Blue Collar (film)

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Blue Collar
Theatrical release poster
Directed byPaul Schrader
Written by
Produced byDon Guest
CinematographyBobby Byrne
Edited byTom Rolf
Music byJack Nitzsche
Distributed byUniversal Pictures
Release date
  • February 10, 1978 (1978-02-10) (United States)
Running time
114 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$1.7 million[1]
Box office$6.5 million[2]

Blue Collar is a 1978 American crime drama film directed by Paul Schrader in his directorial debut. Written by Schrader and his brother Leonard, the film stars Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel and Yaphet Kotto.[3] The film is both a critique of union practices and an examination of life in a working-class Rust Belt enclave.

Schrader, who was a screenwriter renowned for his work on Taxi Driver (1976), recalls the shooting as being very difficult because of the artistic and personal tensions he had with the actors (including the stars themselves). Schrader has also stated that while making the film, he suffered an on-set mental breakdown, which made him seriously reconsider his career.[4]

The film was shot in Detroit and Kalamazoo, Michigan.


A trio of Wayne County, Michigan auto workers, two black— 32-year-old Ezekiel "Zeke" Brown from Detroit, Michigan (Pryor) and two-time ex-convict 35-year-old Sam "Smokey" James (Kotto) from Mississippi who spent time in a Michigan State Prison—and one 33-year-old white— Polish-American from Hamtramck, Michigan, Jerry Bartowski (Keitel)—are fed up with mistreatment at the hands of both management and the union brass. Smokey, a bachelor, is in debt to a loan shark over a numbers game, Jerry, a family man, works a second job as a gas station attendant to get by but still struggles to pay bills, including the orthodontics work that his daughter needs. Zeke, another family man, is in trouble with the IRS for tax evasion by filing false claims in order to improve his family's income.[5]

Coupled with the financial hardships on each man's end, the trio hatch a plan to rob a safe at the American Auto Workers union headquarters. With a few rough bumps, they commit the caper but find only $600 in petty cash. More importantly, they also come away with a ledger which contains evidence of the union's illegal loan operation and ties to organized crime syndicates in Las Vegas, Chicago and New York. They decide to make an attempt to blackmail the union with the information, especially when the union has issued a false statement claiming that $10,000 had been robbed so they can fraudulently collect from the insurance. Meanwhile, Charlie T. Hernandez, a local racketeer & loan shark who is an acquaintance of Smokey was aware of the trio's robbery, pays Smokey a visit, revealing that Smokey received advice from him on how to crack the union's safe in exchange for a percentage of the robbed proceeds. Charlie gets busted by the police for his connection to an unrelated crime and attempts to get a softer conviction in exchange for revealing information about the trio's theft & their blackmailing. This information subsequently gets back to the union and they begin to retaliate strongly by turning the tables on the three friends. Jerry experiences a near-miss one evening when a pair of hired thugs show up at his house to attack his wife, but both get intercepted and roughed up by Smokey. The next day at work, a suspicious accident at the plant results in Smokey's death, but it's investigated as a work accident caused by negligent enforcement of safety rules. Zeke and Jerry realize it was a murder coordinated by the union bosses due to the incriminating knowledge they possess against the union. Jerry sends his family out of town to stay with relatives in Mackinaw City, Michigan to keep them out of harm's way.

An FBI agent, John Burrows, who has been investigating the union, attempts to coerce Jerry into becoming a material witness or cooperating witness against the union's corruption, which would make him an adversary of his co-workers and give him a reputation as a cowardly snitch. At the same time, corrupt union bosses already succeed in coopting Zeke to give back their stolen ledger and work for them with promises of a promotion to shop steward and increased pay. Zeke, happy with his new duties and higher pay, pragmatically prescinds from seeking justice for Smokey's murder, as it would jeopardize his newfound standing within the ranks of the union. Jerry attempts to convince Zeke to take steps to avenge Smokey's death, but Zeke rebukes him, telling Jerry that nothing will bring Smokey back and that they should just move forward. One evening, two gunmen, hired by the mob, follow and try to shoot Jerry in a drive-by shooting while traveling through a tunnel. This evolves into a chase where Jerry attempts to make a desperate break for Canada via the Detroit–Windsor tunnel. However, he ends up crashing his car before he gets there, though he is rescued by the police. Disgusted with Zeke's capitulation and terrified after another attempt on his life, Jerry decides to contact to John Burrows and cooperates with the FBI and a United States Congress Select or special committee (United States Congress).

