Let’s cut straight to the dildos.
Late in the rising action of Paul Schrader’s 1978 caper/comedy/tragedy/social commentary Blue Collar arrives a scene in which costars Harvey Keitel and Richard Pryor have a cocaine-fueled swordfight with dildos. Comedian and film lover Patton Oswalt singles out the moment in his fine Blue Collar essay for Ain’t it Cool News as representative of the characters’ uneasy relationship, “the kind of ‘friendship’ that develops between the desperate and pressured—wobbly, and abandoned at the first sign of selfish hope.”
Blue Collar is a haymaker of a movie and one of the last knockdown blows landed by the so-called New Hollywood in the mighty wave of 1970s American cinema. The film was Schrader’s directorial debut, a blessing bestowed in part due to the success of what is perhaps that decade’s seminal (in more ways than one) film, 1976’s Taxi Driver, which Schrader wrote. Blue Collar shares some tonal similarities with Taxi Driver, notably a sense of righteous anger, which here sparks three Detroit auto workers (played by Pryor, Keitel and Yaphet Kotto) to heist a cash box from their union office.
In Taxi Driver, Travis Bickle’s rage is largely internalized, expressed through voiceover and dreamlike, portentous visuals. The vitriol in Blue Collar is at an open simmer when the movie begins, and Schrader’s storytelling approach is appropriately blunt in bringing it to a boil.
The characters in Blue Collar are outwardly on the brink; financially overextended, emotionally burdened, and confrontational. Pryor’s Zeke in particular is at a breaking point, frustrated with living paycheck to paycheck, working for dismissive management and dealing with condescending union leadership that has taken on the many of the industrial traits from which it is supposed to protect workers.
“That’s all you talk about, ‘the plant,’” Zeke rails at his union steward in an early scene. “Everybody knows what ‘the plant’ is. ‘The plant’s’ just short for plantation.”
When Zeke spots a loosely protected cash stash in the local UAW office, he recruits coworkers Jerry (Keitel) and Smokey (Kotto) to share the wealth, which they figure belongs to them anyway; they’ve been paying dues with no obvious services rendered. They get both more and less than they bargained for, and by its brutal conclusion Blue Collar feels like Shakespeare informed by film noir (see also: Schrader’s provocative treatise Notes on Film Noir).
The tension is palpable, fueled by a punchy script cowritten with (or by, depending on the story) Schrader’s brother, Leonard, and behind-the-scenes discord among the three leads and the director. That dissonance works to the film’s advantage as the stakes for the characters heighten and is discussed on Schrader’s Blue Collar commentary track as well as in Peter Biskind’s juicy book on ’70s-era Hollywood, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls.
Schrader is often referred to as a moralist filmmaker, and his movies as both a writer and director tend to focus on characters whose own values conflict with the values of those in power or society at large. When these characters are pushed, as they are in Blue Collar, they are willing to resort to the same level of betrayal or violence as employed by the people they hold in contempt. Those wishing to understand the differences between and nuances of morals and ethics would do well to study Schrader’s films.
“He’s smarter than he’s talented,” the film critic Pauline Kael once commented of Schrader. While Schrader may lack the inherent cinematic flair of frequent collaborator Martin Scorsese, a direct approach suits Blue Collar, which establishes its hard-driving, workman rhythm in the opening-credits montage of auto workers assembling the same type of cabs seen in Taxi Driver; this may be more than a wink by the writer-director to his earlier work.
“Was this a conscious choice on Schrader’s part?” Oswalt asks in his essay. “The fact that these cabs … 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.”
Blue Collar is full of details that carry such subtle weight. An image of Christ lurks behind Jerry as he mulls committing a criminal act to afford braces for his daughter; car headlights on a Pontiac billboard leer through Smokey’s apartment window; plastic covers coat the furniture in Zeke’s home as protection against his rambunctious children and their friends (one of whom he uses in an attempt to ward off an IRS investigator).
Even the raunchy, fleeting dildo battle is loaded with connotation.