Lives On the Line: The Grubby Politics of Paul Schrader’s ‘Blue Collar’

Written by Tim Pelan. Paul Schrader and cast, Harvey Keitel, Yaphet Kotto and Richard Pryor, on location at car factory in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Photographed by Wynn Hammer & Jim Taylor © TAT Communications Company, Universal Pictures

By Tim Pelan

Paul Schrader got the chance to direct his first film after the success of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, the script of which Schrader cranked out in a week, laying bare his feelings of loneliness in the underbelly of the city that never sleeps. Blue Collar (1978), the subject he chose to both direct and write, was about three “hard workin’, fucked over men,” to quote the opening track, on a Detroit motor car assembly plant who turn on the corrupt Union that’s supposed to protect them, leading to a fracturing of bonds that lays waste the camaraderie that held them together in a rotten system of drudgery. Speaking of fucked over, according to Cineaste magazine in 1978, the idea for the script came from screenwriter Sydney A. Glass, who naively approached Schrader. Schrader paid him off with a paltry $15,000.00 and a tiny share of the film, going on to refashion the script with his brother Leonard. Glass could probably empathise with a line from the film, where Jerry Bartowski (Harvey Keitel) bitches, “Credit’s the only thing you can get free from the company. Got a house, fridge, dishwasher, washer-dryer, TV, stereo, motorcycle, car… ‘buy this shit, buy that shit.’ All you got’s a buncha shit.” Jerry, a Polack, has an unlikely but pleasingly unremarked upon close friendship for the time with two black co-workers, the live wire Zeke (Richard Pryor) and Smokey (Yaphet Koto). The three men are struggling to keep their heads above water and support their families in an industry that’s beginning to flag, working in dangerous conditions and shop floor indifference. They rob the Union office to discover a paltry sum of petty cash and more auspiciously, a notebook laying bare the union’s illegal loan operation and ties to organized crime. The three stooges are by turn murdered, co-opted and betrayed, the film ending in a fractious freeze frame and repeated commentary from Koto earlier as voice-over: “They pit the lifers against the new boy and the young against the old. The black against the white. Everything they do is to keep us in our place.”

Schrader’s harsh Dutch Calvinist upbringing illustrates his gloomy outlook. As a boy, his mother pricked his finger with a pin: “You know how that felt? The moment the pin went in your finger?” “Yes,” the boy replied. “That’s what hell’s like all the time.” “As a first time-time director,” Schrader recalled, “I knew I wasn’t going to teach anybody how to act, and I knew I wasn’t going to get a big star. So I went to three actors, each of whom was pushing for his career, and each of whom was not independently bankable. Then I took all three of these bantam roosters, dropped them into the same pit, and made sure that nobody got out first.” Filming was tumultuous, Pryor pulling a gun on Schrader and refusing to do any more than three takes, ever. “Right after you said ‘Cut,’ a fight would start. After about three weeks in, I was in the middle of the set and all of a sudden I started crying and… couldn’t stop.” Schrader later admitted that Pryor’s best performance would be found in those second or third takes and that he would become bored and begin to improvise from thereon, to the annoyance of Keitel.

Blue Collar was filmed on location at a car factory in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where Checker cabs were spat out, additional shooting taking place in Detroit itself and Ford’s River Rouge plant. The three friends bitch and moan at the conditions they work in and party hard, their families in Keitel’s and Pryor’s case adjuncts at times to their blowing off of steam (Koto is a stereotypical party fixer black stud type, although he displays more mettle than his friends do when the screws are tightened on them, coming to an ignominious end). As the opening credits roll, tracking shots prowl through the plant to Captain Beefhearts driving “Hard Workin’ Man,” stamping machinery matching the blues rhythm beat for beat. Likewise, the men and the machines they operate are interchangeable, hardwired together. Ry Cooder was brought onboard to assist scorer Jack Nitzsche and Paul Schrader. They wanted to evoke the feeling of Bo Diddley without paying for the rights. They also wanted specified breaks (for the freeze frames). Cooder recruited Don Van Vliet, better known as Captain Beefheart, allegedly locking him in the recording booth against his will until “Hard Workin’ Man” was recorded.

Even the credits are stamped and plain, an industrial identity. Freeze frames isolate workers in Sisyphean tableaux. The environment is literally pounding on these guys, a not so subtle modern equivalent of a plantation owner’s whip. A hated supervisor, Dogshit Miller (Borah Silver), picks out perceived slackers with racial epithets: “You pick cotton this slow?”

