Film Review: Fingers (dir by James Toback)


Welcome to method actor Hell!

The 1978 film, Fingers, tell the story of Jimmy “Fingers” Angelilli (Harvey Keitel).  Jimmy is a creep who works as a debt collector for his father, a small-time loan shark named Ben (Michael V. Gazzo).  Jimmy is violent and brutal and often wanders around with a disturbingly blank-look on his face but we’re supposed to like him because he’s a talented pianist and he’s got a recital interview coming up at Carnegie Hall.  Jimmy carries a radio with him wherever he goes and he’s obsessed with the song Summertime.  He’s the type who will sit in a crowded restaurant and play the song and then get upset when someone tells him to turn off his radio.  By the end of the movie, I was really hoping that someone would take Jimmy’s radio and smash into a hundred pieces.

Jimmy is in love with Carol (Tisa Farrow, who was a far better actress than her sister Mia and who would later appear in Lucio Fulci’s classic, Zombi 2), who doesn’t really seem to all that into him.  Despite being in love with Carol, Jimmy still hits on every woman that he meets and, because this is a 70s films, he’s constantly getting laid despite being kind of a charmless putz.

Jimmy meets a former boxer named Dreems (Jim Brown).  Carol is apparently one of Dreems’s mistresses.  Jimmy silently watched while Dreems knocks two women’s heads together.  Jimmy stands there with his little radio and a blank expression on his face.  Is anything going on inside of Jimmy’s head?  It’s hard to say.

Eventually, Jimmy finds out that a gangster (Tony Sirico) owes his father money but is refusing to pay.  It all leads to violence.

As a film, Fingers is pretty much full of shit but that shouldn’t come as a surprise because it was the directorial debut of James Toback and there’s no American filmmaker who has been as consistently full of shit as James Toback.  Fingers has all of Toback’s trademarks — gambling, crime, guilt, classical music, and a juvenile view of sexuality that suggests that James Toback’s personal development came to a halt when he was 16 years old.  It’s a pretentious film that really doesn’t add up too much.  Again, you know what you’re getting into when James Toback directs a film.  Don’t forget, this is the same director who made a documentary where he was apparently shocked to discover that no one wanted to finance a politically-charged remake of Last Tango in Paris starring Alec Baldwin and Neve Campbell.

Fingers is a bit of an annoying film and yet it’s not a total loss.  For one thing, if you’re a history nerd like I am, there’s no way that you can’t appreciate the fact that the film was shot on location in some of New York’s grimiest neighborhoods in the 70s.  While I imagine it was more of a happy accident than anything intentional on Toback’s part (because, trust me, I’ve seen Harvard Man), Fingers does do a good job of creating an off-center, dream-like atmosphere where the world constantly seems to be closing in on its lead character.  Jimmy is trying to balance his life as violent mobster with being a sensitive artist and the world around him is saying, “No, don’t count on it, you schmuck.”

As well, Harvey Keitel gives a …. well, I don’t know if I would necessarily say that it’s a good performance.  In fact, it’s a fairly annoying performance and that’s a problem when a film is trying to make you feel sympathy for a character who is pretty unsympathetic.  That said, there’s never a moment in the film where Keitel is boring.  In Fingers, Keitel takes the method to its logical end point and, as a result, you actually get anxious just watching him simply look out of a window or sit in a corner.  Even though Jimmy eyes rarely shows a hint of emotion, his fingers are always moving and, just watching the way that he’s constantly twitching and fidgeting, you get the feeling that Jimmy’s always on the verge of giving out a howl of pain and fury.  It doesn’t really make Jimmy someone who you would want to hang out with.  In fact, I spent the entire movie hoping someone would just totally kick his ass and put him in the hospital for a few weeks.  But it’s still a performance that you simply cannot look away from.  Watching Keitel’s performance, you come to realize that Fingers is essentially a personal invitation to visit a Hell that is exclusively populated by method actors who have gone too far.

Anyway, my feelings about Fingers were mixed.  Can you tell?  It’s an interesting movie.  I’ll probably never watch it again.

