Armchair Cinephile 

THIS HARVEY'S HARDLY INVISIBLE

Fingers (Warner Bros.) The Duellists (Paramount) Thelma & Louise (MGM) The King of Comedy (20th Century Fox)

I'd read enough good things about the 1978 Harvey Keitel vehicle Fingers (Warner Bros.) that when it recently appeared on DVD, I had to see it. After watching it, I went looking for the sources: turns out that 80 percent of the laudatory quotes I saw were from film-criticism giant and part-time nutjob David Thomson, who appears to have some sort of barely sublimated crush on director James Toback.

This is the kind of horrible film for which the right critic can do wonders. I say: "Keitel's character, an underworld debt collector with delusions of concert-pianist glory, is the caricature of an effeminate lunatic, twitching and prancing at every opportunity, making the viewer re-evaluate his assessment of Keitel's acting ability." Thomson says Keitel was "as understanding of New York street idiom as he was of Toback's psychosexual nightmare. His character shook with music, as if it were a fever." You say "tomato," I say "baloney." Still, the flick is really pretty fun, if you're able to view Toback as the Ed Wood of the arthouse circuit. Don't believe me? Sample line of Keitel's dialogue (spoken to the vapid young woman he is trying to seduce): "Don't you understand? I'm gonna bring you into your dreams of yourself."

Thomson is right to point out, though (in his Biographical Dictionary of Film), that the years of 1977 and 1978 gave Keitel some of the most potentially juicy roles he has seen in his career (though Thomson ignores this period's underrated Blue Collar). The other role, the one in which the actor redeems himself, is Ridley Scott's debut The Duellists, fresh out on disc from Paramount. Though he and costar David Carradine, playing French soldiers under Napoleon, both suffer from undisguisable American accents, Keitel's character here is a far more convincing madman, insisting on pursuing Carradine for decades in a duel that never quite ends.

 
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Director Scott had just graduated (or more honestly, taken a vacation) from directing TV commercials, and his eye for beauty both helps and hurts the film. On one hand, you've rarely seen such remarkable scenes framed with such perfection; on the other, you might occasionally wonder if you're about to be introduced to Chanel's latest line of perfume. Despite Scott's addiction to pretty lens filters, the film is really enjoyable, a Joseph Conrad-inspired yarn that often crosses the line between picture-postcard beauty and the real thing.

Also about to hit DVD shelves (on February 4) is an extras-laden special edition of Scott's Thelma & Louise (MGM). Sure, we all know about T&L; it was too much of a cultural landmark to forget, and maybe too much of one to enjoy as a plain ol' movie. But it's notable here as an example of the kind of work Keitel has been confined to for most of his career (notable also as an example of a director's truly lousy use of pop music, but that's a different story): Keitel's a character actor, albeit one of the coolest ones around (and one who routinely defies the Wolf's quip from Pulp Fiction, "Just because you are a character doesn't mean you have character.") Here, amid the deadbeats and rapists and washboard-abbed petty thieves, Keitel gets to be the unambiguous Good Guy. He's perfect in the role; it's heartbreaking to see him on the phone with Sarandon, trying to convince her that he really does want to help her get on the good side of the law. You can't blame the female fugitives for disbelieving it, but who do you think is sadder when they play Butch and Sundance at the movie's end, the outlaws or the guy who tried to help them?

 
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One last thing about David Thomson, and then I'll lay off the poor Brit: He does draw a truly poignant dynamic between Keitel and Robert De Niro, in which the former recommends the latter to Scorsese for Mean Streets, only to watch De Niro's success quickly eclipse his own. In this season of lame De Niro comedic vehicles and compromised Scorsese epics, thanks to 20th Century Fox for releasing The King of Comedy, the pair's only thing close to a comedy. It's a bizarre, antsy film, sometimes as grating as a bad stand-up act (and you have to look at Sandra Bernhard in her underwear!), but all its itchiness is intentional, and it would be irreplaceable if only for the opportunity it gives Jerry Lewis to make himself look like the world's biggest jerk. Hard to believe, in this film that seems created with the Evil Jerry in mind, that he wasn't even among the first ten entertainers considered for the role.

Now, you take Jerry Lewis and put him in a movie like Fingers, and maybe I could get behind the idea that such an embarrassing film was really an "ingrowing and wounding ... psychological allegory."


More by John DeFore

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