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Blue Collar (1978)

January 2nd, 2008 · 2 Comments

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Three factory workers – Zeke (Richard Pryor), Jerry (Harvey Keitel) and Smokey (Yaphet Kotto) – struggle to make ends meet at an auto plant in Detroit. Zeke blows his cool with the union shop steward (Lane Smith) because his locker door has been broken for months. At a bar after their shift, a college instructor (Cliff DeYoung) asks the men questions about their union. Smokey recognizes him as an FBI agent. The fed asks the men why they let their union rip them off as much as management does.

At home, Zeke is paid a visit by an IRS agent who notifies him that due to false deductions on his tax returns – claiming a batch of his neighbor’s kids as his own – he now owes Uncle Sam over two thousand dollars. During a trip to his union local to complain about his locker, Zeke notices a walk-in safe. With Jerry needing money, Smokey wanting to stick it to the union, and Zeke wanting both, they don Halloween masks and swipe what they can from the safe.

Their score nets $600 and a notebook. Studying the notebook, Zeke discovers a list of loans with unusually high rates of interest. Jerry wants to get rid of the notebook. Zeke wants to use their evidence to change the union. Smokey doesn’t think politics makes any difference at all and that they should do something to help themselves. He suggests extortion, but once the union finds out who stole the notebook, the mens’ real problems begin.

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Production history
Screenwriter Paul Schrader didn’t feel he had enough creative control of his career. With the option of either writing books or directing movies, he chose to become a director. He was approached by an aspiring writer named Sidney Glass, who told Schrader an idea he had about his father, an auto worker who committed suicide. Schrader said he had a better idea: auto workers who rob their own union.

The screenwriter called his brother Leonard Schrader and told him about the idea. Schrader didn’t think Glass was going to do anything with it, and suggested his brother write it with him. After Blue Collar was financed, Glass resurfaced and alleged that he had come up with the idea. To resolve the issue, Glass received $15,000, 1.5% of the net profits and an unusual screen credit: “source material suggested by”.

Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel and Yaphet Kotto joined the cast. Schrader realized he had “hired three bulls and asked them to come into a china shop.” He had separately promised each actor that their role would be the lead. Reporting to work, it became apparent to each that this was not the case. They refused to read lines to each other off-camera, and the mood became so volatile that not a day went by without Pryor involved in some type of verbal or physical confrontation with the cast and crew.

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The film was distributed by Universal Pictures, who not only marketed it as a Richard Pryor comedy, but recycled their ad campaign for Which Way Is Up? Schrader was quoted as saying the studio had employed a “dumb nigger” campaign, to see how many black people they could fool into thinking this was a Richard Pryor comedy. Not many people were fooled, but while the film was ignored at the box office, it was well received critically and launched Schrader’s career as a director.

With the exception of his screenplays for Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, Blue Collar is the finest work Paul Schrader has ever done. The edges of the film explore all that was not right with the working class in the late ’70s – inflation, unemployment, corruption – while at its center is a brilliant performance by Richard Pryor. Aside from his role in Lady Sings The Blues, the pioneering comedian never showed he could act – really act – the way he did in this film.

This is a heist movie with thieves who figure out they’re the ones being robbed. Ambition, loyalty and greed play as much a role in their fates as they might in a great novel. It’s apparent that Schrader isn’t that comfortable behind the camera, but the rawness of Blue Collar works in its favor. It stands up as one of the best social documents of the time. As for Pryor, whether he’s holding court in a union hall, or confiding his new view of the world to his friend, each moment he’s on screen is nothing short of remarkable.

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Norman Short at DVD Verdict writes, “I can vouch for the realism of the film from my own upbringing. I myself worked in a similar plant as these characters for some time in the late ’70s, and the feel is true to the industrial setting and the men who work and live within it.”

“The film is not flawless, but the treatment of the material is so dark and effective that it makes Seven look like a Disney musical. Keitel, Kotto, and Pryor … deliver career high-point performances. The opening credit sequence is one of the best around and the ending is just as good,” writes Gil Jawetz at DVD Talk.

Mike Lorefice at Raging Bull Movie Reviews writes, “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.”

© Joe Valdez

Tags: Black comedy · Gangsters and hoodlums · Heist

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Jeremy // Jan 6, 2008 at 3:24 pm

    I love this film and it is one of my favorites from the seventies. As much as I admire some of Paul’s later works, I think this is still his best. All of the cast are great but this is Pryor’s masterpiece. He is amazing in this role…touching, terrifying, heartbreaking. Along with already being one of the most important comedians in history, this film shows he could have been and incredibly great dramatic actor. It is tragic that he was so underused for the rest of his career in film…Great post on a truly special film…I really dig all of Paul’s late seventies early eighties works as well and he always managed to bring out some of the best work from his actors from Gere to Kinski, Scott to Walken…

  • 2 Joe Valdez // Jan 6, 2008 at 7:57 pm

    Jeremy: Paul Schrader during this period pretty much personifies what ’70s filmmaking was all about. He explored the dark side of being an American male, and even though his career careened out of control with coke and Cat People in the early ’80s, Blue Collar is one of the key movies of the previous decade. Thanks for commenting!

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