Paul Schrader had established his reputation as a screenwriter (The Yakuza
and Taxi Driver
, among others) before embarking on his directorial debut. Blue Collar
is the story of three working-class guys at the Checker auto plant who run their local union office. Richard Pryor delivers a funny, passionate, seething performance in one of his rare dramatic roles as a rabble-rousing union man. Trapped by family worries and crippling back taxes, he dreams up the robbery after scoping out the joint and enlists his coworker and buddies, family man Harvey Keitel and high-living bachelor Yaphet Kotto, who are in similar financial straits. This is a strictly amateur-hour heist, and their successful getaway is the last bit of good luck in store for the trio. The robbery turns up no cash, only incriminating files, and the inept thieves are soon blackmailing the powerful union, which fights back with force, seduction, and murder. Schrader's first film has little of the polish or style he developed by American Gigolo
, but his portrait of lower middle class families in 1970s Detroit, interracial relations, and male camaraderie is sharp and insightful. His attention to detail shows in every frame and adds to the edgy material, which balances the thriller plot with social commentary about corruption, labor relations, and the lure of power. Schrader's later films show more subtlety and cinematic confidence, but time hasn't dimmed the power he unleashes in this angry working class drama.
The DVD features commentary by Paul Schrader, his first such audio track, guided and prodded by critic Maitland McDonagh, who does her best to draw the director out of his long silences and launch him into his fascinating production stories. --Sean Axmaker