Comfortable and Furious

Fucked-Up Films #12: Fingers (1978)

Synopsis: Keitel puts the bark in Bach

Director: James Toback

Cast: Harvey Keitel, Tisa Farrow, Michael V. Gazzo, Jim Brown, Tanya Roberts, Tony Sirico

Do you ever watch a movie and end up unsure whether it’s a gem or a pile of bollocks? Perhaps you then start skimming the reviews, an exercise that results in half the folk telling you it’s baloney and the remainder insisting it’s top notch. Truth is, you think you see both sides which, of course, doesn’t make sense. This means another viewing is required (that may happen a couple of years down the track) and, goddamn it, the same schizophrenic reaction takes hold. Such is the case with my wobbly appraisal of the New York-set crime drama, Fingers.

What are these sick bastards doing? Collecting debts, preparing for a crucial piano recital and enduring the odd rectal exam.

Is the villain any good? Keitel has always had a yen for experimental and uncompromising stuff. He’s a brave actor (much more so than most of his peers) and happy to flaunt his cock in The Piano, snort drugs till his eyes explode in Bad Lieutenant, disappoint Jesus with an outrageous ginger perm in The Last Temptation of Christ or try my patience in whacked-out rubbish like Copkiller, Exposed, The Men’s Club and Dangerous Game. Here he plays Jimmy ‘Fingers’ Angelelli. He’s a brilliant pianist, but also a yobbish lowlife employed by his aging gangster father as his mentally ill mother recuperates in a sanatorium.

Now from what I understand, gangsters tend to be thick thugs. I don’t ever recall reading about Al Capone sitting by his window capturing the rising sun’s glory with watercolors. Neither did Lucky Luciano compose operas. Such criminal parasites are not cultured people, you know, so it’s a bit of a hard sell portraying Jimmy pistol-whipping a debtor one minute and auditioning at Carnegie Hall the next. The only other time I think I’ve seen a gangster with an arty side was in 1931’s formative Little Caesar in which Douglas Fairbanks Jr. loved to dance. Gotta say, that didn’t convince and I remain unsold on Jimmy’s twin role as a tortured artist and no-nonsense enforcer. I mean, just look at him playing the piano. I know it’s tricky for a director to make such an activity visually interesting, but Toback overcompensates by having Jimmy throw his swaying head back and adding a truckload of twitchiness and orgasmic face-pulling as he transports himself to plinky-plonky nirvana. With his mouth flapping like a stranded goldfish, it goes beyond mannered into the self-affected and unintentionally funny.

The fidgety Jimmy also looks too small to be an enforcer, shorter than pretty much everyone he meets. Neither does it help that he’s adorned in a rather camp series of neckties and scarves while holding a gay little tape recorder that’s forever belting out retro tunes. He does his debt collecting as Angel of the Morning blares out. Is this memorable or just ridiculous?

We don’t get any real sense that Jimmy is unstable, though, until he meets his dad in a restaurant. As usual, he’s brought his toy-like boom box and is happily playing an imaginary keyboard, a combination that results in the customers on the next table getting understandably annoyed. Once the confrontation fizzles out he goes back to his non-existent ivories before erupting at the main objector: “I’ll cut your fucking lips off, you cocksucker!” Then he returns to his pretend piano. It’s a curious method of stop-start intimidation in a curious film.

How do the lovely ladies fare? Not too well. Or as Jimmy’s dad tells him: “Women. They bust your balls. The day a woman loses her virginity, she’s a whore. They’re all whores.”

Right through Fingers the fairer sex are propositioned, threatened, manhandled and fucked without consideration. This is best illustrated by Jimmy secretly observing an uncooperative mobster at a health club before tricking him into leaving the place. As the gangster gets up, he kisses his gorgeous, bikini-clad girlfriend and tells her: “You be good or I’ll break your face.”

We believe him.

Jimmy then follows the girlfriend into an enclave as she makes a phone call, immediately confessing that he loves her pussy. Bizarrely, she’s a little amused and asks how he knows that, resulting in the classic response: “Because of all the different kinds of pussy in this world – soft, hot, gravel, velvet, cold, wet, big, small – there’s only one kind that I can feel in my blood and that’s silk, which is yours.” Now I know the 70s was a different time, but could you imagine saying that to a girl you’ve just met? And what the hell is a gravel pussy?

