Fingers (1978)
1.85:1 (16x9 Enhanced)
Dolby Digital Mono
Warner Home Video, $19.98

Implausibly produced by a perfume-industry executive, Fingers is a sordid but fascinating portrait depicting the schizophrenic life of Jimmy Angelli (Harvey Keitel), a frustrated New York concert pianist whose day job involves making debt collections for his bookmaker dad (Michael V. Gazzo).

This cult classic, alternately as vulgar and poetic as Jimmy himself, marked James Toback’s directing debut after he won acclaim for writing the similarly seamy The Gambler. Keitel delivers a brilliantly jittery performance as Jimmy "Fingers," a man being pulled in two diametrically opposed directions – a life of aesthetic achievement pushed by his institutionalized mother (a former pianist), and the thuggish ethos imposed on him by his father.

Toback presents Jimmy’s dual nature in a variety of novel ways; for instance, the aspiring pianist constantly lugs around a portable cassette player blaring ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll tunes, which subtly suggest his gangster leanings. Similarly, after a violent outburst, Jimmy is likely to start fingering an imaginary Bach sonata. The character’s two sides are constantly at war, and the drama lies in seeing which path Jimmy will eventually choose – or, in a more fateful and disturbing sense, which path will choose him.

Toback and cinematographer Michael Chapman, ASC used wide-angle lenses and spare compositions throughout the film to isolate Jimmy against the New York locations, highlighting the character’s sense of loneliness and alienation. In terms of cinematography, Fingers is a classic, gritty, ‘70s New York film with clean, naturalistic lighting that complements the story. Warner Home Video has performed a respectable DVD transfer with admirable crispness and color saturation, and Chapman’s wide views of desolate city streets look downright beautiful. The inescapable age artifacts of the print are distracting only in the film’s darker scenes.

For extras, the disc offers "Fingers: A Conversation about Independent Film with Harvey Keitel and James Toback," a good idea that could have used some fleshing out. At a mere five minutes, the feature is inconsequential; if you’re going to go to the trouble of getting Toback and Keitel together again, why not use the opportunity to expand the conversation between these two intriguing figures from American film?

More absorbing and provocative is Toback’s audio commentary. The garrulous director clearly loves a good bull session, and he implies that more than a few elements of Jimmy’s fictional life were drawn from his own. In fact, during the ‘70s, Toback lived for a time with football great Jim Brown, who is cast unforgettably (and without an iota of political correctness) as a formidable underworld figure with an almost sinister power over women – a charisma that the profoundly confused Jimmy clearly lacks.

Toback lends valuable analysis to a film fraught with interesting symbolism. In one curious scene, which shows Jimmy heading to a key Carnegie Hall audition, the elevator he’s traveling in becomes stuck between floors; Toback sees this as a metaphor for Jimmy’s "Oedipal impaction" and strangled relationship to the world. "He panics and almost snaps while he’s stuck," Toback points out. "Yet when the elevator starts moving and he gets out, all of a sudden he adjusts as if nothing has happened. You see the front that he’s putting up [to the world], which is one of calm and control. But the void underneath it is filled with turmoil, anxiety and potential for dread."

Toback also provides a healthy share of amusing stories about the film. Perhaps the most surprising is the fact that Faberge executive George Barrie, the film’s producer, strongly considered backing out of the project at the last minute due to fears that his cosmetics brand might be sullied by his association with the picture’s squalid content. Only some last-minute encouragement from a high-ranking member of Faberge’s board convinced him to stay the course. Toback reveals that Fingers’ unlikely guardian angel was none other than Cary Grant.

 – Chris Pizzello

<< previous || next >>

© 2003 American Cinematographer.