Director: Paul Schrader
Starring: Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel, Yaphet Kotto
Another excellent review by Matthew Kitsell.
“They pit the lifers against the new boy and the young against the old; the black against the white. Everything they do is to keep us in our place.”
If Martin Scorsese had directed this searing, explosive drama about the corruption at the heart of American blue collar industries, it would probably be considered a masterpiece and might very well make regular appearances in “Top 100 greatest movies of all time” lists. However, it was the directorial debut of Paul Schrader (most likely to have been known at this point as the writer of ‘Taxi Driver’) and has spent the last 30-odd years in relative obscurity. This is a great shame as it is certainly one of the finest American movies of the 1970s.
I was only introduced to “Blue Collar” very recently, when a mate brought it over one Sunday afternoon to watch. I wasn’t immediately enthusiastic, the premise of the film making it sound a bit like a worthy but dull issues-based drama. However, twenty minutes in, I found myself completely riveted. “Blue Collar” takes the viewer on quite a journey: beginning as a damning expose of the appalling conditions under which blue collar labourers are forced to work, then developing into a caper plot with blackly comic touches, hardening into a tough thriller, and eventually becoming almost unbearably tense during its final moments.
“Blue Collar” is one of the angriest, most authority-hating pictures you could ever hope to see. Its story of three disparate car factory labourers who, sick of being mistreated and routinely ignored by the very union who is supposed to be looking after their interests, decide to strike back by robbing the union safe. When they discover evidence inside it that could threaten to expose the dirty dealings of the union itself, the three beleaguered would-be crooks find themselves in serious hot water, soon succumbing to fear, paranoia and violent behaviour. The men themselves are by turns weak, foul-mouthed, bad tempered, deceitful and hopelessly out of their depth. The real villain of the piece turns out to be the American system itself (see the quote at the start of this review). No wonder the film bombed. “Blue Collar” presented a raw, honest, brutal and uncompromising portrait of a section of American society at the tail-end of the 1970s that Americans didn’t want to see.
“Blue Collar” is powered by three sensational performances from Harvey Keitel, Yaphet Kotto and Richard Pryor. Of the three, it is Pryor who is the revelation. Going on to spend the majority of his career after this turning up in off-putting sentimental comedies like “The toy” and “Brewster’s millions”, it is a real surprise to watch him give a full-blooded, powerfully dramatic performance here, and it seems a shame that he never managed to rise to this level again. He plays the fast talking continual-thorn-in-the-side-of-the-establishment Zeke Brown; Keitel plays his much more mild-mannered friend Jerry Bartowski (an early career-high for the actor), a loving family man driven more by his conscience than his buddies. Completing the trio is Yaphet Kotto as the hulking, dangerous Smokey James, a man of very obvious criminality. The story arcs for these very different characters develop in surprising and believable ways, keeping the film utterly compelling, despite the occasional tendency for the script to meander at points and get a little preachy.
From what I have been told, Pryor, Keitel and Kotto hated each other during the making of the film, so much so that many of their scenes play out in long master shots only. Apparently, when it came to doing the covering shots, the actors were no longer co-operating. Whether the film works so brilliantly despite or because of this unhappy working atmosphere is very hard to say and, in the end, probably not that important. Schrader himself rarely discusses the film (which he co-wrote with his brother Leonard), which is a pity as it is certainly one of his finest achievements. Finally, in this current global economic climate of deep recession and mass redundancies, Blue Collar’s theme of greedy, ruthless, omnipotent organisations making vast profits off the backs of other people’s miseries seems as potent and relevant today as it ever did.