“Fingers” can be seen as a portrait of the artist as a small time enforcer. Jimmy Angellini (Harvey Keitel), the quirky anti-hero of James Toback’s film directing debut is living a dual life, one of a sensitive artist, an aspiring pianist on the verge of an audition with a major impresario at Carnegie Hall. The other life is that of a street wise hood who acts as an enforcer for his father (Michael V. Gazzo), a small time loan shark. Jimmy however, doesn’t fit into either world, he has no friends and his only constant companion is a portable cassette tape player on which he is always playing the same songs, fifties rock and roll classics like “Summertime, Summertime” by The Jamies, “even when it’s fuckin’ 15 degrees outside,” as his father tells him. His musical taste, like his life, is splintered between classical music and rock and roll. Jimmy’s parents continue the duality theme in his life, his father, the low level hood while his late mother was a former musician, neither of who seemed to have bestowed much love on their son. Old Dad, at one point even wishes he had strangled Jimmy when he was a kid still in his crib. Mom was always resentful of his musical talent.
Jimmy meets a beautiful but oddly detached girl named Carol (Tisa Farrow) who he follows to her loft in downtown Manhattan. She is a sculptress; they make love without much conversation. In fact, there isn’t much verbal communication between anyone in the entire film. Expressing one’s self seems to be verboten, except for Jimmy’s fingers which when not caressing a keyboard are constantly in motion playing along with each pop tune on his portable cassette player. As a pianist, Jimmy is protective of his hands especially when it comes to his loan shark collecting for his father, something he would like to quit doing but his father keeps pushing him for one more job.
When Jimmy does have to get physical he usually uses a gun, not to shoot, but to belt the intended victim, in one case a pizza parlor owner, in the face helping to convince him to pay up what he owes. It generally works until Jimmy’s double life comes crumbing down. First his audition at Carnegie Hall with impresario Arthur Fox (Dominic Chianese) is a disaster. It turns out Jimmy can play his music flawlessly when he is alone in his apartment, but in front of an audience, he is nervous and his fingers fail him. Then there is the latest collection for his father, twenty two thousand dollars, from a small time hood known as Riccomonsa (Tony Sirico) who has no intention of paying, and will result in murder.
Former NFL great Jim Brown plays Dreems an underworld character and owner of seedy club with plenty of women hanging out including Carol who is part of his circle of friends. Dreems invites Jimmy to a four way sex scene at the club but Jimmy backs off preferring to watch. Dreems then attempts a three way with the two women but the second girl refuses to kiss Carol. Pissed, Dreems violently smacks their heads together. The sound effect is so realistic it actually makes you jump and feel the women’s pain.
Despite some interesting individual scenes and Toback’s ability to capture the stark gritty feel of 1970’s New York City, “Fingers” comes across as an attempt to capture the same milieu as Martin Scorsese’s early film, “Mean Streets.” He even uses Scorsese favorites, Harvey Keitel in the lead and Cinematographer Michael Chapman who worked on five films with Scorsese including, “Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull,” the documentaries “The Last Waltz,” “The American Boy,” and the 17 minute video of Michael Jackson’s “Bad.” While Keitel is fine in the role, I don’t think he was given enough to work with in Toback’s script. His character, who is suppose to be this street wise punk, has no connection to the mean streets he came from other than his father. In Scorsese’s film we know all about Keitel’s character, Charlie, what makes him tick, his friends, family and motive. In “Fingers,” other than Jimmy’s passion for music and an unhappy childhood, we learn very little about him. Tisa Farrow’s character, Carol, also feels vaguely written. She seems to wander in and out of Jimmy’s life without much reason. It’s difficult to understand the attraction these two have to each other. “Fingers” is not a bad film, flawed, an interesting failure, are probably accurate words to describe it.
Michael V. Gazzo as Jimmy’s Dad is convincingly loutish and crude with little concern for anyone but himself. Both Tony Sirico and Dominic Chianese are names many will recognize as future alumni of “The Sopranos” portraying Paulie Walnuts and Junior Soprano, respectively.
James Toback’s most successful and respected films are arguably “The Gambler” and “Bugsy,” two works he wrote but were directed by Karel Reisz and Barry Levinson, respectively. His latest screenplay is “Gotti: In the Shadow of My Father” a film in preproduction according to IMDB reuniting him with director Barry Levinson and will star Al Pacino and John Travolta.