The robber baron Jay Gould supposedly bragged that he could hire one half of the working class to kill the other half. That quote, likely apocryphal, is the essence of Paul Schrader’s “Blue Collar,” a harshly garish morality play in which — squeezed between the Scylla of a factory’s exploitative management and the Charybdis of their corrupt union — three autoworkers go rogue.
“Blue Collar” has been revived for a week at Film Forum in a 35-millimeter print. It was timely in 1978 and, in its expression of rust-belt alienation, prescient as well.
Perhaps because it was Schrader’s first movie as a director, “Blue Collar” communicates the thrill of breaking new ground, albeit showing the influence of Martin Scorsese (for whom, a few years earlier, Schrader wrote “Taxi Driver”). It echoes both the prole-drama “Car Wash” (1976) and the mode’s classic example, “On the Waterfront” (1954).
The most daringly uncommercial move in Schrader’s screenplay, co-written with his brother, Leonard Schrader, was constituting his larcenous trio as the so-called “Oreo Gang” — two Black workers, played by Richard Pryor and Yaphet Kotto, and one white, Harvey Keitel. (The reverse would have been conventional Hollywood wisdom.) Schrader’s boldest strategy was to allow each then-hungry actor to believe himself the star. Call it a form of “method” direction. In his history of ’70s film, Peter Biskind describes the set as a “powder keg.”
Thus, while Keitel and Kotto smolder with suppressed rage, Pryor (who, like Marlon Brando, rarely gave the same line-reading twice) is incandescent as a quick-minded trickster with a jittery strut and an answer for everything. In his mixed review, the New York Times critic Vincent Canby noted that, for the first time, Pryor had a role utilizing “the wit and fury that distinguishes his straight comedy routines.”
Pryor’s improvisations heighten the movie’s dialectic of oppressive reality and imaginary escape. While the factory scenes, shot at a Checker cab plant in Kalamazoo, Mich., have a documentary quality, fantasy is furnished by the Norman Lear TV sitcoms that punctuate the domestic scenes. The movie’s resident realist is the wily president of the union local. Nicknamed Eddie Knuckles, he’s embodied by Harry Bellaver, a veteran (and genuine) working-class actor who, no less than Pryor, gives the impression of conjuring his dialogue on the spot.
“Blue Collar” has a few weak bits, notably one where, interrupting Pryor’s critique of “The Jeffersons,” an I.R.S. examiner pays an unexpected house call. And just as the Oreo Gang fail to think through their robbery, the movie glosses over a worse crime that could not have been committed without management collusion. Still, this portrait of frustration is powerfully framed. The opening credits — an assembly-line montage scored to the pounding first chords of the blues song “I’m a Man,” sung with new lyrics by Captain Beefheart — provide a brutal annunciation. And, following a gripping finale, Schrader redeems the cliché of ending on a freeze frame by returning the struggle to the factory floor.
Interviewed by the leftist film journal Cineaste, Schrader asserted his apolitical intentions while congratulating himself as having come to “a very specific Marxist conclusion.” Be that as it may, “Blue Collar” is less Marxist than it is Hobbesian, as expressed by Kotto’s indictment of the powers that be: “They’ll do anything to keep you on their line. They pit the lifers against the new boys, the old against the young, the Black against the white — everybody — to keep us in our place.”
Collective action is futile.
July 9-15 at Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street, Manhattan; filmforum.org.