A Movie A Day #314: Body and Soul (1981, directed by George Bowers)


When his little sister falls ill with sickle-cell anemia, Leon Johnson (Leon Isaac Kennedy) has to make a decision.  He can either finish his education, graduate from medical school, and treat her as a doctor or he can drop out of school, reinvent himself as “Leon the Lover,” and make a fortune as a professional boxer!  At first, Leon’s career goes perfectly.  He is winning fights.  He is making money.  He has a foxy new girlfriend (played Leon Isaac Kennedy’s then-wife, Jayne Kennedy.)  But then the fame starts to go to Leon’s head.  He forgets where he came from.  He’s no longer fighting just to help his sister.  Now, he’s fighting for his own personal glory.  When Leon finally gets a title shot, a crooked boxing promoter known as Big Man (former JFK in-law Peter Lawford, looking coked up) orders Leon to take a dive.  Will Leon intentionally lose the biggest fight of his life or will he stay in the ring and battle Ricardo (Al Denava), a boxer so evil that he literally throws children to the ground?  More importantly, will he make his trainer (Muhammad Ali, playing himself!) proud?

Leon Isaac Kennedy, Muhammad Ali, and Peter Lawford all in the same movie!?  No surprise here, it’s a Cannon film.  Leon Isaac Kennedy was best known for playing a jailhouse boxer in the Penitentiary films and he was a good actor with charisma to burn so it probably made perfect sense to not only cast him in a remake of John Garfield’s Body and Soul but to let him write the script too.  The end result is a film that is too heavy-handed to be taken seriously but it is still an entertaining movie.  Body and Soul leaves not a single sports cliché unused but Kennedy was a convincing fighter and the boxing scenes are well-directed.  Muhammad Ali did a better job playing himself here then he did in The Greatest.  All in all, Body and Soul is a good movie for fight fans.

Body and Soul was not a box office success and Kennedy ended his film career a few years after it was released.  He is now the head of Leon Kennedy Ministries, Inc of Burbank, California.

 

A Movie A Day #302: Love and Bullets (1979, directed by Stuart Rosenberg)


Joe Bomposa (Rod Steiger) may wear oversized glasses, speak with a stutter, and spend his time watching old romantic movies but don’t mistake him for being one of the good guys.  Bomposa is a ruthless mobster who has destroyed communities by pumping them full of drugs.  Charlie Congers (Charles Bronson) is a tough cop who is determined to take Bomposa down.  When the FBI learns that Bomposa has sent his girlfriend, Jackie Pruit (Jill Ireland), to Switzerland, they assume that Jackie must have information that Bomposa doesn’t want them to discover.  They send Congers over to Europe to bring her back.  Congers discovers that Jackie does not have any useful information but Bomposa decides that he wants her dead anyway.

Love and Bullets is an uneasy mix of action and comedy, with Bronson supplying the former and Ireland trying to help out with the latter.  Not surprisingly, the action works better than the comedy.  Because Charlie is an American in Switzerland, he is not allowed to carry a gun and he is forced to resort to some creative ways to take out Bomposa’s assassins.  Unfortunately, the scenes where Charlie and Jackie fall in love are less interesting, despite Bronson and Ireland being a real-life couple.  Ireland occasionally did good work when she was cast opposite of Bronson but here, she’s insufferable as a ditzy gangster moll with a strange accent.  While everyone else is trying to make an action movie, she’s trying too hard to be Judy Holliday.  Steiger’s peformance starts out as interesting but soon devolves into the usual bellowing and tics.

Love and Bullets does have a good supporting cast, though.  Bradford Dillman, Michael V. Gazzo, Val Avery, Albert Salmi, and Strother Martin all pop up.  The two main hit men are played by Paul Koslo and Henry Silva.  Silva’s almost as dangerous here as he was in Sharky’s Machine.

