“Do you believe this? This is the Jamies, man! “Summertime, Summertime!” – the most musically inventive song of 1958! What are you eating? Shrimp? Are you gonna tell me this song doesn’t go with your shrimp?”
Even though in relation to entertainment it relates to something attracting a small, but loyal band of devotees, we love to throw the term ‘cult’ around, merrily affixing it to anything remotely niche, and in some cases, we’ll jam it to something hugely popular. Jeff Buckley? Cult. ‘The Usual Supects’? Oh, even though it was a critical and commercial success that’s got to be cult too. After ‘Pulp Fiction’ was released in ’94 ($212 million made worldwide), people loved to just chuck it everywhere – and the dreadful wave of sunglassed, wisecracking hitman with a nickname crime capers haplessly apeing Quentin without the brilliianty referential Asperger’s the man is afflicted with, were everywhere.
Interestingly, one of the absolute worst Tarantino ripoffs, 2000’s excrutiating Yankee-Oirish revenge caper, ‘The Boondock Saints’, a borderline unwatchable movie, went from making pennies at the box office, to keeping its appalling director Troy Duffy monied on merchandise alone…can’t knock that hustle. It was, thanks to some nifty pea coats and Latin tattoos, briefly championed by the likes of TET at Wtaps too. Because of all this, a sequel opened in the States on friday. It legitimately could be deemed a cult movie. Rule number one – never assume cultdom is a good thing, regardless of pockets of fundamentalists.
1978’s ‘Fingers’ could be deemed a cult film too. But whereas Duffy’s effort is an overblown romp, James Toback’s (director of the equally overlooked ‘Exposed’ and last year’s ‘Tyson’) film, shuffles, meanders and periodically erupts, challenging the viewer with the antics of the movie’s protagonist, the deeply troubled Jimmy Angelelli, aka. Jimmy Fingers*. I find Jimmy, played by a truly possessed Harvey Keitel, a magnetic character, and with his proto-boombox carrying swagger, barring his neck scarves, one of cinema’s most stylish losers. The non-nonsense haircut might make him look like a malevolent Peter Beardsley at times, but his mix of wiseguy and virtuoso is reflected in his attire, from a leather jacket to administer pistol whips, to a faintly more dandyish picks when the “nice guy who can be insanely violent” is lost in music.
Depicting a young man’s troubles as he attempts to juggle a life enforcing debts for his gangster father and his passion for piano, before you draw parallels with Jacques Audiard’s (whose superb ‘A Prophet’ opens later in the year) brilliant ‘The Beat My Heart Skipped’, that’s because it’s a remake. Audiard’s version is a more than a little slicker, altering the plot, but maintaining that duality, and those busy fingers, and Romain Duris is smoother in appearance, favouring the slim-cut suit, and keeping that turmoil to a fairly steady brood. Hollywood will merrily rehash a foreign film, but the Gallic effort is sublime, making ‘The Beat…’ a contender for one of the best remakes of all time. ‘Fingers’ bricked on its release, but the French picked up on its plus points, and Jean-Luc Godard championed it.
‘Fingers’ is very much an actor’s film. Like ‘The Pope Of Greenwich Village’ the following decade, livewire performances and occasional incidents propel it, but it’s hardly to all tastes. Those being sold a mob movie might be repelled by the pacing, but Keitel’s work is one of the greatest portrayals of a divided soul ever commited to film. Rather than the obvious ticks and mugging displayed by the likes of Brad Pitt in ’12 Monkeys’ on a quest for an Oscar nod, Harvey’s portrayal of Jimmy is true madness, like Travis Bickle two years before (‘Fingers’ shares the same cinematographer), there’s an unpredictable mix of sensitivity and brutality in his schizophrenic antics.
Surrounded by your favourite bit part goons in supporting roles, Keitel brings an intensity to the role that remains unmatched. Coiling his stature from his pimped-out doorway guardian antagonising Travis two years before, and his scrap-happy turn in ‘Blue Collar’ the same year this film was released, it’s a remarkable turn – an antisocial music blaring oddball who commits rapes, seemingly ponders paedophilia, admires Jim Brown for bashing two girls’ heads together when they refuse to kiss, beats people senseless and kills a man, is rendered weirdly sympathetic by his circumstances, a thuggish father and a crazy mother, and a conclusion where he ends up left with absolutely nothing. By 1992, this character could have grown to become the ‘Bad Lieutenant’.
When young Jim flips out at a restaurant patron, explaining his love of The Jamies’ ‘Summertime, Summertime’ you can imagine a young Quentin frantically taking notes. As it’s the late ’70s, ‘Fingers’ also shows you a grimy New York too, making it a companion to other underrated depictions of the Rotten Apple, like 1971’s ‘Born To Win,’ 1973’s ‘The Seven Ups’ and a later entry in 1994’s ‘Rhythm Thief’. As role models go, he’s an atrocious one, but there’s something scuzzily iconic about the way Jimmy carries himself.
*Not to be mistaken with the marginally less sympathetic Jimmy Fingers of 1990’s ‘Marked For Death,’ dispatched by Steven Seagal’s hero with a bullet in the head and the line, “God made men” after explaining that he’s a made guy. Tony Di Benedetto, who played that Jimmy is an accomplished goon, appearing in personal favourites like ‘Short Eyes,’ ‘Fort Apache: The Bronx’ and ‘The Pope Of Greenwich Village’.