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  • Benjamin May

Blue Collar (1978) Review

Zeke, Smokey and Jerry are workers on the assembly line of an auto-factory in Michigan. They toil each and every day for too little pay and no benefits. Management is corrupt, and their union is no help whatsoever. After unforeseen events in their personal lives necessitate Zeke and Jerry having some extra cash, the three men decide to rob the safe at union headquarters. After the heist, things begin to unravel as the corruption and strong-arm tactics of the union come to light. Will Zeke, Smokey and Jerry make it out from under the union's thumb, or will the system keep them in their places and at each other's throats?

Paul Schrader's 'Blue Collar' is a powerful, gritty comedy-drama that is realistic, entertaining and surprisingly sapient. Written by Schrader and his brother Leonard (inspired by a story from Sydney A. Glass) the film skewers 70's society and the auto workers union, with its' inherent racism, classism and capitalist greed. It is in many places a hard film to watch because it's so believable, so sadly true. The characters in the film are kept down and in their place by a system they don't have the power to overthrow, or even escape from. Zeke, Smokey and Jerry are little more than pawns in the union's game, and the Schrader brothers' story is a critique of the corrupt game-players at the head of the table, as well as the system that allows them to thrive.

'Blue Collar' is also a wickedly funny crime caper, featuring sharp dialogue and set-pieces that are as memorable as they are mad-cap. The heist itself- though tense- is one of the funniest moments in the film. The back and forth between the characters throughout is fast-paced, clever and full of barbed wit. There are numerous compelling dramatic scenes- particularly in the latter half- which are generally counter-poised well with comedy; so things never become too dark or uncomfortable. It is a marvel of tone and an exercise in clever, balanced screenwriting and direction.

Credit must also go to Tom Rolf for his subtly assured editing, which helps maintain that tone. His work reinforces the power and drama at the heart of 'Blue Collar' deftly and with great dexterity. Bobby Byrne's cinematography must also be mentioned, as it is naturalistic but not without artistic stylizations. His composition is striking- be it a shot of three wasted men on a couch that has near religious symbolism, or an ending freeze frame that looks like a poster from the 40's- Byrne's work lingers in the mind long after the credits have rolled and you've left the cinema.

Jack Nitzsche's score is atmospheric and thunderously effective. Utilizing synthesizers and tools (and in one scene the sound of ominous bees) to create a naturalistic sound, Nitzsche's music is as angry and as wound-up as the characters in the film. His 'Hard Workin Man', sung by Captain Beefheart, is particularly memorable. He also makes efficacious use of songs from the likes of Lynyrd Skynyrd, Howlin' Wolf and Ike & Tina Turner, which complement the film and its' themes astutely.

Richard Pryor, Yaphet Kotto and Harvey Keitel star as Zeke, Smokey and Jerry respectively. Though they were reportedly bickering constantly during the making of 'Blue Collar', their chemistry seems genuine and each give grounded, commanding performances. Pryor's work as a dramatic actor is largely overlooked nowadays, with his eloquent, understated turns in moving films like 'Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling' and 'Some Kind Of Hero' going largely unsung. His work as Zeke in 'Blue Collar' is better remembered, though, and he is brilliant in the film. Funny at times, brash at others, but always enveloped in an air of vulnerability; you sympathize with him completely. It is naturalistic, enthralling work that is at the peak of Pryor's filmography.

Kotto and Keitel are somewhat side-lined in most reviews- both contemporary and retrospective- though they too deliver masterful performances full of range and energy. Perhaps it is because they are better known as actors of much depth, whereas Pryor is primarily remembered as a comedian, that they get the short end of the stick come critique time. Whatever the reason, Kotto is wonderful in the film, a cool cat built like a pressure cooker: at any moment you feel he could explode in a fit of violent anger. He said he played Smokey like "an Italian in black skin," and his volatile but immensely smooth performance reflects that notion.

Arguably one of the finest actors of his generation, Keitel is something of the straight man of the three, though his performance is still one of immense strength and emotional sagacity. His Jerry is really a conduit for the audience, in the latter half of the film especially; and you're on his side the whole way through. Harry Bellaver leads the supporting cast as Eddie Johnson, the leader of the union, and he is magnificent; sinister despite his crooked grin and friendly countenance. Lane Smith, Ed Begley Jr and Lucy Saroyan also do admirable work that stands the test of time.

The whole film does. 'Blue Collar' is a stunning, startling comedy-drama that is an alarmingly true portrait of corruption and greed. It is funny in places, sad in others, while always being knowing and original. Though Paul Schrader distanced himself from the film in later years, it is one of the finest pieces he ever directed, up there with 'Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters' and 'Affliction.' It is- in short- a veristic, entertaining and profound portrait of disunion within the union that is completely unforgettable and utterly engrossing.


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