A Movie A Day #147: Crazy Joe (1974, directed by Carlo Lizzani)


Crazy Joe (Peter Boyle) is a gangster with a chip on his shoulder and a self-taught intellectual who can (misquote) Sartre and Camus with the best of them.  Sick of being taken for granted, Joe and his brother, Richie (Rip Torn), attempt to challenge the Mafia establishment.  The mob sets Joe up and gets him sent to prison.  While doing time, Joe befriends a Harlem gangster named Willy (Fred Williamson).  Refusing to associate with the other Italian prisoners, Joe allies himself with the black inmates and even helps to start a riot over the prison’s inhumane conditions.  When he is released, Joe hits the streets of New York with a vengeance, now backed up by Willy and his criminal organization.

Crazy Joe is based on the life of Joey Gallo, who was briefly a New York celebrity, hobnobbing with actors like Jerry Orbach and writers like Norman Mailer before he was gunned down at Umberto’s Clam Shop in Little Italy.  Though the names were changed to protect the guilty, Eli Wallach plays Vito Genovese, Charles Cioffi plays Joe Columbo, and Luther Adler is Joe Profaci.  Fred Williamson’s character is based on the infamous Nicky Barnes.

Crazy Joe is a good and violent mix of the gangster, prison, and blaxploitation genres.  Despite wearing an unfortunate toupee, Peter Boyle is great at putting the crazy in Crazy Joe and Fred Williamson ups the coolness factor of any movie he appears in.  Keep an eye out for Henry Winkler, giving a very un-Fonzie performance as Joe’s right-hand man.

“DAMN YOU, KENNEDY!”: Assignment — Kill Castro (1980, directed by Chuck Workman)


7d9oDL3Y5kupCGgUsR6Jh5ZU1KfOne of my earliest memories of staying up late and watching cheesy movies on local television was the sight of Robert Vaughn standing on a beach and cursing, “Damn you, Kennedy!”  An echo effect kicked in, making the line: “Damn you, Kennedy Kennedy Kennedy Kennedy Kennedy!”

The name of the movie was Assignment — Kill Castro and sometimes it seemed like it came on every other night.  The movie started with a title crawl that was so lengthy and so set the tone for the entire film that I feel it is worth quoting in its entirety:

From 1961, the year of the Bag of Pigs to today, the Government of the United States has been embroiled in a series of events which have continually led our nation to crisis after crisis and to the brink of war.

ASSIGNMENT — KILL CASTRO, a true story is one of the most confusing and frustrating historical events that might have led to a world power showdown.  It happened yesterday!  It happened today!  It can happen again!

Names of persons and places have been changed to protect the individuals who were called upon to aid their country and in doing so placed their lives in jeopardy.

“I WILL GIVE ALL FOR THE LOVE OF MY COUNTRY … RIGHT OR WRONG! — G.W. Bell, Chief of Carribean (sic) Operations, Central Intelligence Agency”

This motion picture is dedicated to all people who desire to live in a free democratic society.

Robert Vaughn plays Hud, a former CIA agent who was involved in the original Bay of Pigs invasion.  When the mysterious Mr. Bell (Raymond St. Jacques) and a gangster named Rossellini (Michael V. Gazzo) agree to finance an operation to kill Fidel Castro, Hud recruits a Key West bar owner named Tony (Stuart Whitman) to take him to Cuba.  However, Mr. Bell and Rossellini are just using Hud to secretly smuggle heroin into Florida and, much like John F. Kennedy in 1961, they are planning on abandoning him on the beaches of Cuba.

The main problem with Assignment — Kill Castro is that we already know that Hud is not going to succeed in his mission because Fidel Castro is still alive and probably still bragging about how he sent Tony Montana to Miami.  The other problem is that the movie does not make any damn sense.  That title crawl was not kidding when it said the story was confusing and frustrating.  Everyone is so busy double-crossing everyone else that it is hard to keep track.  There has to be a simpler way to get heroin into Florida.  Surprisingly, this incoherent movie was written and directed by the legendary editor, Chuck Workman, the same Chuck Workman who puts together those montages for the Oscars.

Kill Castro does have a good cast, though none of them are at their best.  Along with Whitman, Vaughn, St. Jacques, and Gazzo, the cast includes Woody Strode, Albert Salmi, and Sybil Danning (whose last name is misspelled Daning in the end credits).  Fidel Castro plays himself and the film’s ending is provided by cannibal turtles.

