While catching up on my long-neglected film reading, I found this fascinating article by Saul Austerlitz about Paul Schrader’s debut film, Blue Collar, which stars Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel, and Yaphet Kotto as auto-plant assembly line workers driven to robbery by frustration and deprivation. Austerlitz describes the film as “a union noir for the 1970s, its villain the faceless somebodies who squeezed the American dream dry, but its schizophrenic tone — part blue-collar comedy, part heist film, part Greek tragedy in Detroit — covers a painfully realistic, painfully familiar world of working-class striving.”
It is a world in which a visit from the IRS or a daughter’s crooked teeth can serve as the harbinger of tragedy just as much as any loose woman or false accusation from a past generation’s noir. Blue Collar is a movie whose time has come and gone and come again.
And he concludes that
the passage of three decades has made Blue Collar a relic of a time so far gone as to seem almost imaginary. The notion of work as a holding pen (if only!) has receded to the farthest margins; instead of living from paycheck to paycheck, workers in the auto industry (and many other industries as well) are learning how to live with no paycheck at all. The meltdown of the economy has given the red tint of Blue Collar’s final image a hue less bloody than rosy — remember the days when there were jobs for everyone? And yet Schrader’s searing pessimism feels just right for the year in which General Motors — General Motors! — has declared bankruptcy. “Whatever happened to the American dream?” the movie pointedly wonders, without offering even the ghost of an answer. The circumstances may have changed, but Schrader’s airless noir is now, for better and mostly for worse, the story of all our lives.
The DVD is out of print but the film can be streamed on Netflix.