Blue Collar

(USA - 1978)

Mike Lorefice

Cast: Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel, Yaphet Kotto, Ed Begley Jr., Lane Smith, Cliff De Young
Genre: Crime/Drama
Director: Paul Schrader
Screenplay: Paul Schrader & Leonard Schrader based on material by Sydney Glass
Cinematography: Bobby Byrne
Composer: Jack Nitzsche
Runtime: 114 minutes

Paul Schrader's directorial debut may have a lot of holes when it comes to theory and specifics, but few films are more successful on a general level. It portrays that nerve that is aggravated in so many people, the fact you are working as hard as you can but even your best effort is getting you nowhere. You aren't succeeding; you certainly aren't getting ahead. You should be moving in the right direct, but you are just getting further and further behind every day and deep down in your gut you know that. You have a constant stomach ache to remind you, when the debt collector's aren't doing it for you. What's worse is you can't explain it, and that drives you nuts. You might have theories, you might think the government, management, or union are screwing you; it's always some kind of politics, but perpetually shrouded in mystery.

The Schrader brothers seem to be attempting to show the ways the power structure thrives by pitting everyone else against each other, resulting in each person or group being too busy with and distracted by petty backstabbing to concentrate on fixing the big picture. It's good to search for something better, something that would actually work for people. You won't truly discover it on your own, but if you can properly identify the problems other people might be able to help fix them. Unfortunately, moralist as the Schraders are trying to be they fail to balance the factions that screw the working man. They attempt to honestly examine his own role in the proceedings, but do so only by making the workers bad guys as well (they exclude their families from most of their entertainment and seemingly pissing away what money they have on alcohol, drugs, and whores). The problem with this tactic is it implies they are really no different. In essence, they are simply less intelligent because they take forever to realize everyone else is bad. Then they fail to capitalize on being corrupt because they aren't nearly as good at being bad as those with more experience.

Though collusion is at least implied, the role of management and government is far too deemphasized. Blue Collar largely comes off as an anti-union film where everyone is nothing more than a puppet on a string. I guess the point is everyone knows management acts in their own self interest, but the union is supposed to be for the workers. It's supposed to be a symbol of brotherhood, the place where the weak band together to fight the power. However, getting too little from them due to corrupt leadership that goes along with management more than they oppose it ignores the fact that their only source of power are these workers that also aren't coming close to doing their part. I realize union corruption was a topic in these days (generally to help in busting unions) and they certainly should be a lot better in the US, but there's a reason Europeans have a far better labor situation and it's not the generosity of their businesses. But I can't honestly say it's just the characters and not the writers that are mixed up by no one seeming willing to help the little guy, to allow them to simply make enough to get by, which leads to the characters personal corruption in several ways.

Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel, & Yaphet Kotto work the assembly line for an automotive company. When their debts mount to the point they badly need money they act in desperation. Frustrated that the union takes their money but won't do even the slightest thing to help them, they decide to rob the union office. The point in robbing the union is it won't stain their conscience in the least, they are taking some of their own money back for services not rendered. The stupidity of the plot is such that, well, even when we were in middle school we knew the school didn't fix broken lockers because they were too cheap. We didn't have a union, but we had parents who represented us. And you know what? If the school didn't feel like spending a couple bucks it wasn't going to matter who had your back, but if they were willing then it eventually got done, when they damn well felt like it. The writing is much more accurate when it comes to the asides, for instance that the supposed representatives of other races and nationalities on TV are seen by them as clowns that are disgraceful embarrassments. Still it's one of Paul Schrader's weakest scripts.

Paul Schrader's gift as a director has always been eliciting top performances from his cast. Richard Pryor delivers his best serious role. He's still very funny in his angry way, but his class, race, standing, and plight is seriously written all over it. It takes a talented man to make situations where you are essentially tortured by your own helplessness funny. How good is Pryor in Blue Collar? Well, even with Harvey Keitel giving one of his greatest performances, some people still believe Pryor was the best of the three. One of the things that makes Keitel so great is he never falls into overacting or setting himself apart. He's never about flash and that's certainly the right way to portray this character, he simply becomes an ignorant working stiff and relies on his humanity. His character is the most powerful because he truly wants to do the right thing, but with no path seeming to lead in that direction he's left with the decision of who to sell out to. Yaphet Kotto was no slouch in these days when he was getting some worthy roles that utilized his presence. His inner smoldering makes a great counterpoint to the volatile work of Pryor. The actors weren't at their most professional, bitter and resentful because they all wanted to be the star. This is partly Paul Schrader's fault because as a first time director working with a limited budget, in order to get the three actors he needed to make the film work he felt he had to lie to them, promising all three they were the lead. But it seems Pryor, Keitel, & Kotto all busted their ass to steal the show when they weren't busy busting each other's.

The other standout contributor is the highly underrated Jack Nitzsche. This wonderful score showcases his ability to create a heightened atmosphere through externalizing interior states such as paranoia and fear. Nitzsche is very successful in using the electric (instruments) to depict the mechanical (assembly line).

Blue Collar is a powerful and in most cases highly enjoyable piece of social realism that actually does make a serious attempt to deal with the day to day problems facing the average US worker. Its messages may be as mixed up as its characters, but if you try to deal with a problem honestly, even if you are wrong, at least you create a debate. If this film was made today it would be a shallow heist film where greedy guys loaded with bling would ride around in their freshly washed sports cars using the latest technology to steal score a couple billion each. The Schrader's characters are looking for a couple thousand each, enough for Keitel to get braces for his daughter.





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