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Blue Collar Print E-mail
Tuesday, 08 February 2000

Blue Collar

Anchor Bay Entertainment
MPAA rating: R
starring: Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel, Yaphet Kotto, Cliff De Young, Ed Begley, Jr., Harry Bellaver, George Memmoli, Lucy Saroyan, Lane Smith
release year: 1978
film rating: Four Stars
reviewed by: Bill Warren

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 brother Leonard.

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 gets caught.)

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 criminal.
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.

more details
sound format:
Dolby digital sound
aspect ratio(s):
special features: Trailer; biographies; audio commentary with director Paul Schrader
comments: email us here...
reference system
DVD player: Kenwood DV-403
receiver: Kenwood VR-407
main speakers: Paradigm Atom
center speaker: Paradigm CC-170
rear speakers: Paradigm ADP-70
subwoofer: Paradigm PDR-10
monitor: 36-inch Sony XBR

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