Life in this Detroit car manufacturing plant has always revolved around some kind of grudges, with the workers not happy with their shop stewards and bosses, yet they're not pleased with their union either as it seems they never do what they want when it comes to the little things like fixing lockers or stopping the only drinks machine eating up money with no product given out because it's faulty. Zeke Brown (Richard Pryor) is trying his best to get by, and shares beers with his co-workers Jerry Bartowski (Harvey Keitel) and Smokey James (Yaphet Kotto) every evening after work, but they all agree they're getting screwed. So what to do about it?
From the opening credits where Captain Beefheart swears his head off through a Muddy Waters-style blues number, you know this is going to be one sweary film. In fact, it was one of the sweariest films ever made at the time of its release, which shouldn't have been a surprise with both Pryor, one of the sweariest comedians ever, and Keitel, one of the sweariest actors ever, in the cast. Even Kotto gets into the act - the f-bomb is dropped so often that the whole movie is a devastation of cursing, not with the result that it grows absurd, but that it becomes more convincing as you can readily accept that this is the way the characters would talk if they were genuine people.
Making his directorial debut was Paul Schrader, the co-author of the script with his brother Leonard Schrader, and there was a solid plot as backbone to what often sounded like improvised dialogue. It was not an anti-bosses film, neither was it an anti-union film, but a pro-working man effort that singled out the corruption inherent in the system designed to keep the, well, blue collar types in their place, which was under the thumb of anyone, in management or otherwise, with any position of power over them. Our Three Musketeers decide to take on this state of affairs practically by accident, and for at least the first half hour it looks like we're getting an earthy comedy, helped by the casting of Pryor.
He undoubtedly grabbed his chances at humour, but come the developments of the last section, proved he could just as easily handle the serious stuff as well. Perhaps this was because nobody felt much like laughing behind the scenes, as every day of shooting was reputedly marred with bitter arguments, to the extent that by the time the final scene was shot (where they are chatting on the sofa after a night of partying) none of the three principals were talking to each other outside of their acting commitments onscreen. But with a plot like this, there was always going to be tension translated to the audience, and it's truly absorbing to watch the tone go from kidding to outright paranoid.
What Zeke, Jerry and Smokey settle on as a way out of their financial woes is to rob the union they feel is doing so little for them, so in a goofy sequence they break into the offices and investigate the safe room, only to find that there is no money there at all and they've wasted their time. But not quite, as they steal the safe and cut it open with their work tools to discover a small amount of petty cash and a ledger containing details of many underhand loans and deals with the criminal fraternity. Thinking they could have some very decent blackmail material with this, we can see immediately that they are in way over their heads, and the mood of the film turns grim, with the friends caught between the union's corruption, the gangsters pulling the strings, and the F.B.I. who want them to rat on both of them. The aim of this would appear to be to make the audience angry that such a state of affairs would ever arise, but what most comes across is a sense of despair where not only are there no easy answers, there are no answers at all, with even the racial harmony of the early scenes ruined by the end. Blue Collar is superbly made, but incredibly dispiriting. Music by Jack Nitzsche.