Paul Schrader, in his directorial debut, delivers the potent 1978 film Blue Collar about a trio of working class friends who are driven, in part, by financial struggle to rob their own union. It’s a terrific examination of class and power play with a caustic cynical edge.
A cynic by trade, Paul Schrader might prefer to call himself a realist. In his absorbing directorial debut of 1978, the renowned screenwriter of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and Raging Bull utilises his caustic creative tools to reiterate the notion that the rich get richer while the poor get poorer. The powerful stay powerful, the powerless stay powerless. Blue Collar, as the name suggests, dares to accept a class hierarchy in a country still fantasising about the American Dream.
In the film, a trio of Rust Belt veterans, at the tail end of the USA’s motor manufacturing boom, are pushed to criminality in order to keep the wolf from the door. But things spiral beyond their control. It is the realisation that corruption, even within a supposed organisation working for the “everyman” like their trade union, doesn’t stop at muddying the financial numbers but at bloodshed in order to protect its own skin. Schrader’s devastating blow is that the union does so because it can. And there’s nothing the hard-working man with a family to feed and taxes to pay can do about it.
What’s intriguing, but not surprising, is how this environment can turn best friends against each other. Schrader assembles a trio of actors at the top of their game – Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel and Yaphet Kotto – as the factory workers who decide to rob their trade union, unwittingly lighting the touch paper that begins a string of events that will destroy their once seemingly impregnable companionship. Brought together by circumstance and the nine-to-five grind, their domestic anxieties mirroring their financial ones, the trio’s decision to become DIY criminals is as much about paying the bills as it is finding a moment of impish excitement.
Blue Collar accepts a lack on control in society. As much as the three friends try to manage their destiny, it’s decided for them, either by the IRS or the hired hands seeking their silence… or their blood. As the stakes rise, so does a claustrophobic angst as the walls close in. Despite it being Schrader’s directorial debut, his pacing is timed to slow-burn our way to the film’s numerous gut-punch denouements as the dynamic of this friendship group is forever realigned.
The fledgling filmmaker is also in debt to actors who need little direction. A few comic flurries aside, Pryor keeps his comedy in check, his energy coming from the character’s growing disenchantment with a world built “for him” not “by him”. Keitel’s character is the less assured member of the group, his renowned toughness softened by the monotony of his day-to-day working life. Kotto adds brawn to the dynamic but Schrader ensures there’s a complexity to his character that elevates him from being simply the muscles of the piece.
Indeed, how this friendship group is broken down by a system far more corrupt than their misdemeanours is far more abrasive courtesy of the writer-director building then breaking their companionship. It comes down to something Kotto’s Smokey James says: “They pit the lifers against the new boy and the young against the old. The black against the white. Everything they do is to keep us in our place.” Like I said, there’s a cynicism here but Schrader knows the heartache he dramatises captures the reality of the time and the situation. And the themes present here still resonate today.
Written by Dan Stephens
Directed by: Paul Schrader
Written by: Paul Schrader, Leonard Schrader
Starring: Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel, Yaphet Kotto
Released: 1978 / Genre: Drama
Country: USA / IMDB
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Top 10 Films reviews Blue Collar on Blu-ray courtesy of Indicator. The film is released on limited edition Blu-ray on January 22.