Blue Collar: How Paul Schrader’s First Film Was Almost His Last

Movies Features Paul Schrader
Blue Collar: How Paul Schrader’s First Film Was Almost His Last

At the 2022 Venice Film Festival, there with his film Master Gardener and to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award, filmmaker Paul Schrader stated “I used to be an artist who never wanted to leave this world without saying ‘fuck you.’ And now I’m an artist who never wants to leave this world without saying ‘I love you.’” It was a touching sentiment from a man who has spent the last 50 years wrestling cinematically with the aching realization of how little we all matter in a world built to destroy us. Schrader’s work consistently explores that innate contradiction—we’re born only to die—and through films like Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, Light Sleeper and The Card Counter that ode to love pierces through his occasionally craggy demeanor. And yet, if ever there’s a motion picture that declares “fuck you” loudly and proudly, it would be Schrader’s first as a director: 1978’s Blue Collar. And it was almost his last.

By the time Blue Collar rolled around, Schrader had already made an esteemed name for himself as a screenwriter on films directed by Sidney Lumet, Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma and John Flynn. But the itch to get behind the wheel himself was always there, and he could resist it no longer. Co-written with his brother Leonard, Blue Collar follows a trio of auto line workers in Wayne County, Michigan as they are beleaguered by mistreatment from management and their union reps. The guys who are supposed to be looking out for them are the ones screwing them the most, and that helps catalyze their plan to get even. Zeke (Richard Pryor), Smokey (Yaphet Kotto) and Jerry (Harvey Keitel) will rob the safe at the union’s headquarters to help clear their debts, all while sticking it to the men who are sticking it to them.

It’s an easy enough plan on its face. As Zeke relays upon having seen the safe, it’s only guarded by one old layabout and they’ve got some connections to help it go off without a hitch. Of course, like any plan concocted after a night of coke-snorting and extramarital sex, things aren’t as smooth once executed. They have some bumps, but the men are successful in breaking into the safe—only to discover there’s a mere $600 contained within, which the union then falsely reports as having been $10,000 to up their insurance payout. Dejected by the rotten fruits of their labor, a twist appears: Zeke discovers a ledger revealing illegal loan operations made by the union, including ties to big-city crime syndicates. While presenting them with an opportunity to blackmail the union for more cash, the ledger also gives the union more than enough reason to want these men out of the picture for good.

With plenty of screenwriting experience under his belt, Schrader’s script shrewdly navigates the many different narrative layers unfolded over the course of Blue Collar, while his authorial vision strikes a delicate tonal balance between heist thrills, workplace drama, social commentary and nerve-wracking suspense. He keeps our interests rooted at all times with this trio of characters, and through them pushes important conversational topics around labor exploitation and the perpetual dehumanization of the workforce under capitalism.

In every section of Blue Collar, we are given reminders of how the workers in this auto factory are mistreated. A higher-up casually mentions a worker having passed out as a reason why Smokey needs to move to a different station for the day. Zeke complains in a union meeting about his damaged locker that has been tearing up his finger because it’s the only way he can get it open. The vending machine that dispenses drinks to help cool the men down is broken and management has no interest in fixing it. The air around the factory hangs with a dense fog of smoke, the fumes pouring out into the ecosystem and filling the lungs of these workers. We are constantly given glimpses of a Goodyear billboard right off the highway with a ticking counter detailing how many cars have been produced this year. The number is in the millions and only getting higher, a demonstration of how the lives of these workers are completely irrelevant as long as the bottom line looks good.

It’s no surprise why the tension would mount to fever pitch in an environment this bleak—not only between Zeke, Smokey and Jerry with their union but also with each other. The men have very different perspectives which inform how they handle the mounting stakes: Zeke is raising a family, while being broken down at work and told he’s lazy and useless; Smokey is a ladies’ man enjoying life, who has been to prison and has no intention of going back; Jerry, the only white member of the trio, has a wife and kids and just wants to play it cool and skate by. The latter’s options are afforded to him specifically due to his whiteness.

