Fingers

The eponymous digits in writer-director James Toback's Fingers belong to Harvey Keitel, a tortured loner whose agile hands are exploited for cross purposes: either massaging the keys of a grand piano or busting the skulls of degenerate gamblers who fail to pay off debts to his gangster father. The idea of a collector in Carnegie Hall may seem peculiar and more than a little implausible, but Toback's gripping 1978 film thrives on such wild juxtapositions, planting the seeds for a career that has circled around the same themes for more than two decades. A self-styled provocateur with a taste for high and low culture, Toback (The Big Bang, Two Girls And A Guy, Black And White) loves to throw contradictory elements together and see how they interact, which is fitting for a man who traded a button-down Harvard education for a notoriously orgiastic lifestyle. A gangster psychodrama that doesn't play by genre rules, Fingers is a study in bold contrasts, mingling the sublime and the vulgar, classical music and '50s rock, brute masculinity and sexual confusion. In his first leading role since Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets, Harvey Keitel again feasts on a character whose low-level criminality requires an iron will that he's not quite capable of mustering. Days before an audition at Carnegie, Keitel sits in his Soho loft, practicing a Bach sonata with terrific intensity, but he's soon distracted by the lure of familial obligation and the seductive skirt outside his window. With a boombox blasting rock classics like "Mockingbird" and "Morning Angel"–a clear influence on the Radio Raheem character in Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing–Keitel squeezes money out of seedy restaurateurs and mafia types, who correctly sense that his loan-shark father (Michael V. Gazzo) is losing his grip. At the same time, Keitel gets involved with Tisa Farrow, a sexually pliant sculptor who's drawn more powerfully toward womanizing stud Jim Brown, whose supreme confidence throws Keitel's weakness and uncertainty into sharp relief. Produced independently by George Barrie, the Brut perfume magnate, Fingers delves into racial and sexual territory that was considered taboo even in the more permissive and adventurous studio system of the '70s. More than any Toback effort since, the film articulates the deep anxieties of a man at war with himself, torn by his repressed impulses and the expectations of the outside world. That inner turmoil registers perfectly with Keitel, whose intensity is constantly undercut by his diminutive presence, especially during his scenes with Brown, the towering Hall Of Fame running back. On his illuminating (though characteristically immodest) DVD commentary track, Toback still seems surprised that a novice director like himself was allowed to make such an audaciously personal movie. In a way, his freedom turned out to be a curse: Like an overeager fighter, he ran out of punches after the opening round.

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