Blue Collar (Paul Schrader, 1978)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents Blue Collar.

criterion logoWhen Detroit auto workers Jerry (Harvey Keitel), Smokey (Yaphet Kotto), and Zeke (Richard Pryor in a rare, but unforgettable dramatic performance) find bills piling up and pressures bearing down, they decide to rob their corrupt union office.  In a cruel twist, their meager haul contains far more than they expected and the three friends find themselves at odds while facing danger, betrayal, and murder.  Paul Schrader’s début directorial effort surmounted bitter tensions amongst his stars to showcase the dark side of the American working class, creating a brutal vision of the low wages and huge debts that trap workers between big industry and big labor.

Disc Features:

  • New 4K digital restoration, supervised by filmmaker Paul Schrader, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition
  • Introduction by comedian Patton Oswalt
  • Audio commentary with co-writer and director Paul Schrader and journalist Maitland McDonagh
  • Interview with musician Ry Cooder on the recording of “Hard Working Man” by Captain Beefheart and the music of Blue Collar
  • Theatrical trailer
  • PLUS: A booklet featuring a new essay by filmmaker and curator Brecht Andersch

Paul Schrader, who wrote the script to Blue Collar with his brother Leonard Schrader, described the film as being about “the politics of resentment and claustrophobia, the feeling of being manipulated and not in control of your life.”  Trapped within this exploitative game are three friends and co-workers, Jerry Bartowski (Harvey Keitel), Smokey James (Yaphet Kotto), and Zeke Brown (Richard Pryor), victims of the subsistence wages paid by their auto plant employer and the daily indignities suffered under the lazy eye of their union.  Frustrated by a broken locker emblematic of the disrespect shown to the plant workers by management and the union, Zeke attends the union office to demand a response and notices its large walk-in safe.  He hatches a plan with Smokey and Jerry to rob the union office late one night, but only manage a few hundred bucks from the heist.  Their anger only multiplies when they discover that the union uses the theft to run an insurance scam, claiming thousands to have been lost rather than the pittance actually taken.  Fortunes seem to change for the trio when Zeke realizes that they have also obtained a ledger describing the union’s misuse of funds for shady, private loans.  The men eventually set upon a simple and direct ransoming of the ledger for a cut of the insurance funds, but Zeke breaks ranks and begins negotiating with union brass directly, trying to leverage his position of power into a union rep position for himself and the protection of compatriots who are being victimized by goons and law enforcement alike.  Ultimately, the resolve of the three men is broken as Smokey is murdered, Zeke accepts the union rep job, and Jerry turns himself over to the FBI has a material witness to the union’s corruption.  Blue Collar ends with Zeke and Jerry coming to blows on the production floor, brandishing tools like weapons and hurling racial slurs.  Altogether, the film has the feel of a small-scale, Rust Belt redux of Jack London’s The Iron Heel (1908), where the infrastructure of established power and the material needs of impoverished men makes impossible the solidarity required to overcome the corruption that oppresses them.

Often overstated is the significance of the multi-racial, objectively integrated, working class trio Schrader presents at the centre of Blue Collar. What their doomed heist ultimately reveals is that their camaraderie is a product of their shared occupations and common hardships, their working class conditions papering over fundamental differences in their characters that would likely leave them as strangers but for the fact they work the same production line.  Zeke and Smokey are most obviously connected by their race, and Blue Collar reveals their understanding that their auto plant is simply a plantation by abbreviation.  When Smokey recounts his bull-rushing a cop he mistook for his lover’s husband, an act that got him jail-time for assaulting a police officer, he and Zeke can only laugh at their white colleague’s inquiry over why he didn’t explain it as a reasonable misunderstanding.  Smokey and Zeke live the double standards their skin colour inspires, but their responses prove remarkably different.  Zeke and Jerry share positions as family men, caught in the domestic quicksand of having to provide for wives and kids, unlike Smokey who lives a hedonistic bachelor life.  Their respective responsibilities impress upon Zeke and Jerry considerations beyond their own interests, but, again, they respond in divergent manners.

