10 FEBRUARY 1979, Page 24


No heroes

Ted Whitehead

Blue Collar (Gate Two, Russell Square) Things are looking up. It's only 25 years since the last American film about the subject which consumes most men's days, work, and now here's another. The first was On The Waterfront, in which Marlon Brand° brought a brute dignity to the role of the ex-boxer turned longshoreman who, spurred on by a priest's faith and a good woman's love, abandons his criminal buddies and leads the sheepish dockers to victorious battle against a racketeering union. It was a noble fable about the redemption of a community through the hero's willingness to sacrifice himself.

Blue Collar (X) is very much a movie for our time and therefore has no heroes, no priests, no good women and no redemption either. In place of a hero it offers three ordinary workers pitched against a corrupt union, and the outcome of the struggle is that the most ambitious joins the union as a shop steward, the bravest — or rather. toughest — is rubbed out, and the weakest blabs to the FBI, not because of his conscience but because he knows that he's going to be rubbed out next.

Paul Schrader is developing as the Hugh Selby Jnr of the cinema. The world explored by the novelist in Last Exit to Brooklyn was the same world explored by the screenwriter in Taxidriver, which depicted New York as a jungle of such filth, ferocity and pervasive corruption that no animal but man could have lasted a day in it. It's a viewpoint that recalls William James's stark conclusion about you, me and the rest of the gang: 'Man is the most formidable of all beasts of prey, and the only one to prey systematically on his own species.' Schrader would perhaps like to be a bit more optimistic than that, since in Blue Collar, which he has written and directed. he specifically identified the beasts of prey as the boss class, i.e. the unholy alliance of company, trade union and police force against the workers, and explicitly attacks their strategy of dividing the work force by pitting black against white, old against young, and so on. The film demonstrates the success of this strategy as three workers form their own subversive alliance but are inexorably divided and pitted against each other.

If the result is not entirely convincing, that is partly because Schrader cannot resist Painting the workers less as victims than as predators on the losing side, and more importantly because he allows the thriller form to submerge the political content and is led astray into a conventional series of Punch-ups and car chases. In marketing terms, of course, good citizens make bad cinema, and the problem of raising political consciousness would hardly cause queues in Leicester Square; but the result is that in Place of the major film we might have had, we get a gutsy and topical entertainment with some provocative implications about industrial life.

However, the screen rarely shows us the lumpen proletariat at work and play, and there is a lot of good stuff here. The heavy beat of the music (reminiscent of the Stones's version of 'Little Red Rooster') echoes a world of hammers and presses and rivets, and the factory itself is an assemblyline inferno with blue-overalled workers crouched under, over and inside the pastel carcases that dominate their lives. The men escape from the incessant roar of the machinery to the bland country music of Little Joe's Bar, for a few hours of beer and sex talk. Back home wait the wives and the kids and the ever-mounting bills. Occasionally the married ones can make an excuse to the family and join a bachelor friend in his flat for an orgy of women and cocaine. But most of life is drudgery, the assembly-line by day, and a spare-time job at night, painting and decorating or working at a petrol station.

Schrader brilliantly depicts these stunted and alienated lives, in which loyalty and tenderness are confined to the family unit — Which, ironically, provides the responsibilities that keep most of the workers in their trap. Three men (two black, one White) rob their union's safe and discover some incriminating documents: but the attempt to blackmail the union is a disaster. The toughest of the trio is murdered, trapped inside a paint shop where an automatically controlled jet pumps out a fine sPray that literally turns the atmosphere blue. The other two panic. For the sake of his family, the black man joins the union. And for the sake of his family, the white man informs the FBI. The film ends with the Woof them trading racist insults, and the fragile alliance is shattered. QED? Not really. But the vivid, abrasive dialogue, dramatic tension (with. I should add, some good comic scenes), surging music, and authentically raw performances by Harvey Keno', Richard Pryor and Yaphet Kotto Make this a picture well worth seeing.