ON DVD & BLU-RAY
Blue Collar (1978) dir: Paul Schrader Blu Ray (Indicator)
Taking it from The Man
Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel and Yaphet Kotto play Zeke, Jerry and Smoke, three employees on the shop floor of a Checker Cab manufacturing plant in Detroit. They have to put up with broken lockers and coffee machines, the constant abuse of their boss “Dogshit” Miller (Borah Silver), and most of all a near-useless union rep called Clarence A. K. “Ass Kisser” Hill (Lane Smith).
Back at home, Zeke and Jerry have families to look after, while Smoke lives a bachelor's life of sex, drugs and parties. All three only get by on their merger wages when they supplement their income by lying to the taxman, running garage sales or turning to loan sharks.
The trio are fed up with taking shit from “The Man” and want to get even. They finally get their opportunity when Zeke goes to the union’s office to complain to Clarence’s boss Eddie Johnson (Harry Bellaver) about his subordinate’s apathy towards his concerns. He spots an employee at the office unlocking a closet that’s clearly used to store the union’s valuables. He manages to persuade his two buddies to carry out a heist on the office and take whatever cash they can find stashed away there.
They are initially disappointed to find a mere $600 in the safe. However, they also discover a document listing a large number of irregular payments. They hit on the idea of using this list to blackmail the union. Unfortunately, it soon becomes apparent that their discovery has put their very lives in danger.
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A potent debut
The directorial debut of Taxi Driver writer Paul Schrader a truly potent affair. In common with many American films from the 1970s it takes on an ultra-cynical, even paranoid stance. In this case Blue Collar posits that anyone in a position of political representation, be it big business or the working man, is part of an establishment that is out for itself and all too eager to screw the little people in the process. By extension, the little people have, in turn, no choice but to look after their own.
In the early stages of the film, writer-director Schrader lifts the lid on the trio of workers and their grievances. Zeke has cut his finger opening a locker that has been broken for six months and duly decides to vent his frustration at the union rep at a meeting. He is played with impassioned ire by Pryor, making lines such as “the plant is short for plantation” suitably rabble-rousing. In a subsequent scene, we see him at home with his wife and children, when the taxman comes around to visit. He has come to straighten out an irregularity surrounding the fact that he has claimed to have six children when hospital records show that he only has three. It’s a funny but depressing moment that shows just how far away he is from living the much-promised American Dream.
Jerry, meanwhile, is struggling to afford braces for his daughter - who tries to fashion a home-made version out of wire and ends up with bleeding gums as a result. Smoke seems to be having the easiest life; lacking a family to feed, he can spend his money on hard living. However, it soon becomes clear that it’s not as easy as his cocky demeanour implies.
The tone darkens as the film goes on
While there is plenty of humour in these earlier scenes depicting various snapshots in their lives (witness the “forklift rage on the broken coffee machine” scene) they also serve a deeper purpose in revealing much about their motivations for carrying out the robbery. Prior, Keitel and Kotto have a real chemistry together. After watching their scenes hanging out on bars or in Smoke’s pad it’s hard to believe the rumours that they didn’t get on during the shoot. On the other hand, in the scenes from the robbery onward, their on-screen relationships deteriorate considerably - and this, too, is presented all-too-believably. In these later moments there is a palpable sense of both a net closing in and of the characters losing either their integrity - or their lives - in the process.
Schrader’s direction isn’t anything overly fussy or flashy; even the music’s kept to a bare minimum (the presence of I’m a Man by Bo Diddley playing over the opening credits being a notable exception). Despite this, he does a superb job of making the world the characters inhabit feel gritty and authentic from a bleak auto manufacturing floor illuminated by welder sparks to the smoky, dingy bars which provide their small fragments of comfort at the end of their shift. The film’s natural (sometimes Schrader’s own words, sometime improvised) dialogue makes the proceedings feel edgy and organic.
While Blue Collar isn’t quite a flawless film, if only for that damn didactic ending that overtly spells out the film’s message I, Daniel Blake style. Nonetheless, it is one of the most powerful movies of the 1970s as it juggles polemic, humour and thriller in an incendiary and involving fashion. Moreover, its message endures through to this very day when workers are still getting screwed over by an inherently corrupt and self-serving system.
Runtime: 113 mins
Dir: Paul Schrader
Script: Paul Schrader, Leonard Schrader
Starring: Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel, Yaphet Kotto, Ed Begley Jr, Harry Bellaver, Lane Smith, Cliff DeYoung, Borah Silver
Blu Ray Audio-Visual
It looks great as usual. Those overtly orange 1970s fixtures are as eye-burning as you can hope for but the grit, sweat and mood of the darker factory scenes aren’t sacrificed either. Sound-wise, everything from the opening I’m a Man to the rage-filled stretches of dialogue comes across as razor sharp and vibrant. Top-drawer stuff.
Audio Commentary with Paul Schrader and Maitland McDonagh
This one’s a terrific, riveting commentary, especially when Schrader talks about the constant on-set friction between the three main stars - a situation which the director describes as “hiring three bulls and asking them to come to a china shop”. Amongst the incidents he recollects include Pryor hitting Kotto with a chair at one point and Keitel abruptly leaving the set to head for the airport at another (his agent managed to persuade him to come back).
The auto factory scenes were shot at the real Checker Cab manufacturing plant in Kalamazoo, Michigan. They were the only car manufacturing plant in either the US or Canada who gave the filmmakers permission to shoot a production there which portrayed the industry in such an unflattering light. They agreed to it due to specific circumstances which included using the filming as a bid to ease their own real-life tensions with the workforce during labour negotiations.
Paul Schrader BFI Masterclass
This 106-minute summary of Paul Schrader’s screenwriting workshop was recorded in 1982. If you’re interested in getting into movie screenwriting then this is undoubtedly well worth a listen. His discussions on metaphor in screenwriting are particularly worthwhile (he cites the use of the taxi in Taxi Driver as a metaphor for loneliness). However, those more casually interested in either Blue Collar or Schrader should probably look at the other extras before this one.
Visions: Paul Schrader Interview
This interview, originally televised in 1984, is available in both broadcast (21 mins) and full (58 mins) versions, both with introductions by Tony Rayns. It is of interest primarily as a snapshot of the era; Rayns introduces in that dryly unenthusiastic manner so characteristic of British TV at the time while Schrader wears huge owl-like glasses that are hard to take seriously nowadays. Here, Schrader envisions pay-per-view TV taking over from cinemas in the forthcoming years due to the immeasurably lower costs. Of course this hasn’t turned out to be as true as he evidently believed at the time of recording since the cinema screen remains the vanguard of movie presentation to this day.
Keith Gordon on Blue Collar
The actor and filmmaker discusses a film which he admires greatly because of the manner in which it changed the way he perceived the world around him. He mentions that it’s particularly unusual for an American political film to be so angry and overtly Marxist as well as noting its depiction of how capitalism pits people against each other - something more relevant than ever in the Trump era. If you watch just one of the special features here you should make it this one; it serves extremely well in putting the film into context.
A theatrical trailer, Trailers From Hell commentary by John Olson and an image gallery round out the extras.
Blue Collar is a must-see film - even more so today. The extras here are substantial and a worthy accompaniment to a film all too frequently overlooked when discussing the best of the 1970s.