In the end, as Jerry enters the plant with federal agents, Zeke confronts him. Once friends, Jerry and Zeke now turn on each other as a heated discussion escalates into the two attempting to physically attack each other, confirming the prescient earlier narrative (as heard in Smokey's words) that union corruption divides workers against one another.



The film was shot on location at the Checker plant in Kalamazoo, Michigan and at locales around Detroit, including the Ford River Rouge Complex on the city's southwest side and the MacArthur Bridge to Belle Isle.

The three main actors did not get along and were continually fighting throughout the shoot. The tension became so great that at one point Richard Pryor (supposedly in a drug-fueled rage) pointed a gun at Schrader and told him that there was "no way" he would ever do more than three takes for a scene; an incident that may have triggered Schrader's nervous breakdown.[4]

Schrader states that during the filming of one take, Harvey Keitel became so irritated by Pryor's lengthy improvisations that he flung the contents of an ashtray into the camera lens, ruining the take. Pryor and his bodyguard responded by pinning Keitel to the floor and pummeling him with their fists.[6]

Jack Nitzsche's blues-flavored score includes "Hard Workin' Man", a collaboration with Captain Beefheart.[7]


Blue Collar was universally praised by critics. The film holds a 98% "Fresh" rating on the review aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes based on 42 reviews. The site's consensus states: "Paul Schrader's Blue Collar offers a searing, darkly funny indictment of labor exploitation and rampant consumerism that's fueled by the outstanding work of an excellent cast."[8] Both Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel lauded the film; Ebert awarded the film four stars[9] and Siskel placed the film fourth on his list of the ten best of 1978.[10]

Filmmaker Spike Lee included the film on his essential film list "Films All Aspiring Filmmakers Must See".[11] The New York Times placed the film on its Best 1000 Movies Ever list.[12]

In his autobiography Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen names Blue Collar and Taxi Driver as two of his favorite films of the 1970s.[13]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Kilday, Gregg (Apr 6, 1977). "Writing His Way to the Top". Los Angeles Times. p. e20.
  2. ^ "Blue Collar Box Office Information". Box Office Mojo.
  3. ^ "Blue Collar". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved March 15, 2016.
  4. ^ a b The Back Row, Robin's Underrated Gems: Blue Collar (1978)
  5. ^ Schrader, Paul. "Blue Collar | Film Review | Spirituality & Practice".
  6. ^ Henry, David; Henry, Joe (2014-01-01). Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him. Algonquin Books. ISBN 978-1-61620-447-1.
  7. ^ Metz, Nina (August 24, 2017). "No shadows or trenchcoats: Why a 1978 Richard Pryor movie unexpectedly qualifies as film noir". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved September 2, 2018.
  8. ^ Blue Collar, Movie Reviews. Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved August 21, 2021.
  9. ^ Roger Ebert reviews Blue Collar. Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved January 27, 2016.
  10. ^ Siskel and Ebert Top 10. Retrieved January 27, 2016.
  11. ^ List of Films All Aspiring Filmmakers Must See. IndieWire. Retrieved January 27, 2016.
  12. ^ The Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made. The New York Times via Internet Archive. Published April 29, 2003. Retrieved June 12, 2008.
  13. ^ Springsteen, Bruce (2016). Born to Run. London: Simon & Schuster. p. 313.

External links[edit]