Zeke claims for six kids on his IRS return, even though he only has three. The Man turns up at his door one night with a demand for $3,000.00 in back taxes. Backed into a corner, he cracks, monologuing almost as if in stand-up:

“I take home two-ten a week man, goddamn. I gotta pay for the lights, gas, clothes, food… every fuckin’ thing, man. I’m left with about thirty bucks after all the fuckin’ bills are paid. Gimme a break, will ya mister? Fuck Uncle Sam, man! They give the fuckin’ politicians a break! Agnew and ’em don’t pay shit! Working man’s gotta pay every goddamn thing! Yeah I know I’ll pay it! If I had the Navy and Marines behind me, I’d be a muthafucka too!”

He complains to the union at every meeting about his busted locker and the malfunctioning vending machine that belches out greasy coffee and stale snacks. No-one gives a damn, until one guy snaps and destroys it, getting docked two weeks wages for his pyrrhic victory as their newfound folk hero. Jerry works an extra job pumping gas, having lost money from going out on strike before. He’s desperately aware his daughter needs braces he can’t afford. Did this inspire in a small way The Simpsons plot for “Last Exit To Springfield” whereby Lisa needs braces and Homer strikes for the return of the union’s dental plan? Smokey owes money to a loan shark. Weekends are seemingly cut short by a match-cut from the bar’s door slamming to the guys back on the assembly line, the counter ticking over the number of cars turned out as the threads between friends gradually unravel, and then another weekend rolls by, no end in sight. Yaphet Koto inhabits a grimy, working joe environment as attuned to costume design and milieu as the “space trucker” grind of Alien a year later. Vincent Canby in the New York Times review of the time remarked, “Everything in the characters’ private lives looks right, from the pictures on the walls (and stuck into the corners of mirrors), to their color television sets, plastic slipcovers and bowling costumes. You suspect that each item was bought yesterday on time and will be worn out tomorrow before the payments are completed.”

Fed up with the indifference of their union they decide to rip it (and themselves) off, suddenly in way over their heads, as the union claims for a greater sum of stolen money and hunts them down with cruel detachment. Schrader told Cineaste that “I didn’t set out to make a left-wing film. I had no visions of making this into a concrete political thing; it had to operate in the area of entertainment. I wanted to write a movie about some guys who rip off their union because it seemed to me such a wonderfully self-hating kind of act, that they would attack the organization that’s supposed to help them.” In a way though this lets “The Man” somewhat off the hook.

Comedian Patton Oswalt writes memorably and insightfully in a guest slot about the film here (he expanded on this in his introduction for the Criterion edition of the film):

“Still as profane, true, mean and funny as he ever was onstage, Pryor here is also scary, sad, and all-too-human as Zeke, the biggest fly in the company ointment. If the company can’t crush a noisome fly, it can do something far worse. You’ll see. Keep those cabs rolling out. Never stop the anvil chorus. Grease the gears. Those Checker Cabs. Was that a conscious choice on Schrader’s part? The fact that these cabs, the same model Travis Bickel piloted in Taxi Driver, came from a hot, hopeless hell like the factory in Blue Collar? Where every rivet was fastened by someone with murder on their minds? Every windshield tamped into place by someone who wanted to blow up the world? Every steering column and gas pedal affixed by the damned? It’s as if the metal, rubber and fuel themselves were infused with rage. Bickel never stood a chance.”

The film is depressingly prescient with regards to our Trump era malodorous schism in the way the establishment pits black against white in the name of power and money. Smokey is marked as the more troublesome and aware of the trio by the corrupt union bosses and is isolated and killed off in a horrific paint shop “accident,” asphyxiated by a faceless killer, a literal victim of the machine. Zeke is offered and takes up a position as shop steward, assimilated by the beast. Jerry turns into an FBI snitch, tasked with feeding them info on Union malpractice, leading to an inevitable and depressing bust-up with Zeke on the shop floor. Racial slurs rise to the surface as their co-workers stop and look on, the camera panning across their faces before the final freeze frame punch-up. Schrader said, “In their minds, and in the minds of a lot of people in this country, the union, the company, and the government are synonymous… (but with) different logos… Everyone’s trying to outmaneuver his fellow worker, and the easiest way to create tension in the workforce is through race, because everyone has this big button called racism mounted on their chest, so… you just reach over and push (that) button, and people start fighting amongst themselves.” Patsies, every single one of them, chewed up and spat out. The American Dream as sweaty, toxic nightmare.

Tim Pelan was born in 1968, the year of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (possibly his favorite film), ‘Planet of the Apes,’ ‘The Night of the Living Dead’ and ‘Barbarella.’ That also made him the perfect age for when ‘Star Wars’ came out. Some would say this explains a lot. Read more »

Screenwriter must-read: Paul Schrader & Leonard Schrader’s (with Sydney A. Glass) script for Blue Collar [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

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Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Paul Schrader’s Blue Collar. Photographed by Wynn Hammer & Jim Taylor © TAT Communications Company, Universal Pictures. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.

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