Blue Collar (1978)
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|Movie Review by Ben |
February 10th, 2011
Favorite Movie Quote: ""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.""
Even though it was made back in 1978, "Blue Collar" doesn't feel at all dated thematically. Dealing with crooked unions and frustration with a job that never pays you enough is something many of us still deal with in this day and age. Watching it 30 years after its initial release makes me wonder how much (if any) progress has been made for the blue collar workers let alone the white ones.
Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel, and Yaphet Kotto star as a trio of Detroit auto workers who work hard at their jobs but never get much (if any) respect for what they do. They get crap thrown at them by their superiors, and the union doesn't seem all that interested in helping them. The divisions between the blue and white collar workers are heavily pronounced, and tensions and bitterness between them are always high. Their complaints to those in charge constantly fall on deaf ears or are given the usual lip service of being told to talk to their representative which is the same as saying I couldn't care less.
Richard Pryor's character of Zeke Brown feels especially disrespected and is never afraid to hide it from the union or anyone else who pisses him off Even worse, Zeke gets a visit from the IRS informing of back taxes he can't afford to pay, and that's even if he's lying about how many kids he and his wife have. Keitel's character of Jerry Bartowski works at a gas station as well as the auto factory, and he can barely make ends meet between him and his family. Jerry can't even afford braces for his daughter who so desperately needs them. Then there's Yaphet Kotto's character of Smokey James, a man who has served time in prison and is well aware of how the class structure is constructed to keep everyone where they are so that the powerful people stay powerful. But even he has his breaking point, and he's finally reaching it after all this time.
Fed up with the union's incompetence, the three of them end up robbing the union of the money they keep in their not very well hidden vault. The robbery is sloppily handled, but they make out with the safe which has only a few hundred dollars in it, but which also contains a ledger that proves the union to be seriously corrupt. On top of being involved in an illegal loan lending operation, it also shows they have ties with organized crime syndicates. With this information, they decide to blackmail the crooked union into giving tons of cash which will take care of all their financial problems. Their plan however soon exposes their na´ve nature as the union quickly resorts to methods not designed to make life the least bit easy for them.
When we hear Richard Pryor ask the guys before the break in why they didn't break into a liquor store like everybody else, it's a lot like "Deliverance" when Jon Voight suggests to Burt Reynolds:
"Look, Lewis, let's go back to town and, ah... play golf."
In retrospect, that was good advice (to a certain extent anyway). What will happen from there will tear their friendships apart and leave them paranoid of one another and of those they don't know and already can't trust. "Blue Collar" works as a critique on those unions that poorly represent their workers, but it also succeeds as a character piece as and a thriller where lives hang in the balance from powers that could easily make them disappear for easily excusable reasons.
"Blue Collar" was Paul Schrader's directorial debut, and it's a remarkably impressive one at that. He vividly captures the hard working atmosphere these men inhabit and is aided by a tough as nails blues song for the movie's main title performed by the late Captain Beefheart. There are moments in the "Hard Workin' Man" song where all the other instruments disappear except for a deep thundering metal boom which hints at the anger and frustration that is slowly boiling to the surface. The environment they work in is harsh and unforgiving, and while they value what they do, no one above them truly does as they are seen as easily disposable.
This was one of Richard Pryor's few dramatic roles, but it's not bereft of his humor. The scenes where he disses the union rep for not addressing his problems and the IRS guy who feels Uncle Sam owes his family more than he owes him are major highlights of the film. Considering his work as a comedian and social satirist, he is perfectly cast here and infuses the Zeke with humor and a wounded soul that will never fully be mended. Pryor really shows an acting range that most straight actors only dream of having.
In fact, that's the sad thing about watching the late Richard Pryor in this film; he really was one of the lost dramatic actors of our time in that not many gave him the roles he deserved. We all know him to be one of the best comedians ever, and he did star in many movies that were hilarious. Still, he got stuck in crap that never utilized his talents very well, and it feels like a loss that he never did more serious acting. Had he gotten roles worthy of his caliber, he would have received far more respect than he already did in his lifetime.
Harvey Keitel gives another great performance in a long career filled with them, and he becomes the character more than he plays him. Jerry Bartowski is a strong guy on the surface, but seeing become completely unraveled after the robbery allows Keitel to expose the character's vulnerabilities of which there are plenty. There are moments where he doesn't utter a word and yet you can see on his face what is racing through his anxiety ridden mind. Bartowski may see himself as his own man who answers to no one, but he soon finds that there is a limit on the choices he has to keep his head above water.
Yaphet Kotto, who I really think has become one of the most undervalued actors we have, has constantly been cast as an unforgettably imposing presence in every film he has appeared in. Whether it's as Parker in "Alien," Special Agent Mosley in "Midnight Run," or as Al Giardello on the brilliant and still missed "Homicide: Life On The Street," you can never forget Kotto when he makes his appearance onscreen. "Blue Collar" is no exception as he portrays someone who is wise about the world around him, but not wise enough to know when he and his pals are digging a hole too deep for them to climb out of. His character's fate feels the most tragic as a result, and the last scene he has is amazing in its power.
With Paul Schrader, a common theme runs through his movies of the emasculated male wanting to make a difference in a society that he sees as corrupt and in need of saving. Whether it's Robert De Niro's Travis Bickle from "Taxi Driver," Willem Dafoe's John LeTour from "Light Sleeper," or even Nick Nolte's Wade Whitehouse from "Affliction," Schrader fearlessly deals with characters whose hold on sanity we see constantly erode. Now with the three leads in "Blue Collar," each of them are pushed to the limit as they slowly realize the trouble they have brought onto themselves. Watching it destroy their friendship which brings about a strong mistrust between them is as fascinating as it is painful to witness.
I'm not sure how many people out there are aware of "Blue Collar," but it is one of those movies from the 70's that deserves a bigger audience than it got in its initial release. Watching it today is even more bittersweet as these auto factories in Michigan where the movie was shot no longer exist. It was tough for them then, but imagine what it must be like now.
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