Mark to Mis-Market #1: Blue Collar (1978) D. Paul Schrader

By Patrick Crain

It’s not certain what Universal Pictures had in mind when it came time to do the print and advertisement for Blue Collar, a property that, by any formula, should have been huge. It was the directorial debut of Paul Schrader who, up to that moment in time, was one of Hollywood’s most bankable and interesting screenwriters and was JUST coming off of Taxi Driver.

More importantly, Blue Collar featured Richard Pryor, at the apex of his late seventies success and in his first dramatic lead. But one look at the original one-sheet at you’d think you were going to see something in the vein of the previous year’s Which Way Is Up?, the one-sheet of which featured differing faces of Pryor. Of course, the big difference is that, in Which Way is Up?, Pryor plays three different roles, and all of them are for laughs. In Blue Collar, he only plays one role. And it’s not funny. At all.

Marketed as a comedy, Blue Collar is a unique blend of gritty drama and low-stakes crime thriller which ends up becoming a hard hitting, pissed off, and white-hot rallying cry/middle finger to The Man. If folks in 1978 had blindly put this movie in the middle of a dinner/movie/dancing Friday night out-on-the-town, they certainly skipped the dancing and went home straight after the incendiary final moments. For one doesn’t much feel like partying after watching Blue Collar.

The trailer gives too much away of Blue Collar yet still keeps the film’s anger well-hidden. In it, the film looks to be about three auto workers (Pryor, Harvey Keitel, and Yaphet Kotto) who get fed up wit their jobs and their union and rob the union office. In a way, the movie kind of makes it look like a precursor to the following year’s Going in Style, another film in which three guys comedically pull a stick-up which then raises larger social questions (entitlement programs, ageism, and mortality).

But where the trailer for Going in Style telegraphed warmth that was retained when audiences watched the movie, Blue Collar doesn’t quite contain the same tone as the trailer. In the trailer, some scenes with Richard Pryor are cut short to preserve their punchy gags but, in the context of the scene within the film itself, those scenes uncomfortably roll on longer to reveal themselves as much more painful and angry than the trailer suggests.

For example, in a masterful scene, Richard Pryor’s Zeke gets a late-night visit from the tax man who comes to garner birth certificates for the phony children Zeke claims but does not have. The scene balances comedy and dramatic tension brilliantly until it devolves into a heated conclusion that’s as angry as it is tersely emotional. In the trailer, the moment is captured only in the comedic terms of the IRS man showing up at the door (“We don’t want none.”) and then questioning the kids’ phony names (“Who’s Stevie Wonder?”). In the film, the scene rolls on to its sad conclusion; Zeke can’t pull of the ruse and will face a hefty, unaffordable tax penalty. This sets him off on a tirade that is pitched somewhere between a cry for help and a self-destructive list of grievances. In the trailer, the tax man is a square and a goon. In the film, he’s just doing his job and is just as frustrated and harried as Zeke.

But things that begin broadly comic only to become sad and hopeless is a motif that will permeate the entire movie. The Saturday night party scene begins with humorous setups wherein Zeke and Harvey Keitel’s Jerry have to lie their ways out of their homes to their disbelieving wives. However, it sours as they party it up with Smokey James (Kotto) and some prostitutes. After staying up all night on cheap cocaine, we’re treated to a static shot of our trio on a couch, sun coming up behind them, and all the money it took months to save for this one night has been snorted away. As the realization of their plight slowly stirs their addled minds, the sense of frustrated despair becomes very palpable.

What the trailer also can’t convey is the gritty world in which this movie takes place. Industrial Detroit dwarfs the dive bars and the hangouts. A layer of yellow, ugly mass hangs high atop 2nd unit master shots of pluming stacks and dreary cityscapes. The image seems to be crowded with a mix of automobile iconography and the identifiable American brand logos (Jerry’s Big Mac t-shirt is a great blast from the past).