The most significant connection between the 3 men exists between Smokey and Jerry.  They share a strong awareness of the institutional power of the union and the danger that the ledger poses to them.  Jerry works a night-shift job at a gas station in a futile effort to make ends meet, in contrast to Zeke who is shown scamming the IRS to protect his income.  Jerry’s (false) position of white privilege keeps him working honestly in hopes that one day it will pay off and he has little interest in the robbery until a desperate attempt by his daughter to make braces out of wire pushes him too far.  In the face of the ledger book and its content, Jerry immediately sees that the union and all its power will come swiftly down upon them and looks to cut and run, thereby protecting himself and his family.  Smokey, for his part, sees the ledger as a short con at best, a means to extract some ransom money and little more.  He also sees the danger loaded in the document and knows it can only be exploited so far.  Zeke views the ledger as a fatal, incontrovertible blow to his corrupt union and a means for him to blackmail a better position for himself and an opportunity to better the conditions of his co-workers, so much so that he begins negotiating with the union independently of his partners.  In the eyes of Jerry and Smokey, the ledger is too dangerous and the union is too powerful to play long-term games with, but Zeke sees immediate benefits and to the extent that those future risks exist, he is willing to deal with those problems later.  It is telling that each man is handled differently by the union – Smokey is murdered, Jerry is intimidated, Zeke is co-opted.  Smokey’s final statement on the company and the union, narrated over a final confrontation between new union rep Zeke and FBI witness Jerry, states, “They pit the lifers against the new boy, the young against the old, the black against the white, everything they do is to keep us in our place.”  His understanding about the insidious and nuanced expressions of power that maintain the divisions between haves and have-nots results in his death.  Jerry, Zeke, and the other plant workers remain caught in the divisions between white and black, between new hires and pension-protectors, between poor and poorer, all managed to maintain a status quo that advantages the company, the union, and the government alike.

Schrader’s Marxist tragedy contains a lot to admire – the greasy realism of shooting at the Checker Cab factory in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and various locations around Detroit; Ron Dawson and Alice Rush’s selected wardrobe of giveaway T-shirts, trucker caps, and bandannas; Jack Nitzsche’s incredible, R&B-infused score; Captain Beefheart’s Howlin’ Wolf-channeled, opening blues track “Hard Workin’ Man” – but Blue Collar is infamous for the utter hatred felt between the film’s stars and the breakdown suffered by Schrader that had him considering quitting filmmaking midway through his directorial début.  (Schrader reportedly broke down crying between takes.)  The on-set dysfunction reached its peak when Pryor, heavily using drugs at the time, pulled a pistol on Schrader, advising him that his participation would be limited to no more than 3 takes on any given scene.  Schrader later admitted that Pryor’s best performance would be found in those second or third takes and that he would become bored and begin improvising thereafter, much to objection of the heavily studied Keitel.  The enmity between the performers is hard to see in Blue Collar, but there is a sense of distance between the men that translates into a sense of estrangement between the characters that comes from the stresses and insecurities that await them at home, a pressure that weighs around them like some unseen yoke.  It’s hard to say if Blue Collar is better for its ordeals, but it certainly isn’t worse for them.

Blue Collar PosterBlue Collar is a grossly under-appreciated film of the 1970s, one that addresses the problems of race and class in America that are inextricably bound into each other.  As Ben Sachs observes, Schrader, ever “Hollywood’s Calvinist”, typically adopts the position “of a cruel, impassive God, shutting down any alternative to his characters’ doom.”  In Blue Collar, Schrader’s invisible hand crushing his characters owes less to the Bible and more to The Wealth of Nations, but the sentiment remains the same.  The Collection already contains examples of Schrader as writer and director, but there’s no need to stop at The Last Temptation of Christ (Martin Scorsese, 1988) or Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (Paul Schrader, 1985) and Blue Collar would offer a welcome counterpoint to those other examples of Schrader’s prolific output.  Rather than propose a cover artist, we’ll suggest a cover concept inspired by the film’s promotional art.  The car/wrench image from Blue Collar‘s poster is an intriguing one, so how about something more texturally interesting?  We’d like to see a factory floor with a taxi cab-yellow version of the same wrench, existing in 3-dimensions with the weight and heft of a true steel tool, laying on the concrete floor, greasy and worn, its jaws in the shape of Checker cabs.

Credits:  Patton Oswalt’s introduction is inspired by his piece for Ain’t It Cool News, a loving little essay with the wonderful opening line, “If you’ve ever worried that, lying on your deathbed, you’d utter, hopelessly, ‘My God, I never saw a shirtless dildo fight between Harvey Keitel and Richard Pryor’, then put you fears to rest.”  Oswalt is devotee of the Collection, having contributed a Top 10 to Criterion’s website.  The commentary is a holdover from the apparently out-of-print DVD that should be reclaimed given Schrader’s candour.  Ry Cooder was brought into the film to assist Jack Nitzsche and Paul Schrader in developing the film’s score and was reportedly responsible for enlisting Captain Beefheart to perform the main title’s song, allegedly locking him in the recording booth against his will until “Hard Workin’ Man” was recorded.  Cooder has previously given interviews touching on his involvement on Blue Collar and it would be good to commission a new interview directly on the topic.  Brecht Andersch is tapped for a booklet essay given his 4-part series on Schrader in the ’70s, written for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s Open Space website.

While we’re shilling for Schrader, also deserving a place in the Criterion Collection is Schrader’s 1979 follow-up, Hardcore.  For more on this re-imagining of John Ford’s The Searchers (1956), we recommend James McCormick’s piece at CriterionCast advocating for a wacky “C” and a spine number of its own.

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