After almost a decade of work in the theater, as well as the occasional film and television roles in the late 1960’s, which went largely uncredited, except for his role in the Martin Scorsese film, “Who’s That Knocking at My Door,” (1967) actor Harvey Keitel, (Reservoir Dogs) built up an impressive film resume in the 1970s. “Fingers,” one of the many movies he appeared in during that decade, is the subject of this week’s blog. The ninety minute film which debuted in New York City on March 2, 1978, was written and directed by James Toback (Bugsy).
Keitel’s character Jimmy is an anti-hero; a complex, two bit thug who is desperately torn between two diverse parental influences. He feels the need to be a loyal debt collector for his small time loan shark father Ben, played by Michael V. Gazzo, (The Godfather: Part II). But, on the other side of the spectrum, he is an aspiring pianist, who is being given an opportunity to audition for Carnegie Hall. The gift of music comes from his mother, a former concert pianist who is now institutionalized, portrayed by Marian Seldes who won a Tony Award in 1973 for her role in Edward Albee’s drama, “A Delicate Balance.” The two sides of Jimmy’s personality are constantly at war with one another. The main question, in this blogger’s opinion, that director Toback is asking with his film is which life path will Jimmy choose to follow? Will he wind up ingratiating himself further into his father’s bleak world of collection payments where he is always in danger of getting caught and going to jail – or worse? Does he turn his back on his father’s lifestyle and give himself fully to the pursuit of a life in music?
Adding further complication to Jimmy’s life is his chance meeting with Carol, (Tisa Farrow) a sculptress, who is an impassive, mystifying woman who hardly utters a word. She comes into his world and then enters and leaves at various times during the movie. He tries to form a relationship with her, but she belongs to another man, a club owner named Dreems, a role that is acted by NFL Hall of Fame running back, Jim Brown. Rounding out the cast is Danny Aiello, (Moonstruck) who plays one half of a Mafioso’s bodyguard team. The other half of the duo is acted by Ed Marinaro, who played Officer Joe Coffey on the popular 80s television show “Hill Street Blues,” and also, there is actress Tanya Roberts, (That 70s Show) who briefly appears in the film as the rival gangster’s girlfriend.
The story centers on several days in the life of Keitel’s character, a man who doesn’t seem to fit in anywhere. His only source of continuous companionship is his portable cassette player which he carries with him everywhere. When not tickling the actual ivories of a piano, he mimics the motions of piano playing to the music he is listening to. When Jimmy is not immersing himself in the classical compositions of Bach, he has his tape player blaring 1950s and 1960s rock and roll such as The Jamies, song “Summertime, Summertime,” and “One Fine Day” by The Chiffons.
Trivia buffs take note: Years before appearing as series regulars on the hit HBO show “The Sopranos,” Dominic Chianese and Tony Sirico, who played Junior Soprano and Paulie ‘Walnuts’ Gualtieri,” respectively, had small roles in the film. Actor Lenny Montana will be instantly recognizable from his work as the character of bodyguard, Luca Brasi, to fans of director, Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 monumental masterpiece “The Godfather.” He has a small role in the film, as Luchino, the owner of a pizzeria who owes Jimmy’s father money. As an aside, Chianese also appeared in “The Godfather: Part II” as the character of Johnny Ola. Toback’s first screenplay that was made into a feature was his script for the 1974 film “The Gambler,” which starred James Caan. The movie Fingers, which almost wasn’t made,was James Toback’s directorial debut. George Barrie, who produced the film, was about to back out of producing the movie for fear that its content might damage the reputation of Faberge, the perfume and hair-care company that he owned. If not for some last minute input from iconic actor Cary Grant, (North By Northwest) who was a member of the company’s board, Barrie might very well have pulled the financing on the production.
Toback does bring a sense of realism to the film; however, leaving aside several standout scenes that were well executed, in this blogger’s opinion, he doesn’t give his leading man, Keitel, enough substance to delve into. The viewer learns that Jimmy had an unhappy childhood and has an unyielding love of music, but that’s about it. Perhaps, since it was his directorial debut, he simply didn’t have the necessary expertise to take an interesting idea and transcend it to greater heights. I wonder if his lack of experience at the time didn’t lessen particular scenes during the course of the movie that might have been more impactful. In addition, budget constraints also could have hampered the finished product. Furthermore, upon its release, the film garnered a good deal of controversy; the movie is not politically correct in any sense of the word. That’s not to say that the film doesn’t have its highlights. Toback’s determination in bringing “Fingers” to cinematic life is an inspiring story for independent film lovers; Keitel’s introspective performance is one of his best, and cinematographer, Michael Chapman (Taxi Driver), does a brilliant job of showcasing Keitel’s character’s isolation throughout the movie; he gives “Fingers,” a dark, gritty look.
The DVD contains several extras. Among them are a theatrical trailer for the film, a piece called “Fingers: A Conversation about Independent Film with Harvey Keitel and James Toback,” which is an all too short conversation in which Keitel and Toback speak about their feelings regarding the film and how it came to be made; and a stimulating audio commentary in which Toback lets it be known that some of what is shown in “Fingers” was inspired by real events in his life. “Fingers,” should be viewed on its own without any preconceived notions; bringing in expectations based on other films in Keitel’s extensive body of work, might lead you to be disappointed. “Fingers” is available from Netflix and, for Keitel completists can be purchased on amazon.com.