Director: Paul Schrader
Screenplay: Paul Schrader, Leonard Schrader
Based on an article by: Sydney A. Glass
Producers: Don Guest
Starring: Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel, Yaphet Kotto
BBFC Certification: 18
Duration: 114 mins
Debut features are often fascinating artefacts to the cineaste. Whether they are trailblazing announcements of a new talent to keep an eye on or low-key, largely forgotten beginnings unearthed at a later down the line in a burgeoning career, we can learn much about a director from their first tentative steps into the world of film. Sometimes these are early missteps as they fumble around to find their voice, sometimes they can be lightning-in-a-bottle encapsulations of an energy and passion that subsequently dwindles but wherever they may fall between these two extremes, debut features tend to retain a greater sense of perceived importance in a director’s canon because of their fanfare-like qualities. Over the years, several publications have attempted to compile lists of the greatest debut films of all time but these lists have always tended to emerge more as a collection of great directors and their first films. A tendency to start with recognised talent and work backwards undermines the whole point of examining the debut feature, implicitly positing the notion of the opening salvo as a mere stepping stone. Many of the greatest debut features come from directors who have remained cult talents or have failed to live up to the early promise, neither of which are given consideration if you start at the end point.
Paul Schrader’s directorial debut Blue Collar is a case in point here. Schrader is hardly an unknown name in the film world and yet many people don’t even realise he has directed, let alone maintained a directorial career that has spanned decades. The problem here is that Schrader will always be most famous for his writing, primarily the scripts he wrote for Martin Scorsese which include some of the most famous films ever made (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull). Consequently, Schrader’s directorial work often gets swept under the carpet and his is not the first name that springs to mind when considering directors. This is unfortunate, at the very least from the point of someone compiling a list of greatest directorial debuts, since Schrader’s Blue Collar remains one of the finest introductory pieces of its era.
Written by Schrader and his brother Leonard, Blue Collar tells the story of three struggling auto-workers who are mistreated by both the management and their own union. In an attempt to make ends meet, the trio resolve to rob a safe at union headquarters but when they uncover mass corruption in the process, they find themselves in way over their heads as the union’s retaliation against their blackmail attempts threatens their safety and begins to first drive them apart and eventually turn them against one another. With its depiction of a crooked union, Blue Collar is often mischaracterised as a right-wing treatise but it is far more complex than that, presenting an Orwellian vision of the corrupting effects of power which delves deep into issues of race and class relations and, by refusing to make its three protagonists saintly figures and instead opting to riddle them with considerable flaws, rejects the over-simplification of often more readily-accepted left-wing diatribes.
It is clear why Schrader kept this superb script back for his own directorial debut but his first experience in the chair was reportedly not a happy one. The main problem seems to have stemmed from his three lead actors who didn’t get along with Schrader or each other and were constantly fighting throughout the shoot, resulting in Schrader having a mental breakdown on set. But if this negative energy made it into the finished product, it is only visible in the spot-on depiction of the fragility of friendship between three men of dubious moral codes. Amidst its many strengths, perhaps Blue Collar’s most instantly recognisable asset is its casting. Though Harvey Keitel was, by this point, ceding his leading man status more and more to Robert De Niro in Scorsese’s work, he remained an actor of often unacknowledged subtlety. If these abilities were arguably masked by a tendency for Keitel to get cast in similar roles again and again, they were also highlighted by the same virtue, as those watching closely could detect the small but important differences Keitel brought to each new character. Yaphet Kotto is a great foil for Keitel’s more enigmatic character, bringing a muscular determination to his role, tempered by a restrained hint of volatility that is only unleashed fully when the plot demands it. But the revelation here is Richard Pryor, one of the most respected comedians of all time but known primarily in the film world for his comic-mugging alongside Gene Wilder. Pryor is an inspired piece of casting here, drawing on both his comedic skills (downplayed considerably in comparison to, say, his scenery-consuming turn in Superman III) and the anger and hurt that pervaded his most effective stand-up routines. From the naturalistic comic bickering of his early scenes through to the heavily dramatic dialogues he is given later in the film, Pryor is able to tap into every facet of his character and offer a performance for the ages. It’s quite something to discover for those who only know his acting work in See No Evil, Hear No Evil or Stir Crazy.
Blue Collar benefits from its excellent script and cast but without the right direction, it could have easily come across as jumbled rather than emotionally complex. It is hard to imagine anyone having done a better job with the film than Schrader himself. His investment in the material is obvious and he balances the film’s many moods with a deft smoothness that is crucial to its cohesion. An early scene in which Pryor attempts to lie his way out of trouble with the IRS is hilarious and the amateurish robbery pushes the film into the realms of light farce but the sense of desperation is a constant even alongside the comedic moments so that when it pushes its way to the forefront and the laughs sharply decline, it feels like a natural progression for the story rather than a jarring change in tone. For a first time director struggling with an uncooperative cast, Blue Collar comes across as confident, assured filmmaking. This new Blu-ray release of the film is an extremely welcome reissue which will hopefully help it begin to build up the reputation it deserves as an overlooked 70s classic.
Blue Collar is released on Blur-ray by Powerhouse Films on 22 January 2018. Special features are as follows:
•High Definition remaster
•Original mono audio
•Audio Commentary with writer/director Paul Schrader and author Maitland McDonagh
•A new filmed appreciation by filmmaker and actor Keith Gordon
•Interview with Paul Schrader (1982): an interview with film expert Tony Rayns
•Original theatrical trailer
•Image gallery: on-set and promotional photography
•New and improved English subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing
•Limited edition exclusive booklet with a new essay by author and critic Brad Stevens, an overview of contemporary critical responses, and historic articles on the film