It’s a world where people regularly work two jobs, may have one day off a week, and split a box of Hamburger Helper four ways, taking “serving sizes” to a sad, literal level only poverty can. It is a world of pawn shops, street hustlers, run down storefronts, crumbling buildings, and a world where the nicest office is rife with wood panelling. Slinking through all of this is Ry Cooder’s sustained, greasy, slide guitar lines, bookended by Captain Beefheart’s acidic vocals in the opening and closing credits.

But what this world really is is one where everyone is hustling each other; Smokey not only preaches the mantra of looking out for yourself, he practices it by spending $10 on hot watches for the robbery only to turn around and mark them up astronomically to Jerry and Zeke. And where Zeke would love to be principled, he is too smart to understand his plight and can do nothing but try and protect himself. And, in the end, we understand Jerry’s motivations, too. And  these issues are tied up in much bigger issues such as race and class. So it is a film, obviously, with no easy answers which could account for the decision to just lay everything out in the trailer, send mixed signals with the one-sheet, and hope things worked out for the best.

Though the film is filled with people who do not-so-honorable things, the film takes the time to humanize the characters and make them three-dimensional. In a bowling scene, plot-propelling dialogue could have been truncated in a simple setup but, here, is spread over an entire frame of bowling interrupted by both Zeke and Jerry’s turns at the line which lets the characters relax and be real characters. We sit on Zeke’s couch and watch him disdainfully snipe at George Jefferson on the television he’s so proud to own, he’ll even watch TV shows like “The Jeffersons” that feed his anger (shades of Travis Bickle here). We sit in at real kitchen tables and we watch them as they look over what appears to be real bills. Every bottle of beer they drink looks budgeted and the struggle of the working poor becomes very clear.

Blue Collar had a famously troubled production which almost caused this to be Paul Schrader’s first and last film. On-set tensions were high as none of the principals got along and things were ground to a halt on more than one occasion. I can only guess that it’s a blessing in disguise as the film oozes a simmering hate that can only service the material for the better. And, on the surface, none of this is readily apparent. Harvey Keitel is excellent as the flawed family man who works two jobs and has to worry about his daughter’s braces. Richard Pryor is even better and gives his greatest performance as a similarly flawed husband/father whose sense of duty to his family outweighs all of his actions both good and bad.

But as good as either of them are, this is Yaphet Kotto’s movie. As the heart of the trio, Kotto’s Smokey is mostly framed apart from the other two, coming into the scene to offer advice or to steer them in the best direction. Without a family to play against, Smokey is given a detached coolness and a wisdom that deepens his character. In an early scene, Schrader takes an opportunity to flesh out Smokey (via a tale about how Smokey landed in prison) and turns it into a lesson about white privilege while simultaneously giving him an ambiguous history that will serve his character well. Later, when calmly rescuing Jerry’s family from danger, he shows a warm, playful side of his character only to reveal himself at his most brutal in the following scene.

The VHS release of Blue Collar replicated the one-sheet’s design and, at TV World and Appliance, the video store that employed me, it sat in the front of the video store, exposed to the giant, shadeless front window, where the sun blanched the red cover into something of a whitish yellow. It later showed up on DVD by way of Anchor Bay, who held license to some “hidden gem” Universal titles for a spell. The quality on the DVD wasn’t great but the haziness in that transfer (which was done in the nascency of widescreen televisions) helps the movie’s tone stay uncomfortable and gritty. That copy has fallen out of print and the movie has, sadly, become one of the ever-increasing list of Archive Titles that you can order it from Amazon or Universal directly and it will be pressed onto a DVD-R. This is something of a mixed blessing as it is a business model that allows forgotten movies like this to be seen but the transfers are less sharp than they would be for a true release. However, it’s well better than nothing.

Each year, I wait for a boutique label to announce that they’re going to do a proper transfer of Blue Collar and give it the release it deserves. These days, when I Google it to see if there’s any news about it, I have to modify my search so I don’t come up with a million hits for the Blue Collar Comedy Tour. So a forgotten movie about a ton of important things that didn’t have much of a chance upon its initial release now suffers something of an indignity by being on the bottom of the digital dog pile, buried and forgotten further.

Sadly, it’s one of a thousand.

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