This Month's Featured Equipment Reviews
Written by Bill Warren
Tuesday, 08 February 2000
|Anchor Bay Entertainment
Pryor, Harvey Keitel, Yaphet Kotto, Cliff De Young, Ed Begley, Jr.,
Harry Bellaver, George Memmoli, Lucy Saroyan, Lane Smith
Another of the lost gems that Anchor Bay has resurrected, BLUE COLLAR
features Richard Pryor's best work as a straight actor, good
performances from Harvey Keitel and Yaphet Kotto, and a rock-solid
debut as a director for Paul Schrader, who co-wrote the movie with his
Yes, it's more than a shade didactic, but then Schrader often makes his
points rather clear. His best films as a writer have been for director
Martin Scorsese, particularly TAXI DRIVER and RAGING BULL, each
arguably the best American movie of their respective decades, although
their later collaborations, THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST and last
year's BRINGING OUT THE DEAD, don't approach that level. His
screenplays for other directors -- including himself -- haven't been as
impressive, but have always been worth seeing. His films as a director
have varied in quality, but any career that includes films as good as
BLUE COLLAR, AMERICAN GIGOLO and MISHIMA: A LIFE IN FOUR CHAPTERS can't
be ignored. (Though some of his films, like WITCH HUNT and LIGHT OF
DAY, can be.)
In BLUE COLLAR, Zeke Brown (Pryor), Jerry Bartowski (Harvey Keitel) and
Smokey James (Kotto) are workers at an automobile plant in Detroit.
Along with everyone else in their position, they're just barely getting
by. Jerry has to hold down two jobs, Zeke cheats on his income tax, and
ex-con Smokey seems to be involved in drug trade on the side. Jerry and
Zeke are married; their children need braces, education and other forms
of help. Money is a big issue.
The depressing, daily grind at the automobile factory (the now-closed
Checker plant, which was really in Kalamazoo) isn't offset much by the
activities of their (fictional) union, headed by once-tough Eddie
Johnson (Harry Bellaver). The union seems to basically ignore the daily
requests of the workers -- Zeke's angry because his locker has been
broken for months; it perks up during strikes, but the rest of the time
seems content to take their dues and offer little in return. The
plant's shop steward (Lane Smith) seems to live above his means.
Occasionally, Zeke and Jerry, who are close friends, sneak out on their
wives for parties at the unmarried Smokey's, where they get stoned,
coked and laid. One weary morning after such a party, the three realize
none of them has enough money; Zeke's noticed the vault in the union
office is easy to get into, so they impulsively decide to rob it. The
robbery itself goes off all right, though a guard spots them before
Smokey knocks him out -- but instead of the $6,000 they'd hoped to net
(their aspirations match their lives), it's literally petty cash.
However, there is also a ledger, which Zeke examines -- and discovers
it's a record of illegal loans mostly with, evidently, the mob (Las
Vegas and New York are mentioned). They've already been approached by
somewhat inept FBI agent (Cliff De Young), but instead of turning the
book over to him and clearing the rascals out of their union, they
decide instead to blackmail the organization (which has been claiming
that $10,000 was stolen).
This is a mistake.
From that point on, the movie -- which had been on the edge of comedy
at times -- becomes increasingly intense and suspenseful, as the union
instantly realizes who the burglars were, and decides to exploit their
weaknesses. The real characters of the three emerge, not in directions
you may expect.
It's rare for an American movie to treat the lives of everyday workers
this realistically; usually, blue collar types are viewed with a touch
of condescension, or romanticism, or both. Here, they are very
realistically just guys doin' stuff to get by. They have no emotional
connection with the plant ("plant is short for plantation!" Zeke
shouts), just with each other and their families. They're sure they're
getting screwed over by their union as much as they are by management,
but they don't know how, and so they go on, day after day. Until they
get their bad idea about the robbery.
Pryor had hoped to become a dramatic actor; he was excellent in a
supporting role in LADY SINGS THE BLUES -- but he never played the lead
in a serious dramatic film again after BLUE COLLAR. As Zeke, he's
angry, intense and occasionally bitterly funny; he's also ambitious,
and inclined to take the easy way out. It's important that while Jerry
took on a second job for extra money, Zeke cheated on his taxes. (And
Keitel is also very good, very believable; he looks like he belongs on
the assembly line. Kotto, who towers over the other two, is at once the
best-natured of the three (he never seems to get angry, even when he's
beating up a couple of thugs with a baseball bat), and the habitual
When BLUE COLLAR was released, as Paul Schrader points out in his
excellent commentary, the distributor, Universal, treated it as a
Richard Pryor comedy, using an ad campaign very much like the one for
WHICH WAY IS UP?, which was a comedy. Despite critical raves, BLUE
COLLAR died a miserable death at the boxoffice.
It deserves the rediscovery that this DVD permits. Realistic almost to
a fault, the sound is sometimes a little rough, but that adds to the
sense of reality. Very few sets were constructed for the movie (which
was shot in Detroit and Los Angeles), and the cinematography emphasizes
natural lighting. A major virtue of the film is Jack Nitzche's
excellent score, from the driving, sardonic sound that opens it, on
through one of the most inventive scores for a car chase in movie
history. He used real sounds of bees, crows, etc., which he could play
as though they were music.
One scene done without music is among the best in the film: a character
is murdered by means of an auto painting device. In an ironic touch,
the paint is blue.
Schrader's audio track, on which he is interviewed by journalist
Maitland McDonough, is very well done. He admits to the movie's flaws,
even pointing out ones the viewer might well miss. He also reveals that
Pryor was extremely difficult to deal with, coldly furious one day,
overly ingratiating the next, but always inventive -- many of his lines
are improvised. Despite what you seen on screen, Pryor, Keitel and
Kotto fought steadily throughout production, with Keitel walking off
the set altogether at one point. Perhaps the tension between them paid
off in the level of tension the movie itself delivers.
|Dolby digital sound
||Trailer; biographies; audio commentary with director Paul Schrader
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||36-inch Sony XBR