47 FILMS: 35. BLUE COLLAR
In our continuing series of ’47 Films to see before you’re murdered in your dreams’, we look at Paul Schrader’s hard-working Blue Collar.
Films about the working class in American cinema are pretty rare. As a matter of fact we don’t even like the words working class. We prefer to call everybody middle class and in that way pretend that dentists and dock workers, lawyers and lettuce pickers, studio execs and gaffers are all in the same boat together. Paul Schrader’s 1978 directorial debut Blue Collar knows there’s a working class and he goes right into the heart of it. Three pals – the loudmouth Zeke Brown (Richard Pryor), tough guy ex-con Smokey James (Yaphet Kotto) and Jerry Bartowski (Harvey Keitel) – work on the production line of a huge auto factory in Detroit. Their complaints and gripes range from the trivial to the fundamental and their union rep pays lip service but little else. Despite working full time, they’re all squeezed for money with Jerry working two jobs and Zeke running various scams to pick up more dough and them both trying to support their families. Meanwhile, an investigator is prowling the after work bars looking for dirt on the union which is considered one of the most corrupt in the city. At the end of their collective tethers, they decide to knock off the safe in their local union office and split the money three ways. Cue a low paid caper like something out of Palookaville with the least appropriate dime store masks as disguises.
Of course, everything begins to go wrong and of course their friendship begins to buckle under the strain. The frustration which bubbled under the surface throughout the film begins to rise to the surface in large bubbles of simple rage. This is an angry film which is able to see more than one side of an argument while at the same time knowing which side it is on. No punches are pulled and yet at the same time it is funny, with some of the best swearing ever put on screen. The three leads supply career best performances and Pryor in particular is allowed to truly let rip with the anger that inspired some of his best stand up.