I’ve already spent a couple of “Robin’s Underrated Gems” columns covering the works of Paul Schrader, whether it be one of the films he co-wrote, like Rolling Thunder, or one of his directorial efforts, Hardcore. Quite simply, that’s probably because I consider Paul Schrader to be one of the more underrated writer-directors of the past thirty-five years. While some of the screenplays he’s written for Martin Scorsese have been turned into films that are considered classics (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull), it seems that very few of the films that Schrader has actually directed have gotten the respect they deserve. Many of them do garner critical acclaim when they are released, but they either fail at the box office or just seem to become forgotten as time goes on. After his original screenplay for Taxi Driver was made into an iconic film, Schrader finally earned his chance to sit in the director’s chair and made Blue Collar, a movie that has drawn great praise from virtually everyone who’s seen it. The only problem is that not enough people have seen it. Blue Collar had one of the more tumultuous shoots that a director could experience, which nearly gave Schrader a nervous breakdown and caused him to quit the film business, but the final result turned out to be an excellent film.
Blue Collar is probably one of the more accurate depictions of the struggles of the working class ever captured on film. It follows the lives of three middle-class guys who work on the assembly line at an automobile plant in Detroit: Jerry (Harvey Keitel), Zeke (Richard Pryor) and Smokey (Yaphet Kotto). Jerry and Zeke are ordinary family men with wives and children who are constantly struggling to pay the bills, but Smokey is an ex-con who loves to provide his two friends with the only fun they ever have in their lives by throwing wild parties that involve booze, drugs and sex. Many films have been made about angry oppressed blue-collar workers who fight the system in order to start a union, but in Blue Collar, the characters are already involved with a union, which happens to be so corrupt that they screw their employees over much worse than the management at their workplace. Jerry, Zeke and Smokey finally reach their breaking point and decide to steal a safe from a union office that’s supposedly loaded with cash. It turns out there’s only about $600 inside, but the safe also contains an important ledger that contains a record of numerous illegal loans and transactions the union has made. The three of them debate about whether to turn this ledger over to the F.B.I. and bring the union down, but Smokey convinces them that blackmail is the best option, so that the union can pay them the money they need in order to pay off their debts.
Of course, the three men come to find out that they are in way over their heads by attempting a scheme like this. Smokey’s statement about the union gaining all their power by turning all the working-class people against each other turns out to be prophetic. Indeed, the trio’s plan is destined to fail because the union is able to find ways to turn them against each other and destroy their friendship. Schrader’s films often try to balance humour with some very dark material and the results are sometimes uneven, but Blue Collar holds together really well. The film starts off as a fairly humourous character study that examines the day-to-day lives of these blue-collar workers, but the story does have an underlying sadness about it, and by the time the second half rolls around and the characters start to realize that their lives are in danger, the movie actually develops some genuine tension. One particular sequence involving a spray painting booth in the auto plant is legitimately terrifying and anyone who’s ever worked in that environment is bound to squirm when they watch it. The story works because Keitel, Pryor and Kotto all have genuine chemistry with each other and a wonderful camaraderie to make you believe their friendship, which is quite amazing, considering that the three actors didn’t really get along and were constantly fighting throughout the shoot. The incident that nearly caused Schrader to have a mental breakdown was when Pryor (likely in a drug-fueled rage) actually pulled a gun on him and told him there was no way he was ever going to do more than three takes for a scene! The hellacious working relationship between Pryor and Schrader actually paid off, however, since Pryor would wind up delivering an astonishingly great performance. Most of Pryor’s movies essentially just had him playing a version of himself, but Blue Collar showed that the man did have major talent as an actor. The film showcases his wisecracking comedic side, of course, but also proves that he could play drama very well. One of his standout scenes involves Zeke having to deal with an I.R.S. agent who believes that Zeke has lied about how many children he has in order to get a larger tax refund. The scene starts out hilarious, but then Pryor takes it to another level by showing how angry and broken-down the character has become about dealing with the system.
At the very least, Richard Pryor deserved an Academy Award nomination for his performance, but Blue Collar was completely shut out at Oscar time. It’s somewhat ironic that the far more inspirational Norma Rae would be released the following year, which told an underdog story about fighting to start a union and wound up earning Sally Field a Best Actress Oscar. The film was a far less believable depiction about the struggles of working class than Blue Collar, but since it provided the upbeat ending that audiences wanted to see, it became a big hit and garnered lots of awards. Blue Collar does not cop out with an inspirational, upbeat ending and does not pretend that its characters are heroic or that any of their actions will make a big difference. That’s probably the main reason it didn’t connect with audiences, as I’m sure many blue-collar workers did not want to escape to a movie that accurately portrayed their lives on-screen and then essentially told them that their situation is hopeless. However, while Blue Collar does not provide a happy message, it is still an incredibly well-made and acted film that deserves to be seen by a lot more people, and even though the film is not exactly inspirational, that doesn’t mean it’s not very entertaining to watch. Just chalk this one up as another “underrated gem” in the long, underappreciated career of Paul Schrader.