Assignment — Kill Castro was just one of the many titles that this movie was released under.

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It was also known as Cuba Crossing,

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Key West Crossing, The Mercenaries, and my personal favorite, Sweet Dirty Tony.

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Super Bowl Alternative: The “Other” BLACK SUNDAY (Paramount 1977)


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My New England Patriots aren’t in this year’s big game, and I can’t stand that big-headed Peyton Manning, so my interest in tonight’s Super Bowl is minimal. And the halftime show does nothing for me: Coldplay is probably one of my least favorite bands (Beyoncé’s OK, though). So if like me, you’re not planning on spending much time watching Roger Goodell’s season-ending spectacular (can’t stand Goodell, either) may I suggest an alternative, namely John Frankenheimer’s thriller BLACK SUNDAY.

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No, it’s not the 1960 Barbara Steele/Mario Bava horror classic, this BLACK SUNDAY is a rousing political thriller about terrorist organization Black September plotting a strike against America at the biggest game of them all, the Super Bowl. Beautiful but deadly terrorist Dahlia (Marthe Keller) has recruited the bitter, unstable blimp pilot Michael Lander (Bruce Dern at his 70’s psycho best) to turn the blimp into the ultimate suicide bomb, with plastique explosives setting…

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Shattered Politics #36: The Godfather, Part II (dir by Francis Ford Coppola)


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Believe it or not, The Trial of Billy Jack was not the only lengthy sequel to be released in 1974.  Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part II was released as well and it went on to become the first sequel to win an Oscar for best picture.  (It was also the first, and so far, only sequel to a best picture winner to also win best picture.)  Among the films that The Godfather, Part II beat: Chinatown, Coppola’s The Conversation, and The Towering Inferno.  1974 was a good year.

Whenever I think about The Godfather, Part II, I find myself wondering what the film would have been like if Richard Castellano hadn’t demanded too much money and had actually returned in the role of Clemenza, as was originally intended.  In the first Godfather, Clemenza and Tessio (Abe Vigoda) were Don Corleone’s two lieutenants.  Tessio was the one who betrayed Michael and was killed as a result.  Meanwhile, Clemenza was the one who taught Michael how to fire a gun and who got to say, “Leave the gun.  Take the cannoli.”

Though Castellano did not return to the role, Clemenza is present in The Godfather, Part II.  The Godfather, Part II tells two separate stories: during one half of the film, young Vito Corleone comes to America, grows up to be Robert De Niro and then eventually becomes the Godfather.  In the other half of the film, Vito’s successor, Michael (Al Pacino), tries to keep the family strong in the 1950s and ultimately either loses, alienates, or kills everyone that he loves.

During Vito’s half of the film, we learn how Vito first met Clemenza (played by Bruno Kirby) and Tessio (John Aprea).  However, during Michael’s half of the story, Clemenza is nowhere to be seen.  Instead, we’re told that Clemenza died off-screen and his successor is Frankie Pentangeli (Michael V. Gazzo).  All of the characters talk about Frankie as if he’s an old friend but, as a matter of fact, Frankie was nowhere to be seen during the first film.  Nor is he present in Vito’s flashbacks.  This is because originally, Frankie was going to be Clemenza.  But Richard Castellano demanded too much money and, as a result, he was written out of the script.

And really, it doesn’t matter.  Gazzo does fine as Frankie and it’s a great film.  But, once you know that Frankie was originally meant to be Clemenza, it’s impossible to watch The Godfather Part II without thinking about how perfectly it would have worked out.

If Clemenza had been around for Michael’s scenes, he would have provided a direct link between Vito’s story and Michael’s story.  When Clemenza (as opposed to Frankie) betrayed Michael and went into protective custody, it would have reminded us of how much things had changed for the Corleones (and, by extension, America itself).  When Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) talked Clemenza (as opposed to Frankie) into committing suicide, it truly would have shown that the old, “honorable” Mafia no longer existed.  It’s also interesting to note that, before Tessio was taken away and killed, the last person he talked to was Tom Hagen.  If Castellano had returned, it once again would have fallen to Tom to let another one of his adopted father’s friends know that it was time to go.

