Sublime depravity

James Toback's cult classic "Fingers" is like the screen treatment of a comic book written and illustrated by the Freud boys -- Sigmund and Lucian.

Topics: Sex, Love and Sex,

Not so long ago, I spent two weeks talking about Michael Haneke’s remarkable yet not quite satisfactory film “The Piano Teacher” — the one with Isabelle Huppert. Well, it was all part of a cunning scheme in which I could eventually say, “So, you want to see a real film about a piano player? Try ‘Fingers’!”

Made 24 years ago, “Fingers” is still the best thing writer-director James Toback has ever done, and one of the most startling debuts in American film. Long before people had the idea of making movies from graphic novels, “Fingers” is like the screen treatment of a comic book that might have been written by Sigmund Freud and illustrated by Lucian Freud. It is pulp raised to the level of the rarest brie cheese, which is to say that it hovers over the boundary between gourmandise and pure nausea. It is a great film, made by a brilliant young man who was taking “movie” then as if it were the most dangerous drug in the pharmacy.

Let me try to describe the scary outline of this psychic melodrama. Jimmy Fingers (Harvey Keitel) is a virtuoso concert pianist, on the edge of a classical career. Nothing holds him back except his own ruinous neurosis, his preoccupation with sex, and the rest of his life. For between practice sessions and auditions at Carnegie Hall, he is a debt collector for the mob, likely to apply whatever nasty form of violence comes into his wicked, inventive head.

This is far-fetched? Well, of course, but would you not say that our society jostles together unwholesome competing strains? Is it not true that people who have just listened in rapture to Mahler at the symphony hurry home to catch “The Sopranos,” without any sign of shame or ill-adjustment? Is it not the case that as we aspire to higher and higher things, in reality we submit to ever harsher realities of compromise, graft and violence? Or, to adopt the bold, assertive ways of “Fingers” — suppose you had Marian Seldes as a mother, and Michael V. Gazzo as your father.

Impossible? Outrageous? Surreal? Yes, all of those things, side by side like the fashion photographs and the pictures of dying refugees in the magazines heavy with perfume. And, if you can’t credit so twisted a family tree on paper, just watch the contortions of body and soul that affect Keitel’s Jimmy Fingers. In other words, Toback says, “Suppose these are your parents,” and then drives on remorselessly until the mismatch is your DNA.

“Fingers” was a debut. It is sometimes wildly pretentious. But it knew it had grasped a profound truth — the marriage of intellect and instinct — in the parentage that Jimmy suffers from. And it knows how possible it is, right there in Manhattan, to have Jimmy undergoing a desperate search for psychosexual maturity. The film is very violent, deeply imbued with racist paranoia, and so conceived and made that virtually every glance and interaction is sexual.

Jimmy dreams of love and sex with a pale, angelic blonde, the spirit of refinement (embodied by Tisa Farrow). But she is under the power and control of an immense black chieftain of the underworld (played by football great Jim Brown). So the scuttling insect that is Jimmy also takes sex on the run with the standard moll-whore type (Tanya Roberts). Yes, you’ll recognize these actors, because Toback, way back in 1978, knew he had to cast his pulp fiction with intimidating life forces and instantly graspable types. So the rest of the cast includes Zack Norman, Danny Aiello, Lenny Montana, Morris Carnovsky and Tony Sirico.

“Fingers” has had a checkered career. Opening and closing fast in 1978, it has now reached cult or legendary status. Briefly available on VHS, it now appears for the first time on DVD, with a fascinating audio commentary by Toback, and a lengthy conversation between Keitel and Toback. It only flirts with the obvious to say that the picture is autobiographical. No, Toback is not a concert pianist or a collector. But his head is full of great music, and he has sometimes been on the run as a gambler who owed too much. But “Fingers” is most valuable as the lurid yet beautiful imaginings of a kind of infant savage, torn between sublimity and depravity, and knowing that in the American way you owe one foot, one hand and one ball to the swamp and another to the magic mountain. That Toback has never since matched “Fingers” attests to the passion and exultation, the shame and the triumph, that compete in this delirious confessional movie.

David Thomson is the author of "A Biographical Dictionary of Film" (new edition just published), "Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles" and "In Nevada."

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