James Toback broke into movies as the screenwriter of the most highfalutin flop of 1974, "The Gambler." Although he makes a creditable directing debut on "Fingers" and seems to have reduced his dependence on bombastic oratory, he appears to be stuck with an even more resounding and alienating flop.

Despite some favorable or at least sympathetic reviews, "Fingers" languished in first-run engagements in New York and Los Angeles. Its belated arrival in the Washington area, unannounced and unscreened, does not indicate a promising play-off in the country at large. Moreover, it's difficult to perceive where a large public might be located for an introspective movie this schematic and unappealing.

If "Fingers," ostensibly a charater study of a tormented personality torn between criminal and artistic callings, isn't an impossible sell, it's the closest thing.

Toback's main problem seems to be an inablity to provide points of emotional entry into the mental processes of his obsessed and apparently semi-autobiographical protagonists, James Caan as the well-born but profligate academician Axel Freed in "The Gambler" and Harvey Keitel as the musically gifted thug Jimmy Angelelli in "Fingers."

The neurotic, self-destructive behavior that Toback is drawn to and takes for granted may not be instantly attractive and comprehensible to other people. He assumes a common affinity for types "who want to live on the edge of annihilation." What he needs is common touch necessary to encourage audience identification with these extremely untypical, unsypathic charaters.

It's not an impossible task. Most of the famous gangster characters inspire the sort of ambivalence Toback fails to achieve.

A more hyperbolic figure than Axel, Jimmy Angelelli seems even less concrete as a human being and even more troublesome as a literary affectation. The son of a gruff old Mafia loan shark (impersonated with vulgar gusto by Michael V. Gazzo, who was so impressive as Frankie Pentangeli in "Godfather II") and an austere institutionalized pianist mother (Marian Seldes), Jimmy is supposed to be split all too symmetrically. Employed as a loan collector by his father, he aspires to a career as a concert pianist like his mother. Jimmy's head ias equally full of music and latent violence. His masculine-paternal-animal heritage is in conflict with his feminine-maternal-artisitic heritage.

Obviously, a split this elementary and theoretical needs all the concrete dramatic evidence it can get to stay alive. Toback's scenario lacks that evidence, as well as a dramatic structure. The three main elements in the story - Jimmy's errand for his father, his preparation for an audition and his infatution with a dissolute girl played by Tisa Farrow, who is supposed to be a SoHo artist but resembles a debauched Pre-Raphaelite. They aren't developed and interwoven in ways that might heighten suspense or human interest.

The story climaxes in two lurid, graphic killings that lack any sense of dramatic inevitability. They seem merely a vicious kiss-off. When Jimmy is too pent-up to complete his audition, one feels neither pity nor a fore-shadowing of tragedy. His romatic hang-ups are no more involving, although Toback, has persuaded his pal Jim Brown to do a bit role as an exboxer named humiliates Jimmy by demonstrating his effortless control over women, including Jimmy's hollow-eyed, flat-voiced dream girl.

The movie terminates on an image of Jimmy as Naked Ape: Unclothed, battered and breathing heavily, he stares out his apartment window, surrounded by all the "civilized" possessions he has apparently left behind now that the animal in him has gained dominance - piano, books, stereo consoles and speakers.

Ironically, Toback demonstrates a suprising amount of control over the civilized tools of the filmmaking medium. His direction doesn't generate the sort of confidence and enthusiam I felt watching Jonathan Demme's "Citizens Band," Robert Zemeckis' "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" or Martin Brest's "Hot Tommorrows," but it's capable and promising.