Famously, the Godfather, Part II ends with a flashback to the day after Pearl Harbor.   We watch as a young and idealistic Michael tells his family that he’s joined the army.  With the exception of Michael and Tom Hagen, every character seen in the flashback has been killed over the course of the previous two films.  We see Sonny (James Caan), Carlo (Gianni Russo), Fredo (John Cazale), and even Tessio (Abe Vigoda).  Not present: Clemenza.  (Vito doesn’t appear in the flashback either but everyone’s talking about him so he might as well be there.  Poor Clemenza doesn’t even get mentioned.)

If only Richard Castellano had been willing to return.

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Clemenza and Vito

 

But he didn’t and you know what?  You really only miss him if you know that he was originally meant to be in the film.  With or without Richard Castellano, The Godfather, Part II is a great film, probably one of the greatest of all time.  When it comes to reviewing The Godfather, Part II, the only real question is whether it’s better than the first Godfather.

Which Godfather you prefer really depends on what you’re looking for from a movie.  Even with that door getting closed in Kay’s face, the first Godfather was and is a crowd pleaser.  In the first Godfather, the Corleones may have been bad but everyone else was worse.  You couldn’t help but cheer them on.

The Godfather Part II is far different.  In the “modern” scenes, we discover that the playful and idealistic Michael of part one is gone.  Micheal is now cold and ruthless, a man who willingly orders a hit on his older brother and who has no trouble threatening Tom Hagen.  If Michael spent the first film surrounded by family, he spends the second film talking to professional killers, like Al Neri (Richard Bright) and Rocco Lampone (Tom Rosqui).  Whereas the first film ended with someone else closing the door on Kay, the second film features Michael doing it himself.  By the end of the film, Michael Corleone is alone in his compound, a tyrant isolated in his castle.

Michael’s story provides a sharp contrast to Vito’s story.  Vito’s half of the film is vibrant and colorful and fun in a way that Michael’s half is not and could never be.  But every time that you’re tempted to cheer a bit too easily for Vito, the film moves forward in time and it reminds you of what the future holds for the Corleones.

So, which of the first two Godfathers do I prefer?  I love them both.  If I need to be entertained, I’ll watch The Godfather.  If I want to watch a movie that will truly make me think and make me question all of my beliefs about morality, I’ll watch Part Two.

Finally, I can’t end this review without talking about G.D. Spradlin, the actor who plays the role of U.S. Sen. Pat Geary.  The Godfather Part II is full of great acting.  De Niro won an Oscar.  Pacino, Gazzo, Lee Strasberg, and Talia Shire were all nominated.  Diane Keaton, Robert Duvall, and John Cazale all deserved nominations.  Even Joe Spinell shows up and brilliantly delivers the line, “Yeah, we had lots of buffers.”  But, with each viewing of Godfather, Part II, I find myself more and more impressed with G.D. Spradlin.

Sen. Pat Geary doesn’t have a lot of time on-screen.  He attends a birthday party at the Corleone Family compound, where he praises Michael in public and then condescendingly insults him in private.  Later, he shows up in Cuba, where he watches a sex show with obvious interest.  And, when Michael is called before a Senate committee, Geary gives a speech defending the honor of all Italian-Americans.

G.D. Spradlin as Sen. Pat Geary

G.D. Spradlin as Sen. Pat Geary

But the scene that we all remember is the one where Tom Hagen meets Sen. Geary in a brothel.  As Geary talks about how he passed out earlier, the camera briefly catches the sight of a dead prostitute lying on the bed behind him.  What’s especially disturbing about this scene is that neither Hagen nor Geary seem to acknowledge her presence.  She’s been reduced to a prop in the Corleone Family’s scheme to blackmail Sen. Geary.  His voice shaken, Geary says that he doesn’t know what happened and we see the weakness and the cowardice behind his almost all-American facade.

It’s a disturbing scene that’s well-acted by both Duvall and Spradlin.  Of course, what is obvious (even if it’s never explicitly stated) is that Sen. Geary has been set up and that nameless prostitute was killed by the Corleones.  It’s a scene that makes us reconsider everything that we previously believed about the heroes of the Godfather.