For as much as Blue Collar is about class hierarchy and the disparity between management, union and worker, it’s also intrinsically about race—something evidenced even in the genesis of the film, as Schrader notes on the film’s commentary track that in trying to sell the film as being about “two Black guys and a white guy,” people would respond by asking if he meant to say “two white guys and a Black guy.” For the director, it was crucial to use this film to highlight how the unions were just as guilty in exploiting and abusing the workers as management, while also drawing out the distinct differences in this economy between Black workers and white workers.

This presents a particular chasm between Zeke and Jerry after Smokey is brutally murdered, suffocated by fumes as he’s locked into a room with a car that’s being painted in a gut-wrenching scene which Schrader plays out in agonizing length, making the viewer feel as though their skin is peeling off while watching. Jerry becomes more and more determined to fight back against the system that is bringing them down—the system that killed their friend—while Zeke is bought off with a cushy job as the new union steward (the former steward being scapegoated as responsible for this workplace mishap). The film hits a core moment when Zeke and Jerry’s differences collide in a conversation on Zeke’s porch. He lays out the massive disparity between them when it comes to the opportunities (or lack thereof) afforded to them due to their race, and how Smokey’s death was a reckoning for Zeke in a very different way than it was for Jerry.

A pivotal scene, with a marvelous performance from Pryor in his finest dramatic role, it leads directly into the film’s conclusion, where Zeke and Jerry come to blows. Schrader freezes on the two about to physically collide, as Smokey’s words ring out in voiceover: “They pit the lifers against the new boys, the young against the old, the Black against the white. Everything they do is to keep us in our place.” Three friends who relied on each other to lounge back with some beers after a long day of being screwed by the man have now been broken by the corporate machine. One dead, and the other two pitted as adversaries—Zeke selling his soul to the system, while Jerry turns rat in order to keep himself and his family safe.

The dramatic tension that bellows through those final moments echoes Schrader’s “fuck you,” and it’s further cemented by the tension that occurred between the actors on set. Schrader has spoken at length about the vitriol that flew between his three primary actors, stating “I hired three bulls and asked them to come into a china shop, and I promised each of those bulls that they would be the lead actor… It became a real ego struggle about who would win the day.”

Pryor came into the film with his renown as a comedian, and would improvise almost every scene, to the point where Schrader said he could only get a couple good takes on each scene because he’d be “running out of gas” by the fourth or fifth. Keitel, meanwhile, felt like he was playing second fiddle to his co-star, and even went so far as walking off the set—making it all the way to the airport before his agent talked him into returning.

Schrader details a particularly intense moment on the set, in which Pryor running on a large off-script rant led to Keitel moving an ashtray and speaking directly into the camera in order to ruin the take. “Even before I cut, Richard was on Harvey, fists were flying,” Schrader says, explaining that Pryor and his bodyguard were wailing on Keitel before Schrader himself got involved and the fight was broken up. Pryor insisted that the film was responsible for him relapsing into cocaine addiction; at one point he pulled a gun on Schrader and told the director there was no way he would ever do more than three takes for a scene.

“It’s so spooky watching Richard. He was the unhappiest person I ever met in my life,” the director says on the commentary track. In just one effort behind the camera—one that caused him to have a nervous breakdown and consider never directing again—Schrader experienced as much tumult as many filmmakers will across their entire careers. All of this discord feels appropriately seeped into the blood and sweat of Blue Collar, a film etched in the righteous fury of those beaten down by a system founded on having boots on the necks of the workers at all times. We’re lucky that Schrader got back in the saddle and has had a lengthy, topsy-turvy career as a director in the decades since, but if this had been his swan song, it would have sent him out on quite the high note.

Currently based in Newark, Delaware, Mitchell Beaupre is the Senior Editor at Letterboxd, and a freelance film journalist for sites including The Film Stage, Paste Magazine, and Little White Lies. With every new movie they watch, they’re adding five more to their never-ending Letterboxd watchlist. You can find them on Twitter at @itismitchell.

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