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Revisiting Hours: Working-Class Heroes — ‘Blue Collar’

This week’s streaming column: Alex Pappademas on Paul Schrader’s 1978 profane, pulpy, prescient-as-hell comedy about the wage-slave blues

Editorial use only. No book cover usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by Universal/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock (5880723m)Richard Pryor, Harvey KeitelBlue Collar - 1978Director: Paul SchraderUniversalUSAScene StillDrama

Richard Pryor and Harvey Keitel in Paul Schrader's 'Blue Collar.'

Universal/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

Every Friday, we’re recommending an older movie available to stream or download and worth seeing again through the lens of our current moment. We’re calling the series “Revisiting Hours” — consider this Rolling Stone’s unofficial film club. This week’s edition: Alex Pappademas on Paul Schrader’s 1978 working-class raunchcom/working-man’s crime drama Blue Collar.

Two Detroit auto-plant workers are meeting up for a substance-fueled orgy at the home of a third. Zeke (Richard Pryor) and Jerry (Harvey Keitel) are both married; their host is Smokey (Yaphet Kotto), who isn’t. There are women waiting at Smokey’s place, and there’s cocaine. The sequence unfolds in time-jumbled montage, as if we’re seeing the night the way the characters will half-remember it later. Smokey and Jerry have a fencing match with a pair of flapping dildos. Zeke, who never stops talking, says something about a robbery. Nobody’s listening.

It’s an early scene in Paul Schrader’s 1978 movie Blue Collar — and like the good Calvinist he was, the director skips straight to the hangover. Smokey, Zeke and Jerry wind up slumped on the couch, hollow-eyed and coming down, admitting to each other that trying to make a living on the assembly line is killing them from the inside out. “A man’s supposed to be able to take care of his family,” Zeke says. “I never was good with money. I’m just fuckin’ always broke, man … I fuckin’ can’t get to the back of that shit.”

Eventually the three of them start talking about the safe at the headquarters of the auto-workers’ union, and how it might be worth the risk of robbing it just to stick it to the union’s leadership, who don’t seem to give a damn about the guys on the line. The wheels of the plot start to turn. We’ve been watching a raunchy working-class comedy; now we’re watching a movie about a heist and its consequences. But everything that follows will unfold in the context of this conversation —  a small moment out of a Raymond Carver story, three men speaking in heartbroken and profane language about how much it hurts to be poor.

The couch scene was the very last setup of a shoot that first-time director Paul Schrader would later compare to “trench warfare.” He’d managed to secure the participation of Pryor — who was coming off a hit TV special and a Grammy win for his 1976 comedy album Bicentennial Nigger — by assuring him that he’d be playing the lead. Schrader had made similar promises to both Kotto and Keitel, all but guaranteeing himself an unworkably tense set.

“Very early on,” the filmmaker says in 1990’s Schrader on Schrader, “by the second or third day of production, Richard became convinced he was playing the black sidekick to Harvey’s Terry Molloy, and Harvey became convinced he was playing Ed McMahon to Richard’s Johnny Carson, and Yaphet was convinced that they were both trying to ace him out, and things got very heavy … Not a day went by without some sort of confrontation.”

There were stylistic differences, too. Keitel liked to find his way into a scene gradually, over multiple takes; Pryor’s chemically-assisted energy tended to flag after two or three. During the third week of shooting, Schrader had walked off the set after breaking down in tears — and then things got really bad. Richard and his bodyguard reportedly roughed Keitel up for deliberately ruining a long Pryor improv by throwing an ashtray at the camera; the comic was also sued for one million dollars after hitting another actor with a chair.

By the time they shot the couch scene, his leads had stopped speaking to each other when the cameras were off. After the second take, Schrader says, “I said ‘Cut,’ and Richard got up, went downstairs, got in his car and drove home. End of movie.”

Armed only with dime-store disguises and synchronized fake Cartiers, Zeke, Jerry and Smokey break into the union office. They’re expecting to walk away with as much as six thousand dollars — just under 21 grand in 2018 dollars. What they find instead is a piddling amount of petty cash and a ledger that implicates the local organization in loan-sharking. Three smarter, less desperate men would know to throw a book like this in the Detroit River and do their best to pretend they’d never seen it; Zeke, Jerry and Smokey decide to blackmail the union instead, thereby sealing their fates. The movie’s third act tacks hard toward downbeat 1970s conspiracy drama in the vein of Three Days of the Condor or The Parallax View, but with Big Labor in the role traditionally occupied by Nixonian government creeps or evil corporations.

Schrader came to this material sideways and invested it with his own concerns. He’d been approached by an aspiring screenwriter named Sydney Glass, who told him the story of his father, a black Detroit auto worker who’d committed suicide one day before he was scheduled to retire. The director and his brother Leonard turned the idea into a screenplay about three fed-up auto workers — two black and one white — committing a more symbolic act of self-destruction by ripping off the union. (Glass, not surprisingly, complained to the Writers’ Guild. He ended up with a “suggested by” credit on the finished movie.)

Blue Collar also fudges historical fact to make its fatalist point about corrupt institutions bulldozing the common man into the grave. The auto industry of the Seventies was more segregated than Schrader makes it look; a Polish welder like Jerry probably wouldn’t have been drinking buddies with Zeke and Smokey, no matter how much boredom and frustration and disdain for the Man they had in common. The film depicts the Establishment — personified by union president Eddie “Knuckles” Johnson, played by the perfectly potato-faced character actor Harry Bellaver — undermining a race-transcending working-class solidarity that didn’t actually exist in the world where it’s set. Real-world complications creep into the movie only at the margins, like when Keitel makes a phone call in front of a United Auto Workers poster on which someone’s scrawled UAW MEANS “U AIN’T WHITE.”

But that’s part of what makes this movie such a bracing rewatch in 2018, when Bernie Sanders — despite having not been a presidential candidate for more than two years — still can’t clear his throat without starting a hundred Twitter wars about the relative importance of race versus class as vectors of oppression. As cynical as it is about union labor and work in general, Blue Collar still turns on the notion that a diverse coalition of working stiffs could present a threat to the ruling class. (It’s nice to imagine those people are afraid of something.) And sometimes the echoes, particularly of contemporary leftist infighting, are uncanny enough to make your head snap back. When Zeke tries to use his newfound leverage over the union for good, Eddie Johnson confronts him, asking “How the hell do you think things get changed around here? Not by pie-in the sky martyrs” — sounding for all the world like an old-school machine politician dressing down an eager freshman Democrat.

When it was released in ’78, Schrader fan Pauline Kael found Blue Collar‘s “jukebox Marxism” wanting, and accused the director of stapling a too-pat narrative of oppression to a shopworn plot about colluders turning on each other. Regardless of which team you root for, you may be inclined to agree. Still, there’s more to this movie than the political points it does or doesn’t score. Pryor — who never gave a better performance without a microphone stand in front of him — sitting on his plastic-covered couch griping at Sherman Helmsley on The Jeffersons (“Look at this motherfucker. Look like a motherfuckin’ ostrich.”) Kotto strutting into work in his DIZZY GILLESPIE FOR PRESIDENT t-shirt. A car chase that plays out almost entirely on Keitel’s terrified face, while Jack Nitzsche’s string section shrieks like someone’s sawing the legs off the world. There’s a whole other essay to be written about how Schrader uses sound — jackhammers, pinball machines, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Saturday Night Special” — to illustrate the way the stresses of the factory follow these characters out of the workplace and into the street, the house, the bar, scrambling their thoughts and delimiting their lives. As Kael wrote in her review: “Noise isn’t just noise in this movie, it’s fate.”

Previously: Wonder Boys

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