WARNING: those of you of a sensitive disposition might find some of the screengrabs on this page distressing. Also – BEWARE SPOILERS!
What is it about fingers and toes that brings out the sadist in film-makers? Heads, arms, legs and ears all suffer their share of mistreatment in the movies, but once you start noticing digit abuse, you can barely sit down in a cinema seat without being confronted by some fresh yet horrible instance of finger or toe torture. Ever since 1935, when slivers of flaming bamboo were driven beneath Gary Cooper’s fingernails in Lives of a Bengal Lancer, fingers and toes have been at the receiving end of some of the nastiest treatment known to man; they regularly get broken or severed or sliced and diced.
And not just in horror movies such as Hostel, where you more or less expect it, but in graphic novel adaptations (Sin City), period dramas (Ride with the Devil), action adventure (Vertical Limit, which rings the changes with a spot of frostbite and dislocation), buddy movies (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang), cop movies (Sharky’s Machine), fantasy (The Prestige), even musicals (The Little Shop of Horrors). It’s not hard coming up with examples; the hard part is picking just ten.
Maybe it’s because fingers and toes are phallic symbols. (Phalanges, phallus – hey, they even sound similar, so no wonder some people get confused.) And since there are (mercifully) limits to what you can show being done to private parts, screenwriters reach for the symbol instead.
Or maybe it’s simply because, while not everyone in the audience has personal experience of being strung upside-down and flayed alive, everyone can relate to a cut finger, a stubbed toe, an icky toenail. Take John Carpenter’s The Thing, in which aliens are erupting left, right and centre in a barrage of extraordinary special effects. It’s when Kurt Russell decides to give everyone a blood test, and the characters start slicing their thumbs with a scalpel that you can really sense the audience wincing.
10 THE PIANO (1993) directed by Jane Campion.
Sam Neill axes off one of Holly Hunter’s fingers in this arty-farty Franco-Kiwi chick-flick with added crinolines and (courtesy of Oscar-winning Anna Paquin – what was the Academy thinking?) one of the most annoying child performances known to man. Would that Neill had done it sooner so we wouldn’t have had to listen to any more of Michael Nyman’s tedious tinkle-tinkle-plunk score. But does losing a finger stop her piano-playing? Does it heck – she simply straps on a metal prosthetic, which changes the score to tinkle-tinkle-plunk-zing.
Still, it’s not every day you get such uncompromising digit abuse in a chick-flick.
9 THE BIG LEBOWKSI (1998) directed by Joel Coen.
Trophy porn-star wife Tara Reid paints her toenails green, so it was a toss-up as to whether the Coen brothers’ slacker variation on The Big Sleep should be included here, or in Ten Shining Examples of Notable Nail Varnish. But when smarmy factotum Philip Seymour Hoffman hands Jeff Bridges an envelope containing a severed toe (with green-painted nail) wrapped in cotton wool, and millionaire David Huddleston exclaims, ‘By God sir, I will not abide another toe!’ we tip over into unambiguous digit abuse territory. And when later we get a close-up of a German nihilist’s foot, wrapped in a bandage stained with blood where the little toe should be, it seals the deal.
For other examples of toe abuse, see Payday, Pirates and Lake Placid.
8 TAXI DRIVER (1976) directed by Martin Scorsese
When I first saw Taxi Driver, in the Leicester Square Theatre way back in 1976, I’d never heard of Martin Scorsese and, pace Peckinpah, had yet to become blasé at the sight of blood not just pouring, but actually spurting out of gunshot wounds. It wasn’t as though I were expecting Carry on Cabbie, but even so, I was caught off guard by the bloodbath near the end. When Robert De Niro shoots the fingers off a man’s hand, I began to feel queasy. Then Harvey Keitel turns up and shoots De Niro in the neck, which squirts out blood, then De Niro shoots Harvey several times and gets shot again by another man, whom he then shoots several times, and then he bashes and stabs and shoots the fingerless guy, and then tries to shoot himself, but he’s all out of bullets and when the cops arrive there’s blood dripping off his finger as he points it has his head and makes pow! pow! noises. Which is when I had to put my own head between my knees to stop myself fainting. This has only happened to me twice in a lifetime of movie-going, and I’ve been wary of Scorsese ever since.
7 MAD MAX 2 (1981) directed by George Miller.
Miller’s post-apocalyptic version of Wacky Races, featuring warrior tribes dressed in leather S&M gear, serves of a winning hand of mythological archetypes. The Feral Kid has a razor-sharp boomerang. We know it’s razor-sharp because it has already sliced deep into the forehead of a pretty young catamite. The catamite’s psychopathic owner, a human attack dog called Wez, is so enraged he hurls the boomerang back at the Feral Kid, but of course the Kid ducks, and it comes swooping back towards the bad guys. The Toadie sticks up his hand, backpedalling furiously like a cricket fielder, and shouts, ‘I’ve got it! I’ve got it!’ And zip! His fingers go flying. Cue all-round hilarity.
