The story of three Detroit auto-workers, each struggling financially, who band together to execute a heist at their union headquarters might be a story pulled off the AP, today. This story is, however, the creation of screenwriter, Paul Schrader and his brother, Leonard, in Paul Schrader's directorial debut, Blue Collar (1978). Unlike a quick news wire story, Schrader's story draws deeply from its characters and their culture: with an observant eye for detail, Schrader takes on American industry, workers' unions, the FBI, and the IRS. Schrader's heroes aren't archetypes: no propagandistic portrait of the working-class. Richard Pryor as Zeke, Harvey Keitel as Jerry, and Yaphet Kotto as Smokey are real folks. Schrader follows the three from the assembly line to the living room to the bar, while allowing the characters to speak for themselves. The seemingly fun and sensational plot line of a heist drives the narrative, but Schrader's presenting a brilliant character-driven film.
Blue Collar opens, fittingly, on the assembly line to introduce Zeke, Smokey, and Jerry working with their compatriots, as the hard-ass foreman, Dogshit Miller, makes the rounds. Cut to the union meeting where the labor leader opens the floor for complaints. First up is Richard Pryor's Zeke and his locker is broken. In fact it's been broken for quite a while. Zeke has to open the locker with his little pinkie and his Bic pens. Schrader gives a shot later of Zeke fumbling with his locker, and Zeke's complaint is quite genuine. Every damn day, the broken locker gets on Zeke's nerves and no one will fix it. Pryor, arguably the greatest stand-up comedian who ever lived, immediately captures the screen with his charisma and humor. Schrader leaves the camera on him and allows him to work his magic. Zeke doesn't let the issue with the locker go, and neither does Schrader. With his attentive eye to detail, Schrader uses Zeke's locker as a motif to drive the story: Zeke's complaint drives him to the union office about his locker (where humorously nothing is done about it), and his complaint also gives him the opportunity to scope out the office surroundings and formulate the idea for a heist. Along the way, Schrader drops his commentary on the corrupt nature of the workers' unions. Also noteworthy is a famous scene with Pryor and a visit from an IRS agent. Keitel's Jerry, like Zeke, is a family man. In a scene that could come off as awkward, ridiculous, or even unintentionally funny, Keitel is having dinner with his son and wife ("How can you still be hungry? Look, this box says it feeds four people.") and he wonders where his daughter is. Jerry's wife intimates that she's upstairs and had a bad day. Jerry goes to the stairs to see his teenage daughter. He lifts his daughter's chin with his fingers, and she opens her mouth to reveal bloody teeth and gums. Jerry's wife tells him that she tried to make her own braces with wire. Sound bizarre? It does. However, upon viewing, the scene comes off as genuine, moving, and sad. From the teary look in Jerry's and his daughter's eyes to his wife's quiet whisper, Schrader in a low-key scene is able to convey the heartbreak of a family that's struggling. Only an adolescent would go to such lengths to be like her peers, and only her father would feel real guilt for not being able to provide such things for his daughter. Kotto, as Smokey, is a bachelor. He's smooth-talking with the ladies and a laid-back kind of guy. He hosts a party one evening at his apartment with three or four ladies and Jerry and Zeke unsuccessfully sneak out of bed from their wives to attend. With a mountain of coke on top of the table and a bunch of willing ladies, the three indulge themselves. In a series of wonderfully bizarre montage shots, Zeke chatters on about how the office security is loose and how all that money is just waiting to be taken. What did the union ever do for them? What about all those promises that each made to his wife? As dawn breaks behind the three from the window, they come down from their high: self-pity sets in and each believes they're never going to get any better. Smokey cares for his friends, and in one of Kotto's best scenes, he goes over to Jerry's house to dish out some punishment to the harassing union lackeys.
Schrader's Blue Collar is his film on the "American Dream." It's not anti-Capitalist but rather it's a film about the recognition that capitalism has both its benefits and its ugly side. Like his social views, Schrader presents his characters the same way: no working-class heroes here, but rich characters with glaring flaws and equally shining attributes. There are three scenes in this film that I don't want to give away, but each made me choke up a little bit. In a general way, Blue Collar is about friendship and unity. Although he came close with the underrated Light Sleeper (1992), Schrader has never topped his directorial debut with any subsequent film. However, Schrader's Blue Collar is one of the finest films of the 1970s and few films have topped it.