Blue Collar
Kl Studio Classics // R // $19.89 // December 10, 2019
Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted January 14, 2020
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One of the very best yet most underappreciated films of the 1970s, Blue Collar (1978) was screenwriter Paul Schrader's (Taxi Driver) directorial debut. About a trio of union assembly line workers at a Detroit auto plant so drowning in debt they conspire to rob their union's safe, the film has a frankness and verisimilitude rare in movies today. Top-billed Richard Pryor gives a mostly straight dramatic performance so revelatory that's it's downright tragic that he frittered nearly his entire movie career on frivolous junk. But co-stars Harvey Keitel and Yaphat Kotto are as good in roles of equal size, as is the excellent supporting cast.

And though more than 40 years old, Blue Collar plays as timely as ever. Its story involves rampant union corruption, with its theme, expressed by Kotto's character, equally applies to today's work environment: "They pit the lifers against the new boy and the young against the old. The black against the white. Everything they do is to keep us in our place." Distributor Universal's advertising campaign unfairly emphasized Pryor at the expense of Keitel and Kotto, even implying some sort of wacky comedy, but it's really a despairing but honest drama with some very humorous moments. Schrader, apparently, dislikes the finished film, though making it was for him so traumatizing (more about which below) it may have colored his opinion.

Set in Detroit, primarily at an auto plant assembling Checker cabs, Blue Collar's story concerns three auto workers: African-Americans Zeke Brown (Pryor), Smokey James (Kotto), and Polish-American Jerry Bartowski (Keitel). All are struggling financially. Zeke and Jerry have large families to support, with Zeke cheating outrageously on his taxes but still left with all of $30/week after paying his bills, while Jerry's daughter desperately needs braces he can't afford. In a disturbing scene the daughter badly cuts her gums raw trying to fashion homemade ones with ordinary wire.

Their foreman (Borah Silver) is a real SOB, while their union rep, Clarence Hill (Lane Smith), asks workers to make all kinds of sacrifices while rarely supporting their needs directly. Zeke has been trying to get his locker fixed for six months, cuts from finagling its broken lock have left him with a cut finger that won't heal.

Fed up, the trio conspire a late-night break-in of their Local's safe, only to discover it contains just $600 in petty cash because the union has been illegally loan sharking with its cash at a 15% interest rate. They do, however, take the valuable ledger detailing the loans, and eventually decide to blackmail the union, which has already filed a $10,000 claim (later more than doubled) with their insurance company.

Blue Collar, however, is not a caper film. Rather, it's a scaldingly honest if depressing portrait of contemporary working-class America. Having been raised in a nearby suburb of Detroit in the 70s myself, where practically every last family in the neighborhood had a parent working in plants or in some way connected to the auto industry, I can attest to its authenticity. (It also brought back a flood of memories, from the Bicentennial Michigan license plates to the Fine Arts movie theater, briefly glimpsed in the background of one shot.)

Each of the three leads, coupled with Schrader's screenplay (co-written with sometimes writing partner, brother Leonard), marvelously expresses the financial pressures each of them faces. In an early scene, Zeke complains about the inanity of The Jeffersons as he and his wife (Chip Fields) watch an episode on their expensive color TV. She suggests that if he hates it so much they should turn it off, but he refuses. He paid so much goddam money for that set (or words to that effect) he wants that TV on day and night. When Jerry and his wife (Lucy Saroyan) fret over of the cost of their daughter's braces, she suggests they hold another garage sale, but Jerry questions whether they even have anything left to sell.

Seen today, the picture is refreshingly frank in ways big studio films rarely are anymore. Reportedly, the R-rated film had more variations of the word "fuck" than any motion picture (158 times by one count) until Brian De Palma's Scarface, yet the free use of profanity, even in front of Jerry's and Zeke's kids, adds to the mostly unspoken desperation of each character's plight.

Filmed entirely on location around Detroit, with the plant interiors filmed at the Checker Plant in Kalamazoo, Michigan, Blue Collar was, by all accounts, a nightmarish production. The three leads quickly grew to loathe one another, even coming to blows. Pryor's drug-fueled mania drove Schrader to the point of a nervous breakdown, the actor at one point threatening Schrader with a gun because he didn't want to do more than three takes of a given scene.

Yet, despite this, the finished film exhibits no signs of this disharmony, the three leads displaying a relaxed camaraderie gradually tested when they have differing views about what to do with the stolen ledger. (Zeke wants to use it to leverage better working conditions, Smokey wants a big cash payoff, and Jerry argues to take it to the FBI.) That a big studio picture would focus on two black men and one white one is demographically accurate to the times, though an amused Schrader recalled after telling a studio executive that his film was about three workers - two black and one white - the executive replied, "You mean two white and one black, don't you?"

The supporting parts are very well cast. Particularly standing out is Harry Bellaver as union executive Eddie Johnson. The actor, best remembered for his role as senior police detective Frank Arcaro on Naked City, really looks and acts the part, more like a non-actor union rep that Schrader discovered on location than a seasoned stage and screen player. Ed Begley, Jr., George Memmoli, and Milton Selzer are among the other line workers, equally believable.

Keitel and Kotto do a fine job fleshing out their characters, particularly Keitel's Jerry, whose justifiable worry that the union may be out to kill him and/or his family drives him into a state of extreme paranoia, sleepless nights sitting on his living room sofa, rifle in hand. His climatic scene with Pryor's Zeke is a real heartbreaker.

Though he'd had a couple of good movie roles prior to Blue Collar, Richard Pryor never again had a film worthy of his potential as a dramatic actor. Whatever problems he created on the set, the end result is up there on the screen. One forgets Richard Pryor, comedian, almost from the opening minutes, he creating a fully-dimensional character as real as Keitel's and Kotto's. That he'd waste his career on garbage like Superman III, Critical Condition, See No Evil, Hear No Evil, etc., is a real tragedy.

The blues-ish score by Jack Nitzche compliments the film, especially the use of "Hard Workin' Man" (performed by Captain Beefheart), whose driving rhythm mirrors the repetitive work on the assembly line.

The picture was moderately successful, Siskel & Ebert among those praising it, and its fans including Bruce Springsteen and filmmaker Spike Lee.

Video & Audio

Presented in 1.85:1 widescreen, Blue Collar looks good on Blu-ray, transfer having rather soft titles and opticals while straight cuts generally look great. The DTS-HD Master 2.0 Audio (mono) is also fine, supported by optional English subtitles on this region "A" disc.

Extra Features

Under-supplemented, the Blu-ray includes only a repurposed audio commentary by director Schrader (moderated by Maitland McDonagh) and a standard-def trailer.

Parting Thoughts

An outstanding film, the dearth of extra features should not dissuade interested parties from seeing this, a DVD Talk Collectors Series title.

Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian currently restoring a 200-year-old Japanese farmhouse.



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