The first movie directed by James Toback, a ferocious chronicler of the male animal in extremis, Fingers can be viewed as a blueblood’s response to the cinema of Martin Scorsese. Whereas Scorsese made his name by dramatizing the lives of small-time hoods prowling the streets of New York, Toback announced his presence by depicting intersections between New York street crime and the city’s supposedly civilized intelligentsia. In his script for The Gambler (1974), which was directed by Karel Reisz, Toback presented the semiautobiographical character of a college professor who spends his private hours feeding his gambling addiction no matter how dangerous his circumstances become. In Fingers, Toback introduces a character following the opposite trajectory, thereby approaching the same themes from a different perspective.
Jimmy “Fingers” Angelelli (Harvey Keitel) is the son of aging loan shark Ben Angelleli (Michael V. Gazzo), but Jimmy wants more from life than threatening people for repayment. A self-taught pianist, he has visions of performing on the Carnegie Hall stage, and he may or may not have sufficient talent to realize his dream. As with all of the troubled men in Toback’s movies, however, Jimmy is his own worst enemy. Not only does he allow feelings of guilt and obligation to pull him deeper into his father’s violent world, but Jimmy is a sexual daredevil who can’t resist the thrill of the chase. Everything in Jimmy’s twisted psyche conspires to shift his focus away from his dreams. Even before the grim machinations of the plot take hold, this is grim material on every level—meaning that Fingers exists in the creative sweet spot for both Toback and leading man Keitel.
Toback has a special gift for showing how testosterone drives men to madness, and he’s also a master at creating fully rounded leading characters—by accumulating detail and drawing subtle connections, Toback creates a space in which strange behaviors feel like eccentricities instead of literary contrivances. Jimmy blows through his world like a whirlwind, all fidgety energy and pretentious scarves, and he nearly always carries a portable radio issuing vintage pop tunes along the lines of “Mockingbird” and “One Fine Day”; the juxtaposition of these sweet melodies with the savage nature of Jimmy’s actions is strangely appropriate.
Toback also plays an interesting game by having Jimmy alternate between gutter vulgarity and outrageously lofty dialogue, because it’s clear that Jimmy receives messages on frequencies inaudible to others. Consider this jaw-dropping pickup line, which Jimmy uses on artist/prostitute Carol (Tisa Farrow): “Don’t you understand? I’m going to bring you into your dreams of yourself. All you have to do is believe in me.” Showing his street side, Jimmy takes a wholly different tack when trying to make time with gang moll Julie (Tanya Roberts), cooing that he can sense her nether regions are like “silk.”
Fingers goes to many, many strange places—for instance, the subplot about Jimmy’s encounters with Carol’s brutal pimp, Dreems (Jim Brown)—even though the movie eventually drifts down to earth for a violent finale that borrows from the Scorsese playbook. Keitel gives one of his most crucial performances, employing so much intensity while channeling the soul of the peculiar man he portrays that Jimmy seems alternately magnetic, pathetic, and terrifying. While very much an acquired taste thanks to its bone-deep darkness, its fascination with sleaze, and its primitive portrayal of women, Fingers ranks among the most unique American directorial debuts of the ’70s.