Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Blue Collar (1978)

Zeke (Richard Pryor), Jerry (Harvey Keitel) and Smokey (Yaphet Kotto) work in a Detroit car factory. Despite their racial mix, they're drinking buddies, sharing their frustrations with the petty indignities of their bosses, the indifference of their union, their increasingly painful economic situation, and a complete inability to be honest to their families about anything (it's the old "a man's gotta provide for their family, but sure as shit ain't gonna talk to them" song).

One day, when money's getting even tighter for various reason, most of which are quite out of their control, the trio decide to rob the safe of their local union. The three men's amateurish robbery is successful in a way, but the loot's only six-hundred dollars and some paperwork, far below what the thieves were expecting. In the following days, the union claims to have been robbed of around 20.000 dollars.

On closer look, one of the notebooks among the papers the trio robbed has rather interesting contents. Looks like the union is loaning out large amounts of money for illegally high interest rates to very dubious people in places like Vegas and New York. Perhaps it would be a good idea to make a blackmail attempt? Turns out it truly isn't, and soon enough, Zeke, Jerry and Smokey are in even more above their heads than before, and a matter of casual crime turns into a matter of life and death that will - at best - break open all the rifts between the men, and might just possibly kill someone.

Paul Schrader's directorial debut Blue Collar is a strangely under-watched and underappreciated movie, despite Schrader's clout as a writer (at the point Blue Collar was made, Schrader had already scripted Taxi Driver and Obsession), the great central cast, and the fact the movie's pretty damn great.

At least it is if you have interest and patience to sit through the loose yet detailed way Schrader begins to explore his characters' lives and world. At first, I actually thought the patient and slow way in which Schrader introduces the audience to the facts of his characters' lives were a mistake, or rather, an exercise in a kind of flabby self-indulgence not atypical of parts of 70s cinema. As a matter of fact, I was wrong about that: every scene that seems aimless is actually important to characters, mood, and sense of place of the film; the seeming lack of direction mirrors the lost and directionless inner lives of the characters.

In this context, it is not much of surprise Blue Collar becomes increasingly tight once the characters are caught up in the consequences of their little robbery, and all even imaginary opportunities disappear for them. It's at that point all humour - before an important part of the film's tone - disappears from Blue Collar, the tone becoming grim, even nightmarish. Once the working classes are not playing the game they're supposed to play anymore, playtime is over for them until they're submitting to the system they're caught up in again, or are left by the wayside completely.

Schrader's rather daring approach to plotting his movie about the betrayal and self-betrayal of the US working class would probably not pay off as well as it does if not for his eye for telling details that not just make the characters believable as part of their time and place but also prevents the preachiness inherent in the material from taking over by showing flawed, sometimes stupid, men and not martyrs to a cause. As films interested in truthfulness go, it's really rather brilliant.

And that's before you even take the core trio of actors into account. I am particularly excited about Pryor's nuanced performance of the film's most complicated character. Pryor uses some of the usual mannerisms and bounds of his comedic characters as something Zeke wears like an armour, with the truth about who he is shining through in small, subtly played moments suggesting a fragility as well as an astonishingly large ability to lie to himself. After this, I'll have to take Pryor seriously as a serious actor. The quality of Kotto's and Keitel's performances is of course self-evident and utterly unsurprising.

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