Whatever became of the American Dream?
Paul Schrader has written and directed several well-regarded films including American Gigolo and Affliction, and has written for even more top-rate films such as Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, The Last Temptation of Christ, and City Hall). Blue Collar was his directorial debut, and is an underrated classic.
This American tale reaches into areas that aren't traditionally represented in film, such as real working class men pursuing the ever-elusive American Dream, while keeping a gritty real-world view and exposition of some still contemporary topics such as race. The simple fact that two of the three stars of the film are black and one white was pretty controversial at the time. This simply directed and framed film is one of the best films of the 1970s in my opinion. A stellar cast and a very real portrayal of Midwestern America contribute to a tautly written story that can reach the viewer and make him believe. It isn't all high drama though, in fact there are some pretty comedic moments thanks to the ad-libbing of Richard Pryor (Brewster's Millions, Stir Crazy, Silver Streak). Pryor gives the best performance of his career and proves that he can truly act in a dramatic role as well. With co-stars Harvey Keitel (Pulp Fiction, From Dusk til Dawn, Copland) and Yaphet Kotto (Alien, TV's Homicide) giving equally strong performances you can hardly go wrong.
The story is about three auto workers (Pryor, Keitel, Kotto) on the assembly line in the late '70s. Despite union jobs they never seem to be able to have enough to support their families and give them more than the barest necessities. When debts catch up to all three (IRS audit for Pryor, kids braces for Keitel, and partying too hard for Kotto) they are becoming desperate. Knowing full well their union is corrupt, they feel no remorse for attempting a robbery on the union offices to come up with enough cash to just make ends meet. It's rather touching that all these three expect to get from the robbery is a couple thousand bucks each rather than the huge sums movies always use as a motivator today. But they get in way over their heads when they find more than they're looking for; though it is not money. Big business, big labor, betrayal and murder threaten to undo everything these men have worked for.
This isn't to say that these men are stalwart heroes. They remain sympathetic and men who really want to provide for their families, but aren't averse to drug use, cheating on their wives, or committing a crime. Although the film is in part about selling out, this film never does. It has the realistic people and sensibility that independents try for, and often fail to realize now. A fantastic mix of comedy and terse drama, along with a driving blues musical score, make this a great movie; important while entertaining. It's amazing that Schrader managed to accomplish all this.
The amazing part is that the film was ever completed. Schrader was desperate for name talent so he could acquire financing, and told all three co-stars of the film that they individually would be the star so they would sign on. Once they realized they had been duped, the stars were understandably upset. One-upmanship, fights both physical and verbal, and walkouts became the order of the day. In what looks like directorial genius at times, notably the often unmoving camera, was in fact done because Schrader was afraid if they cut for any reason one of the actors might just leave or start a fight. Only when the camera was rolling, and not always even then did the actors reach into themselves and rise above their differences. Frankly I'm glad the camera didn't move all over the place as I think fledgling directors are especially prone to unnecessary "cute" camera tricks. There was no time for any of that here. Despite the anger and intensity on the set, the three look like real friends on the screen.
I can vouch for the realism of the film from my own upbringing. I grew up the son of a steelworker, and a union president. While I know my own father was an honest advocate of the workers, it was no secret of the corruption of labor in general. I myself worked in a similar plant as these characters for some time in the late '70s, and the feel is true to the industrial setting and the men who work and live within it.
The DVD is very well represented. The often hellish setting inside the plant with sparks, metal, and heavy equipment is detailed and clear, though with a rather dark color palette. Only the chrome bumpers on the cars on the assembly line showed any artifacting or edge enhancement problems, though they were noticeable. Blacks and other colors were adequately saturated without bleeding. Overall a very good 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer.
The soundtrack is a two channel mono, which gives surprisingly clear sound for the blues musical score, and keeps dialogue intelligible. Occasionally a line isn't as easy to understand because of the fast talking style of Pryor, and the facts that there were limited takes you could get the actors to even sit still for without fighting. In the end there was no way to get the money or the actors to sit for looping dialogue afterwards as well. This is still not a serious problem on the disc.
The extra content is very nice; featuring an audio commentary track by writer/director Paul Schrader with some prompting and comment from journalist Maitland McDonagh. She saves the track from becoming too tedious, since Schrader on his own was not very forthcoming. With her help he opened up, and was frankly honest about his work, including where he thought he did something wrong. The theatrical trailer and thorough cast and crew bios with filmographies round out the extra content. I really couldn't have asked for more.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I have little to complain about the film itself. I found it extremely entertaining and gripping, though certainly not perfect. If I were wishing that a real remix of the soundtrack, preferably in Dolby Digital had been done, I still wouldn't be finding great fault with the track that we got. A few flaws in the transfer likewise do not make me downgrade much at all on the overall fine presentation. The lack of subtitles is my only real gripe. Anchor Bay needs to commit to at least captioning for the deaf and hard of hearing across the board. There is one more thing: the case erroneously claims a Dolby Digital mono track, which it isn't.
I give this Universal film and Anchor Bay release high marks in all categories. I think this disc is a worthy purchase for almost anyone. It is certainly a great rental for those who appreciate '70s era filmmaking and perhaps can't afford to buy blind.
Hopefully time has healed the wounds the cast and director inflicted on each other over 20 years ago. So I will reserve judgment of injuries for another time. The film and disc are acquitted on all counts.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
• Director Commentary
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