After making his name with the incendiary screenplay for Taxi Driver (1976), Paul Schrader capitalized on his Hollywood heat by setting up his directorial debut, Blue Collar. (Schrader co-wrote the script with his brother, Leonard, from source material by Sydney A. Glass.) A tough morality play about corruption worming its way through an auto company and the labor union supposedly protecting the company’s workers, Blue Collar echoes the 1954 classic On the Waterfront, but it has an unmistakably ’70s patina of drugs, racial tension, sex, and vulgarity.
The story follows three friends whose frustration with their working conditions at an auto plant reaches a boiling point when they realize their disreputable union reps are making side deals with management. The trio breaks into the union office, hoping to steal several thousand dollars they believe is hidden there, but all they get is petty cash. And that’s when the story gets really interesting: Union officials claim tens of thousands of dollars were stolen, setting an insurance-settlement scam in motion, so the workers-turned-thieves realize they have an opportunity to blackmail their oppressors. How this bold maneuver affects the three men leads to a climax of unusual complexity and intensity.
Considering this was his first movie, Schrader is remarkably assured behind the camera, using a classical camera style that’s neither showy nor timid; abetted by cinematographer Bobby Byrne, Schrader gives the picture a look as gritty as the assembly line on which the main characters labor every day. The blues-inflected soundtrack, including original music by the great Jack Nitzsche, suits the material perfectly, and in fact the whole movie feels like a raw soul record come to life: When characters sit around a local dive, swigging beer and bitching about their troubles, Blue Collar offers a window into a secret world.
Yet Schrader’s two-fisted storytelling would be for naught if the movie lacked powerhouse performances, and, luckily, the three leads deliver. Yaphet Kotto, working his singular mix of blazing anger and world-weary sarcasm, is compelling in every scene. Harvey Keitel, slickly translating his Noo Yawk edge to a volatile Midwestern vibe, is equally potent as the conscience of the group. And Richard Pryor is explosive, leaving any idea that he’s merely a funnyman in the dust. Never this good in a movie before or afterward, he channels deep veins of indignation and resentment into an unforgettable characterization. (Available as part of the Universal Vault Series on Amazon.com)
Blue Collar: RIGHT ON