There is something especially exciting about finding a great movie that no one else seems to know about. When I first saw Blue Collar (1978) six or so years ago I could not believe that it was not on the top of anyone's lists of great American movies. Even though it was already some 16 years old at that point it contains such powerful characterizations and situations as well as such great acting and atmosphere that I couldn't believe it had slipped into such deep obscurity. Marking Paul Shrader's directorial debut soon after his script for Taxi Driver burned its way into our culture, Blue Collar follows the quick downward spiral of a trio of auto factory workers who try to get back at their lazy union. The workers, played by Harvey Keitel, Yaphet Kotto, and an incredible Richard Pryor, steal a safe from union headquarters, only to find it empty of cash. What they do find, however, is a journal detailing strange high-interest loans. While they think they now have a powerful tool with which they can blackmail the union, the rest of the film shows the three friends trying to keep their heads above water as the union turns the tables on them.
Blue Collar sets an unusual tone early on, getting mileage out of Pryor's comedic talents. After some scenes of dark comedy, however, the tone of the film sinks with the situations in which the characters find themselves. By the end it is pitch black and the final images will haunt you long after the screen fades to ... red. The air is musty with decay and corruption and the pacing, cinematography, locations, and wardrobe reflect that. The film is not flawless, but the treatment of the material is so dark and effective that it makes Seven look like a Disney musical. Keitel, Kotto, and Pryor, who did not get along at all on the set, deliver career high-point performances. The opening credit sequence is one of the best around and the ending is just as good. The sets and cinematography definitely feel raw. The film is not polished in any way and often the visuals are as dark as the moods. That is not to say, however, that the style is totally unformed. The drab palette does indeed contain a carefully constructed thematic scheme: Pay attention to the uses of blues and reds to symbolize the struggle between keeping the workers in place and allowing them to rise up. The film expresses some themes of capitalism against socialism that are shocking when so much film is so apolitical.
Some may find Blue Collar a bit tough going at times but those who like and appreciate films like Taxi Driver and other politically dark films of the 70's should definitely take a look.
When I first heard that Anchor Bay was releasing Blue Collar I was most curious about how it would look. The video I originally rented was degraded to the point that it was a little tough to tell who was who. That, however, added to the atmosphere of the film. You felt like you were watching it on a backroom screen like the ones Schrader wrote into Taxi Driver, like you were seeing something that was supposed to be hidden away. A video re-release a few years later cleaned up the image to an inappropriate extent (It was bright and cheery to the point that it lost some atmosphere). Although color schemes are very important to the film it was never meant to look like Sesame Street. The DVD strikes a good balance between the two. It is crisp and clear but still seems like there is a layer of grit covering everything. It's really the right approach. This is not a reference disc by any means and has been given the correct treatment. It is also an anamorphic transfer.
The audio sounds good. It obviously comes from older elements and no fancy treatment is given here.
EXTRAS: There is also a trailer.
The only extra of note is the only one necessary: an audio commentary from writer-director Paul Schrader. He is an effective, yet odd, speaker who never sounds like he has planned out his comments. The commentary is presented as an interview which helps prod him back on track after several gaps, but his willingness to criticize this early effort makes interesting listening (although, while he claims he would do certain things differently now and laughs at his early style and techniques, nothing in his more recent directorial output is anywhere near this good). Still, it is nice to hear a commentary that isn't just a snow-job. He discusses difficulties he had with the actors as well as some of the bigger ideas he tried to add to the film.
Blue Collar is a thoughtful and meaningful film with some great acting and some interesting creative choices on the part of a director still learning the craft.