Not all of Paul Schrader’s movies are pitiless examinations of masculinity in crisis, but when one of them kicks off with Bo Diddley singing ‘I’m A Man’, you’d better believe that’s a statement. Now reissued on Powerhouse, Blue Collar is the tale of three car factory workers who hatch a plot to rob their union. On the commentary (apparently recorded in the late 1990s, judging by Schrader’s reference to “my last one, Affliction”) Schrader explains that he was primarily interested in exploring why people act against their own self-interest, here lashing out at the organisation that’s supposed to secure their rights. It briefly made Schrader the darling of Marxist critics – though the union itself is hardly an innocent victim.
Self-destructiveness and lack of self-awareness are perhaps Schrader’s most consistent theme as a writer and director. Travis Bickle is a man losing his mind, but he sees himself as an avenging angel, while Yukio Mishima’s pursuit of implausible goals leads to his suicide. The most concentrated version of this theme is 1988’s Patty Hearst, which literally dramatises a brainwashing process. Compared to that, Blue Collar is quite nebulous – the brainwashing comes from society, and it’s happened to our protagonists all their life. But Schrader still makes the mechanisms laudably clear, and helps us to understand his characters even when they’re making heinously bad decisions.
The film’s politics crystallise in one eminently quotable line from Yaphet Kotto’s Smokey, the sentiments of which are regrettably as timely as ever. “They pit the lifers against the new boys, the young against the old, the black against the white – everybody, to keep us in our place”. As with Sidney Lumet’s Network, it’s astonishing to realise Hollywood once allowed sentiments this radical in their films. Smokey initially appears to be quite a stoic character, his political apathy signalled by a “Dizzy Gillespie for President” t-shirt. As the movie goes on we realise it’s not apathy, it’s burned-out disaffection. Underneath it all, he’s just as angry as the other two.
The other two are Jerry and Zeke, played by Harvey Keitel and Richard Pryor respectively. Of Keitel, the best you can say is that his work is as fine, convincing and thoughtful as he always is. Pryor is more of a wild card. He had only played one non-comic role before, in Lady Sings the Blues, and he would not get many more opportunities to show this side of his talent. You can see the stand-up in his delivery, frequently making asides or using repetition (“his friend’s wife – his friend’s wife!”) for rhetorical effect. For all Zeke can be witty, though, the arc of the film is ultimately tragic.
Hearing Schrader talk about it now, only the fact that they weren’t shooting in a jungle prevents Blue Collar from taking its place alongside Fitzcarraldo and Apocalypse Now on the list of all-time nightmare shoots. He had told Kotto, Keitel, and Pryor that they would be playing the lead, knowing that none of them would turn up to share the spotlight. They didn’t get on at all, and disagreements quickly became physical. Schrader admits that the static camera and unfussy style came about because he was frequently too busy wrangling the lead actors to pay much attention to visuals.
It works, though. After Blue Collar Schrader would embark on a series of films – Hardcore, American Gigolo, Cat People, Mishima – designed to test him as a stylist, and they all have their pleasures. But Blue Collar simply wouldn’t have worked in this vein. The fixed frame makes you feel as trapped in the situation as Zeke, Jerry and Smokey are, which is to say: completely trapped. After all, in most heist movies the heroes drive off into the sunset once the job is done. In Blue Collar, to avoid suspicion, they have to return to the scene of the crime, nine to five, five days a week. There may be no bleaker picture of the working week in all American cinema.