Then Zeke discovers that the union’s safe is left virtually unprotected. He convinces the others to join him in a heist, knowing full well that the money is insured. A victimless crime, they rationalize. Until they come away with a mere $600 and a seemingly useless ledger. Upon closer examination, they discover that the ledger contains records of illegal loans the union has made to outside companies, many with mob ties. And the road to easy street suddenly seems clear—particularly when the union bosses report to the press that the thieves got away with more than $20,000 cash—which, of course, the insurance will cover.
But when things look the simplest, that’s when things start to get more complicated. Soon, they find their lives in danger and Zeke can only see a way out by joining the corruption he once hoped to fight against.
Paul Schrader’s directorial debut is at turns powerful, funny, sad and terribly frustrating. Another ode to the working stiff, Blue Collar resembles his renowned Taxi Driver in the utterly realistic portrayal of life at ground level. We feel sorry for these poor schmucks—particularly when they don their “disguises” for the heist (Slinky eye-glasses, vampire teeth, propeller beanies—so ridiculous that these are the only details—and, of course, their races—that the security guard can recall) and go after what they hope will amount to a couple of thousand apiece. We don’t particularly condone the fact that they seem more bonded with each other than their families, which they seem to resent as burdens and responsibilities. “A man’s gotta take care of his family!” Zeke exclaims more than once, and more than slightly bitterly. But at the same time, Schrader doesn’t allow anything even remotely resembling redemption or respite for his heroes. They “system” will always keep them down—as we’re reminded in the voice over during the movie’s very weak and unsatisfying ending—and the only ways “out” are via selling out: becoming a union steward or turning traitor against the very men you work with. This bleak vicious circle seems to be saying something, but what, exactly, will leave the viewer at a loss. “The system will always fuck you”? “You have no hope if you’re black or white”? “Wear Slinky glasses if you get caught robbing a safe”?
Blue Collar is notorious among film fans for two reasons: the “groundbreaking” use of street lingo (aka massive amounts of profanity) that was shocking and real at the time but now sounds quaint compared to an average Comedy Central Roast; and the outstanding performances by the film’s three leads, Richard Pryor (the rabble-rousing Zeke), Harvey Keitel (comparatively mild-mannered Jerry) and Yaphet Kotto (the ex-con teddy bear Smokey). These three men and their friendship keeps the film’s narrative together and we never once lose sympathy for them, no matter how awful things get or, particularly in Zeke’s case, how compromised their ethics become.
This on-screen friendship seems even stronger when you consider that the three actors grew to hate each other during filming! (Allegedly, fist fights broke out and the film’s use of long takes stemmed from the fact that none of them would consent to a second take due to their enmity.) It’s been alluded to that first-time director Schrader made a miscalculation and told each actor that their character was meant to be the lead, despite the script’s obvious ensemble treatment, which led to resentment and pettiness throughout the shoot.
Another “it’s in print, it’s out of print” movie, Blue Collar is worth hunting down for the riveting performances and the compelling story. Currently, it’s available on Netflix via their streaming network, but it pops up on television every now and then as well. One watch and you’ll realize that Pryor did himself a major disservice with later work like See No Evil, Hear No Evil and The Toy.