Lost And Found Series: Chapter 3 Finger Lickin’ Good
Greetings and welcome back to the ‘Lost and Found’ series. Did everybody enjoy their whimsical sips of Coke last week by watching ‘The Coca-Cola Kid’? If not I recommend you do so or even buy it before it goes out of print again. Now here at the ‘Lost and Found’ one could say that the previous few weeks of have been quite light-hearted to say the least, from discussing caffeine addicted cowboys to a charming Coca-Cola marketing guru. This week prepare yourself for a different type of beast altogether, a darker, serious, slow-burning yet rewarding effort. Ladies and gentlemen I present to you…‘Fingers’.
Looking into the deep and dark places of 1970s New Hollywood, let’s discuss James Toback’s chilling tale of passion vs. vices thriller. Harvey Keitel plays Jimmy ‘Fingers’ Angelelli. A talented piano player that has a chance at playing at the Carnegie Hall. However, that’s by day because by night Jimmy has a darker side, working as a part-time loan shark for his dad that usually results to violence collecting debt money from people that asked for ill-fated favours from the Mob. This all comes to a halt when Jimmy encounters a very large mob boss who threatens both his and his father’s life.
Cast: Harvey Keitel, Jim Brown, Danny Aiello and Michael V. Gazzo
Director/Writer: James Toback
As usual let’s start with some back story to this gritty dark film. Writer and director James Toback started out as an English lecturer in New York but eventually developed a gambling addiction. He decided to write a semi-autobiographical film about his gambling issues and experiences which would become more fictionalised as he continued to delve deeper into the story. Toback had Robert De Niro in mind to play the lead character but this decision was overturned by director Karel Reisz and James Can instead stepped in. It was not until four years later that Toback made his directorial debut with ‘Fingers’ again casting De Niro as the main character but this time it was Toback that made the decision to cast De Niro’s best friend at the time, with whom he had worked with on Martin Scorsese’s ‘Mean Streets’, Harvey Keitel. Toback has gone on record to state one of the reasons he decided to cast Keitel was due to his memorable audition where he took the character of Jimmy ‘Fingers’ Angelelli to such a dark place that even he could not imagine.
This is is very evident in the film and another unique example that makes one wonder why Keitel doesn’t garner the same amount of attention and praise as his peers such as De Niro and Al Pacino. It has been eight years since my first viewing of ‘Fingers’. While I have always remembered it as an overlooked masterpiece of the New Hollywood era, Keitel tortured and haunting performance has vividly stayed in my mind. Luckily he has displayed this timeless persona in other efforts such as Abel Ferrara’s ‘Bad Lieutenant’. Keitel’s method acting is nothing short of terrifying. He manages to change his mood within seconds and shifts the atmosphere of scenes with something as subtle as hand gestures, or hollering aggressive dialogue in public that seems to have a sense of naturalism that cannot be captured through rehearsing but rather through spontaneous outburst to not only catch the fellow cast members off guard but also the audience. In one scene, Fingers and his dad are eating lunch in their local cafe. Finger’s insists on playing pops hits such as the Beach Boys loudly in pubic on his portable stereo, no matter what the situation is. A man in the cafe suggests it is not appropriate and disturbs his meal, Fingers reacts badly and the situation is calmed down by the manager. When people return to their seats and everything seems to be sorted out, Fingers decides to hurl more violent, abusive threats at the man if he decided to challenge him again. The scene is emphasises just how comfortable the film is in its own unsettling tone.
The film benefits from these random unsettling outbursts, and due to Keitel’s possessive powerhouse performance, he can alter the atmosphere of the scenes however he seems fit demanding the audience’s every bit of attention and previewing the full evil Fingers is capable of. However, this dark side of his character is balanced with his angelic like piano talent which is sometimes disturbed by his violent outbursts and causes to stumble during his piano performances when it matters the most. Almost like viewing a man trying to play peacemaker with his own tortured soul fighting between good and evil. The devil with angel wings. Heavy stuff ay.
Familiar faces light up the screen a number of times. There are quite a few actors from critically-acclaimed mob family show ‘The Sopranos’ that gives it an almost nostalgic vibe. Almost like ‘The Sopranos: The Early Years’. The film is more character driven than story driven, it’s more concerned about the decisions people make and lets that serve as a narrative device. Toback’s New York is nothing like Woody Allen’s. A gritty, life threatening place full of pimps and mob bosses that for the most part run the city or have some sort of hand in the criminal activity taking place in it.
It should be noted that the initial reaction to the treatment of the female characters in the film is quite harsh but emphasises the way the male characters view this particular film world. Any other depiction would not have been as impactful or effective. Many films could take a leaf out of Toback’s book as he carefully treads the line between reporting and portraying the vicious treatment of women rather than glorifying it.
James Toback's 'Fingers' is a dark, mob-driven, gritty seventies New York City masterpiece. We have found another worthy one this week; so far that makes it three for three. Until next time. Play on Fingers.
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