Richard Pryor’s comic genius wasn’t often fully captured in narrative films. Onstage doing stand-up, he was untouchable, but in some studio comedies he was more of an assembly-line worker, like the put-upon employee he plays in Paul Schrader’s Blue Collar. Zeke (Pryor), Jerry (Harvey Keitel), and Smokey (Yaphet Kotto) are Detroit auto workers who have been let down twice—first by their lousy factory bosses and again by their union, which is supposed to protect them but, having grown complacent and corrupt, waves off their concerns.
Pryor has a lot of funny moments in Blue Collar, especially in the first half or so, when the movie tends toward angry comedy. His command of a room is clear when he speaks up at a union meeting early on, but he doesn’t walk all over his co-stars; Schrader frames his central trio together and lets their conversations play out with a detour-heavy naturalism. Though the writer-director clearly maintains a lot of affection for these characters, he doesn’t romanticize the men as working-class heroes. Their complaints are sometimes disorganized or petty, and they indulge some pretty awful behavior in the name of blowing off steam, particularly in a sequence that offers the bizarre sight of Harvey Kietel and Richard Pryor attending a coke-fueled sex party together.
The grit of that scene is more in line with expectations for Schrader, who in 1978 was coming off his script for Taxi Driver and even now is not exactly known for his comic stylings (mordantly funny as bits of Driver and Bringing Out The Dead are). It follows, then, that even when Blue Collar resembles a farcical revenge tale of three disgruntled workers ripping off the jerks at the top—at one point, the three break into a union safe, complete with goofy disguises—it backs away from zaniness. In fact, the movie gives Pryor some of his most serious material as it adds in elements of heist thriller, crime drama, and social issue picture in the back half. The pacing can feel a bit lax, but the movie’s eclecticism is remarkable. Throughout the genre-shifts, Schrader’s thesis, repeated on the movie’s final freeze frame, is clear: It’s in the best interests of people at the top, be they management or unions, to turn workers against each other.
Availability: Blue Collar is available on DVD, which can be obtained your local video store, or to rent or purchase from the major digital outlets.