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.