Not that she’s put off. Jimmy pursues her into the ladies’ loo and (after overcoming some minimal protest) has sex with her up against the tiled wall, arching his back like he’s about to do the limbo. Luckily the coitus only lasts thirty seconds, perhaps because he knows he’s in genuine danger of falling over backward. He then stalks off, making sure she knows he just used her to get to the gangster. Blimey, Jimmy, that’s no way to treat a future Bond Girl and member of Charlie’s Angels.

How skuzzy are the men? Jimmy’s father Ben (Godfather II’s Gazzo) clearly hasn’t been an ideal role model and often fails to be encouraging (“I should’ve strangled you in your crib!”) However, he’s a more convincing gangster. With his gold chains, crass manner, fading health and fondness for a teenage redhead almost forty years younger, he looks and acts the part with distinction.

Later, the six-foot-two Jim Brown turns up as Dreems. I couldn’t get a handle on this character, although I enjoyed his relaxed air of dangerous unpredictability. He’s an ex-boxer turned club-owner but he might also be a gangster-connected pimp. He’s definitely a sleazeball, though. Just check out the hotel room scene where two white women (that includes Jimmy’s on-off girlfriend) are simultaneously sucking on his nipples before he cracks their heads together.

Would the violence make a vicar faint? No, but he wouldn’t be happy about sitting through that aforementioned rectal exam. Jimmy, you see, is having a bit of trouble downstairs so he pops along to his friendly, rubber-gloved doc. Advice is given about the best way to endure the procedure, tips that include bending over, pointing the toes in and holding a deep breath. Lordy, the way Jimmy’s initial grunts give way to a bellow of pain and sheer panic bordering on outrage is enough to make anyone figure that it might be better to take your chances with an enlarged prostate. It’s a helluva convincing scene spoiled by a daft post-rectal conversation with the GP about ‘heroic fucks’. It’s also redundant in the extreme in that Jimmy’s little problem is never mentioned again.

How fucked-up is this film? The brisk, well-directed Fingers has an off-kilter vibe all the way through with plenty of intriguing scenes. There’s excellent use of NYC locations, a committed performance from Keitel, a well-dodgy attitude toward women, a fair bit of oft-ridiculous conversation, and stuff that seems to come out of nowhere, such as Jimmy telling an arresting male officer: “You’re a sensitive guy. Look at your eyes.” Two minutes later Jimmy stops a fight in the lockup by playing his imaginary keyboard again. The daftness threatens to overwhelm the grit, you know?

Then there’s his intense yet paper-thin relationship with a mysterious woman called Carol (Farrow). It’s baffling from the moment he sees her from his apartment window and impulsively walks out to meet her. Whole chunks of their courtship appear to have been left on the cutting room floor. Every one of their unnatural, pause-filled conversations doesn’t make a lick of sense, such as Jimmy telling her during their first meeting: “I’m gonna bring you into dreams of yourself. All you have to do is believe in me.”

Clearly, however, there’s a battle for Jimmy’s soul going on with love and creativity on the one side balanced against his gangster heritage and mental illness on the other. Fingers is fucked-up, all right, but is it any good?

You tell me.



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One response to “Fucked-Up Films #12: Fingers (1978)”

  1. Quick Draw McGraw Avatar

    Thanks to you, I will not be including Fingers in my Harvey Keitel film fest, Baba Looey. Fingers is best used as the title for a movie about a pickpocket gang like Harry in Your Pocket 1973.
    The late Tisa Farrow was the sister of the wacky Mia Farrow, both the issue of Maureen O’Sullivan (“Me Tarzan, you Jane”) and Aussie-born director John Farrow (Five Came Back with Lucille Ball&Joseph Calleia , and an excellent adaptation of Kenneth Fearing’s The Big Clock with Ray Milland, a fellow Welshman, Dave, and Charles Laughton (“You’d be pathetic if you weren’t so disgusting.”) and the lovely Maureen O’Sullivan.)
    I have it on good authority Tisa was a professional. On day while working on Some Call it Loving she called the production office to say she’s be late for her make-up call. She had to fuck her boyfriend before she left home.
    “So, that’s the way it is on this Saturday March 2nd 2025. So long until tomorrow.”
    And, “I’ll do the thin’in’ around here, Baba Looey, and don’t you forget it!” Kabong!

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