Blue Collar (1978)
Directed by Paul Schrader
March 9 at 92YTribeca’s “Overdue” Series
In his book Easy Riders Raging Bulls, Peter Biskind sketches out the first trip to the movies in the life of Paul Schrader—an eighteen-year-old son of two hardcore Dutch Calvinists for whose children movies were forbidden, sneaking into The Absent-Minded Professor. Apparently thrown into a panicked hallucination, Schrader witnessed angels peeling the screen backwards and assumed he had been sent to Hell already. His work is trademarked by a borderline perverse obsession with crystal clarity, and sometimes too with post-religious indignation—betrayal, really—at failed institutions and collapsed hopes. Starting with car companies, unions, families and The American Dream at large, his directorial debut Blue Collar makes diagnoses without losing its cool or becoming doctrinaire.
Riding high off the success of his screenplay for Taxi Driver (Scorsese being stuck in a similar lifelong cycle of aggravated semi-contrition), Schrader bit off a lot, and cast Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel and Yaphet Kotto as three Detroit assembly line joes. Each man staring down his own money problems, they band together to rob their ineffectual (and most likely corrupt) union. Jerry (Keitel) can’t afford braces for his preteen daughter, Zeke (Pryor) has three fake children claimed on his tax returns, and Smokey (Kotto) is into hookers and blow. To say the job gets botched isn’t quite right, but the heist is merely climactic in the three-act sense, putting gears in motion for nearly an hour of increasingly desperate maneuvering. In casting Pryor—exactly at his film career midpoint, six years after Lady Sings The Blues and another five before Superman IV—Schrader wisely traded on his funnyman reputation to make Zeke the movie’s emasculated conscience.
There’s a crabby joy in watching Pyror crawl beers-deep, cocking his eyebrow as he watches The Jeffersons; the bug-eyed, baby-faced star is more than convincing as a guy who hates his situation, but can’t stop himself from assuming he’s inches away from salvaging it. Zeke’s fallout from the heist is simultaneously the luckiest of the trio’s, but implication-wise it looms tallest over the audience, a moral conundrum few would be able to handle any better—dropping wrathful one-liners right up to the finish. As performed and written, Zeke shields Schrader from future bad habits like pedantry (Hardcore) or forcible opaqueness (American Gigolo). Only a veteran auto worker can speak to Blue Collar’s workplace credibility, but from Schrader’s inscrutable canon it’s one the most exact and bruising experiences a filmgoer can have.