Paul Schrader directed Blue Collar from a script he and his brother, Leonard, based on a story he “ripped off from a black screenwriter named Sydney A. Glass, who foolishly came to Schrader with his idea,” according to Peter Biskind’s Gods and Monsters. (“According to Cineaste Magazine, Schrader subsequently paid Glass off with $15,000, a screen credit, and 1 percent of the film,” Biskind adds.) The screenplay hammers home its points as hard as one of the machines in the Checker cab plant where the story is set, but the potentially deadening didacticism is brought to life by the raw realism of the lead performances (Richard Pryor in by far his best movie role as Zeke, Yaphet Kotto as Smokey, and Harvey Keitel as Jerry, the best friends at the heart of the story). The sets are just as resonant, from the actual factories where a lot of the footage was shot to the dive bar where the men drink after work to the plastic that covers the couches in Zeke’s living room.
The blunt talk about race, class, and the plight of the working man in a capitalist society (“Buy this shit, buy that shit, all you got is a buncha shit,” says Jerry) aren’t the only thing that makes Blue Collar unusual, especially for an American film. Whoever put it in the lineup for Film Forum’s heist series was onto something, because this movie also includes one of the most original heists I’ve ever seen on film. Schrader sidesteps the usual elaborate planning scenes and fetishized break-in, playing the robbery as black comedy. Then, just as you think the three friends’ half-baked plan has fizzled out, it sputters back to life in a whole new form, and playtime is officially over.