Paul Schrader directs Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel and Yaphet Kotto in this drama where three friends at an automobile plant burglarise their union when their finances are stretched.
A thumping blues score from Ry Cooder. Three leads fighting for dominance. Allegedly the set was a nightmare of egos. Cocaine, brawls, guns being pulled. Pryor liked to improvise, Keitel needed five or six takes to warm up, Kotto lost his place if the chaos went too far off script. The unlikely result is onscreen… everyone gives fantastic energised, angry performances. Everyone achieves career bests. Pryor catches the most praise… the consensus is he shouldn’t be this good in a drama. But Keitel very rarely plays an Everyman and his take on it is muscular and sympathetic. Kotto gets the best four scenes. Now, one I won’t spoil but if you’ve seen Blue Collar you’ll know of its unflinching, overwhelming impact. Two others involve him tracking and laying in wait for some mob thugs. The fourth has him lay out the plight of the working man with brute logic. “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.” It is an unsettling film that shifts from zany workplace comedy to gritty procedural to low level heist to paranoid conspiracy theory thriller. The final third when our anti-heroes are separated is less enjoyable; the camaraderie has left the building, characters we love grow selfish or racist (it works within the logic of the movie) and there’s a thumping car chase that feels like it is from a very different project. All these discordant elements actually are incendiary cinema… you realise long before the credits when we do leave these men it will not be a happy ending. The finest moments are the silliest though – Pryor riffing his petty complaints and scamming the IRS, good time cocaine orgies (that make zero sense in the ‘day late and a dollar short’ milieu of Schrader’s vision), Kotto dominating the workplace interactions with his laidback raspy confidence. Blue Collar is a gloriously messy film, full of pleasures, about just what a con the American Dream is for those actually sweating and grafting to achieve it. I’m surprised any factory allowed them on site to location shoot it – the labour politics are that incendiary and damning. I’m surprised it isn’t now talked about with the same reverence as Taxi Driver or Raging Bull.
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