6 THE LORD OF THE RINGS: The RETURN OF THE KING (2003) directed by Peter Jackson.
It took place at the climax of an epic trilogy. It was essential to the plot. It was one of the most significant examples of digit abuse in the first half of the first decade of the twenty-first century. And yet no-one saw it, because the victim was invisible. Gollum bites off Frodo’s index finger, and with it the One Ring, before toppling backwards into the molten fires of Mount Doom, where both he and the much-sought-after bling are destroyed, leaving the now-visible Frodo with a stump.
But if you think that’s the end of Peter Jackson’s stonking great adaptation of Tolkien’s pointy-eared saga, you can think again, because there are still 40 minutes to go. And the questions remain. If Gandalf can send eagles to pick up Frodo and Sam at the end, how come they didn’t use Eagle-Air to fly straight to Mount Doom in the first place?
5 BLADE RUNNER (1982) directed by Ridley Scott.
There’s only one rogue replicant left for Harrison Ford to track down and ‘retire’. But barrel-chested Rutger Hauer turns the tables, and Ford the hunter ends up hunted, pursued through the upper floors of a dilapidated tower block. We’ve already seen Hauer crushing a man’s head with his bare hands, but he obviously can’t do that to the film’s star. So he punches through a wall, grabs Harrison’s gun hand, brings it back to his side of the wall and snaps two of his fingers like twigs, saying, ‘This is for Zhora. This is for Pris.’ And, scary though he is, it’s hard not to sympathise.
4 REPULSION (1965) directed by Roman Polanski.
Next time you go for a manicure in a London beauty parlour, make sure it’s not nutty Catherine Deneuve holding the nail clippers. A manicurist once accidentally sliced my cuticle, so I can attest to the accuracy of the amount of dripping blood that ensues when our girl sinks into one of her reveries while in possession of a sharp-bladed instrument.
The victim gets off lightly, of course, compared to the guys that come round to Deneuve’s South Kensington flat later on.
3 THE FLY (1986) directed by David Cronenberg.
Most digit abuse in the movies involves slicing or severing, and is visited on the victim by an outside party. The advanced digit abuse that occurs after Jeff Goldblum gets fused with a fly at a molecular-genetic level is self-inflicted, and will strike a chord with anyone who has ever squeezed a blackhead or picked at a scab. Goldblum stands in front of the bathroom cabinet and fiddles with his fingernail, which squirts pus all over the mirror. He continues to fiddle, and ends up lifting the fingernail clean off his finger.
For an artfilm version of self-inflicted fingernail removal, see Lodge Kerrigan’s Clean, Shaven.
2 THE HITCHER (1986) directed by Robert Harmon.
Rutger Hauer has the questionable distinction of being responsible for not just one but two Top Ten instances of digit-related unpleasantness, the second of them in this feverish psycho-chiller that’s prevented from attaining classic status only by C. Thomas Howell’s tragic 1980s haircut. After escaping from Hauer’s clutches, the exhausted Howell stops at a roadside diner, where waitress Jennifer Jason Leigh (and we won’t even talk about what’s going to happen to her later on in the movie) serves him a burger and French fries. Howell, whose mind is on other things, like the truckfuls of people the hitcher has already slaughtered, absent-mindedly picks at his chips. Except the last one he picks up and moves towards his mouth isn’t a chip at all, it’s a… severed finger. Ewww.
1 THE YAKUZA (1974) directed by Sydney Pollack.
Trust the Japanese to turn digit abuse into a philosophy. Yubitsume is the yakuza ritual of severing the last joint of the little finger, wrapping it in cloth and offering it to one’s boss as a gesture of repentance. But since life is too short to catalogue all the severed pinkies and detached body parts flying around in the movies of directors such as Takashi Miike, Takeshi Kitano or Kinji Fukasaku, I’m wimping out and offering a Hollywood version in lieu.
This is not to be sneezed at by Japanophiles, however, for the screenplay is by Paul Schrader, with contributions from Robert Towne, and treats Japanese culture with appropriate respect, while the strong cast is topped by the dream team of Robert Mitchum, at his world-weariest, and Ken Takakura, veteran of many an authentic Japanese yakuza movie. Each actor cuts his little finger off, though not in the same scene.
Fifteen years later, Ridley Scott’s Black Rain, in which Takakura co-starred, also featured ritual finger-chopping, though Michael Douglas, the film’s star, contrived to emerge with digits intact.
Ten Places You Wouldn’t Expect to Find a Severed Head originally appeared in Ten Bad Dates with De Niro, A Book of Alternative Movie Lists (Faber and Faber, 2007) edited by Richard T. Kelly. Please click on the image below for more information from amazon.co.uk and amazon.com.
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