"If you've ever felt like fighting back, if you've ever felt madness surging inside you, you know this man, a man who hurts."—Trailer
Jimmy Angellelli (Harvey Keitel) pours his soul into music. You can see it in his face, his eyes half-closed, his lips moving as if accompanying a hymn. He practices Bach on the piano. He carries a tape player everywhere, punctuating his life with pop tunes.
But he lives in a tuneless, brutal world. He busts heads for his explosive, misogynistic father (Michael V. Gazzo), a loan shark and bookmaker. His broken mother lives in a mental hospital. His girlfriend (Tisa Farrow) prefers the company of her pimp (Jim Brown). He gets arrested the day before his audition for Carnegie Hall.
Something is slowly going out of tune inside Jimmy as well. "My hands don't work right," he tells his mother, "My mind starts interfering…"
Harvey Keitel's surprising vulnerability in the role of Jimmy Angellelli is what elevates Finger beyond the usual Mean Streets knockoff so prevalent in the late 1970s, when so many directors thought they could capture gritty urban life simply by pointing a camera at run-down New York buildings and marching mob wannabes around. Writer and director James Toback, in his debut behind the camera, wanted to make a "dark, funny movie" (according to his serviceable, if slightly dull commentary track) about an "Oedipally impacted" pianist. He secured financing with Faberge perfume kingpin George Barrie and set to work for the 19-day shoot. The independent air of Fingers works to the film's advantage. Toback avoids melodramatic touches that would have led our attention away from Keitel: no music appears other than what plays in the scenes themselves (on the piano, on a tape player or radio), the actors turn in low key performances that build momentum through the film, and the New York locations give a solid atmosphere.
But mostly, there is Keitel. Jimmy's nervous resolve to hang on to his music in spite of the seedy demands of his life—and his own increasing ambivalence—exemplifies what Flaubert called the courage "of a coward who will stop at nothing." For all Jimmy's artistic dreams, he succumbs too easily to his animal nature. One minute he can cheer up a despondent homeless woman on a street corner; the next, he can rape the girlfriend of one of his father's debtors. Toback's deliberately aimless screenplay gives Keitel free reign to work through Jimmy's impending collapse, his physical and psychological impotence. We are never meant to admire this man, but rather pity his life as a series of missed opportunities, some of them his own fault. Jimmy is every past and future tough guy Keitel has played in other films, only in an embryonic state. Keitel has rarely been given this sort of opportunity to look inside the heart of one of his characters, and he takes full advantage of it.
There are a few specks and a bit of grain, due to age, on this anamorphic print, but it suits the intimate feel of the material. Warner Brothers presents Fingers with a few extras: the aforementioned commentary track and a six-minute "Conversation about Independent Film" with Toback and Keitel (whose presence is sorely missed on the full commentary). The interview segment is really just a pep talk for indie filmmakers, probably here because independent film is so hip right now.
The real highlight of Fingers, if you have not gotten the point by now (no pun intended), is Harvey Keitel's fine performance in the lead role. James Toback did the right thing by stepping out of the way and letting the volatile Keitel do his thing. It makes for fascinating viewing.
Cast and crew are acquitted. Jimmy Angellelli will get his comeuppance soon enough. Court is adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary by James Toback
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