Three men work the line at the Checkered Taxi auto plant in Detroit, Michigan. Their lives revolve around hard labor and heavy drinking, getting yelled at by their supervisors and trying to keep their heads above water at home. They’re frustrated, and the outlook is bleak. How to get ahead? How to make some real money? The answer: Rob the unguarded safe at the union — their union. You got to be really pissed off at the world if you’re willing to pick your own pockets.
Why do people hurt themselves? It’s a question that’s fascinated filmmaker Paul Schrader for over four decades. His directorial debut, 1978’s Blue Collar (available finally on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber Studio Classics), is neither the first nor the last time he’s posed the question. But, it might be the one that tackles the subject best.
Based on an idea Schrader gave to a young student, and then decide to make his own, Blue Collar stars Richard Pryor as Zeke, Harvey Keitel as Jerry, and Yaphet Kotto as Smokey, three somewhat close friends and co-workers. Both Zeke and Jerry are married with children, but Smokey is there with girls and coke should the husbands desire to sneak out in the middle of the night.
Through a series of plot machinations and familial requirements, Zeke, Jerry, and Smokey find themselves inside the Union’s safe. It’s suppose to have a couple of thousand for the taking, but they find nothing more than $600 in petty cash and an accounting ledger — one loaded with names, amounts, and interest collected.
It’s no surprise the Union is using the men’s money for nefarious loans. Coincidentally, this is one of the underlying threads of The Irishman, directed by one of Schrader’s closest collaborators, Martin Scorsese. According to Schrader, Scorsese was working on Taxi Driver (Schrader was the writer) while Blue Collar was in production. Big yellow Checkered Cabs factor in both, but the two movies are not bedfellows, just an unusual intersection of reality and fantasy.
Schrader’s Blue Collar — which he co-wrote with his brother, Leonard — bears little resemblance to Taxi Driver. Before Scorsese and company sunk their teeth into Driver, Schrader’s words were ascetic and spare. It’s lineage sprung from the strict and rigorous works of Robert Bresson and Carl Dreyer. Blue Collar also has its roots in European cinema, specifically Soviet films like Strike! and October. Like those two, Blue Collar firmly plants its flag on the side of the little guy getting screwed. The Union is corrupt, the owners of the plant are heartless, and that giant Goodyear counter clicks on endlessly, tallying cars produced without even a hint to the labor behind the production.
Like any number of non-commercial films, Blue Collar has slipped through the cracks of film history. While the movie was reviewed favorably, it bombed at the box office and quickly disappeared. The movie industry was in the process of a seismic shift, and soon there would be little space for movies like Blue Collar in a corporate-controlled Hollywood. The movie received a few DVD releases, even a commentary track recorded in 1997 — or thereabouts — with Schrader and Maitland McDonagh discussing the production of the film, including the no legendary bickering between Pryor, Keitel, Kotto, and Schrader.
The addition of this commentary on Kino Lorber’s newly released Blu-ray is worth the price of purchase — though the image and sound transfer are top-shelf. Like all first films, Blue Collar is a little rough around the edges, and the commentary track allows Schrader a chance to explain his thought process as well as the struggle to get the movie made. For instance, the casting of the three leads. As Schrader explains, the studios that ultimately passed on the movie asked him to invert the race of the leads — two white guys and one black guy instead of the opposite — but Schrader relented. His argument isn’t just thoughtful and measured; it’s still applicable today. Though Schrader is not above using the n-word casually in a conversation about historical types and roles, his explanation of Zeke and Smokey highlights what’s missing in so much of today’s Hollywood product, where inclusion can become interchangeable with sameness. Blue Collar isn’t colorblind, it’s completely aware that Zeke and Smokey have more at stake than Jerry. And despite the parity numbers those in power love to boast, America will never be post-racial.
There are missteps. The welfare scam Zeke runs may have been stereotypical shorthand in the ’70s, but it still leaves a bad taste. Even Schrader admits that watching it makes him cringe.
According to Schrader, most of this missteps in Blue Collar were due to his greenness. The most obvious one is the movie’s overall flatness: static shots of two or three actors; little camera movement. According to Schrader, he pitched the movie to all three actors as if they were the leads. When they found out it was an ensemble, things did not go well.
But Blue Collar still captures Pryor’s best dramatic role — as well as his improvisational humor and energy — Kotto’s command of the screen, and a time and place that seems forever lost. The battles between the unions, plant owners, and workers are still prominent, but with the increase of foreign capital and automation, even the fights are in question. That Goodyear counter won’t tick forever if it hasn’t frozen over already.
Blue Collar (1978)
Directed by Paul Schrader
Screenplay by Paul Schrader, Leonard Schrader
Produced by Don Guest
Starring: Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel, Yaphet Kotto
Universal, Rated R, Running time 114 minutes
Available on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber Studio Classics. Special features:
Commentary track with Paul Schrader and journalist Maitland McDonagh
Theatrical trailers: Blue Collar, Report to the Commissioner, Across 100th Street, The Border, City of Industry