After a Twitter conversation with a fellow film lover on the subject of writer/director Paul Schrader, I was inspired to seek out and revisit his 1978 directorial debut Blue Collar, which he co-wrote with his brother Leonard. Schrader, whose subsequent writer/director credits include Hardcore (1979), American Gigolo (1980), Affliction (1997) and Auto Focus (2002), is best known for providing the screenplays for Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980) and The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). Blue Collar, starring Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel and Yaphet Kotto as a trio of rust belt factory workers at a Detroit car production plant, conforms to Schrader's career long fascination with troubled males as well as taking a savage swipe at racial tensions and Union practices in the States, a hot topic at the time. This gripping snapshot of the American 'working class' features Richard Pryor's strongest onscreen performance, a fitting blues rock soundtrack, a provocative narrative taking in corruption, murder and betrayal and, as to be expected from the pen of Schrader, a sharp,punchy script.
Pryor's Zeke and Keitel's Jerry, overworked, underpaid family men struggling to make ends meet, and Kotto's party loving ex-con Smokey, all sick of the innefectual and tight knit Union bosses, seek to end their financial woes by robbing a safe in the Union's offices. Against the resolutely unglamourous, industrialised landscape, peopled by low paid, tough talking Average Joes, Blue Collar flies off into darker, more subversive territory after the casual, lightly comic set up leading up to the robbery. Finding a paltry amount of cash, but a damning notebook containing a detailed record of illegal loans possibly involving the mob, the three friends find themselves knee deep in suspicion, paranoia and deceit after trying to blackmail the Union bosses with the threat of national exposure. The Schrader brothers pull no punches in slamming corrupt Union practices, going so far as to include a death (shrugged off by the bosses as an accident but strongly implied as a murder) as sinister as it is memorably unique. Rather than being anti-Union, Blue Collar is anti-corruption and pro-the 'little guy' but spares none of its leads the savage consequences of both their and their bosses dubious actions and underhand practices. It is in the fallout after the robbery and the magnitude of the situation the co-workers find themselves in where the narrative makes its mark. Driven initially by a common bond, Zeke, Jerry and Smokey's friendship is torn apart by individual circumstance, Union and FBI machinations and the threat of prison.
Rough around the edges, overtly subjective and uneven in tone it may at times be, but Blue Collar is as hard hitting today as it was on its release, and its pointed commentary, shown through one fictional incident, resonates with the ongoing struggles of the 'working man', corruption in high places and the deep seated inequalities seen across the globe in all areas of society to this day.