For forcing us to reconsider and shaking us out of our complacency, The Godfather, Part II is a great film.

(Yes, it’s even better than The Trial of Billy Jack.)

 

Film Review: Sudden Impact (dir. by Clint Eastwood)


Today, we continue our look at the Dirty Harry film series by considering the fourth installment in the franchise, 1983’s Sudden Impact.

“Go ahead.  Make my day…”

Yes, this is the film where Police Inspector “Dirty” Harry Callahan (played, as always, by Clint Eastwood) delivers that classic one liner.  In this case, he says it to a man holding a gun to a waitress’ head.  The implication, I guess, is that the gunman would make Harry’s day by killing the innocent woman that he’s holding hostage and therefore, giving Harry an excuse to shoot him in the head.  That line really does get to the heart of one of the main themes that runs through all of the Dirty Harry movies in general and Sudden Impact in specific.  Harry’s life would be a lot of easier if people would simply stop getting in the way and just let him shoot anyone that he wants to.

At the start of Sudden Impact ,we discover that Harry Callahan is still on the San Francisco police force and Captain McKay (Bradford Dillman) is still his antagonistic boss.  Eight years have passed since the end of the Enforcer and Harry is a bit grayer and definitely grumpier.  Whereas the previous three films in the franchise made a (minimal) effort to humanize him, the Harry of Sudden Impact is a snarling, forehead vein-throbbing killing machine.  After years of dealing with sleazy criminals and weak-willed liberals, Harry now appears to wake up each morning and ask himself, “How many people can I find an excuse to kill today?”

Not surprisingly, all those years of shooting people have apparently made Harry the most targeted man in San Francisco.  Within the first 20 minutes of the film, three separate and unconnected groups of criminals attempt to kill Harry.  His superiors demand that Harry take a vacation before the entire city of San Francisco is destroyed.  Harry snarls in response so his bosses do the next best thing and order him to go to the coastal town of San Paulo to help with an unsolved murder.

San Paulo has a problem.  Local lowlifes are turning up dead, shot once in the head and once in the genitals.  Along with the gruesome way that they die, all of them seem to be acquainted with a frightening woman named Rae (played by Audrey J. Neenan).  The chief of police (Pat Hingle) doesn’t seem to be trying too hard to solve the crimes and he openly resents Harry’s attempts to help.  (He’s even less happy about the fact that the mobsters who were trying to kill Harry in San Francisco have followed him out to  San Paulo.)  Harry, however, is determined to solve the crime even while dealing with the unwanted gift of a rather ugly bulldog (given to him by his latest partner, who is played by series regular Albert Poppwell) and romancing an artist (a rather unconvincing Sondra Locke) who has some very strong thoughts of her own on both the sorry state of the criminal justice system and what should be done to improve it.

Sudden Impact was the only one of the Dirty Harry films to officially be directed by Clint Eastwood.  Even if his name wasn’t listed in the opening credits, you would probably be able to guess that Eastwood directed this. From the film’s opening  nighttime scene, during which time the screen is almost totally black except for the occasional flash of a gun being aimed, the film features Eastwood’s signature noir-influenced visual style but it doesn’t contain any of the thematic ambiguity that typifies Eastwood’s better films.

Sudden Impact is an entertaining and well-made action film but it’s also my least favorite of the Dirty Harry series.  Whereas the first three installments at least tried to play around with figuring out what made Harry tick (and, occasionally, even allowing Harry’s methods to be questioned by sympathetic characters like Chico in Dirty Harry or Kate Moore in The Enforcer), Sudden Impact is content to just to let Harry kill some of the most cardboard villains in the franchise’s history.  The end results are crudely effective but ultimately rather forgettable, with none of the eccentric touches that occasionally distinguished the next film in the series, The Dead Pool.  There’s a reason why Sudden Impact is best remembered for a one-liner that’s uttered during the film’s first 10 minutes and which doesn’t really have anything to do with anything else that happens in the movie.

Speaking of The Dead Pool, that’s the film we will be looking at tomorrow as we conclude this series on the Dirty Harry franchise.