a bag as they encounter various bad guys all looking to get Garcia’s head and the bounty. This was one of Oates’s favorite roles as it was the main one in which his character was central to the story and is continuous for the duration of the picture. It personifies the type of bad guy roles that he would often portray, ones that are bad but in a charming way. He possesses a certain set of qualities that make you like him and sympathize for him.

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-Raul Vantassle