Blue Collar / Bad Lieutenant December 11, 2018  

On the set of Blue Collar (1978), a working-class drama, director Paul Schrader and actor Richard Pryor bickered so constantly that Schrader, who by 1978 had written the screenplays for four well-received films, including Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), had his first on-set mental breakdown. The disintegration was brief but rattling. Momentarily, Schrader considered changing his career path. (Blue Collar was his first foray into directing.)

Smallish clues in the final cut indicate Schrader’s disaffection. There's a vacuity to the staging, mostly in early sequences, that implies a lacking of conviction in the material. Certain developmental scenes are muted, as if Schrader had briefly walked away from the camera to take a breather. But other than these particulars, which are not inimical to the film’s effect, there is little to bespeak Schrader’s behind-the-scenes crisis. The feature, which garnered critical praise upon release, is a proficient, often powerful snapshot of working-class life, and how its discontents can manifest dangerously.


The film, which Schrader co-wrote with his brother, Leonard, is set in Detroit, and follows three friends — Zeke (a career-best Pryor), Smokey (Yaphet Kotto), and Jerry (Harvey Keitel) — who work at an auto plant. All are in dire financial straits. Because his family’s income is so negligible, Zeke has taken to pretending he has more kids than he actually does to mollify IRS intrusion. Smokey is single and childless, but owes loan sharks big; Jerry, who has a wife and a daughter, barely makes enough to get by, even with a second job. The triad has an easy, loose rapport — trimmed in a humor and geniality that makes their professional lives slightly more bearable.


But the faith the friends have in each other eventually catalyzes into something misconceived: Partway through the movie, after deducing that they do not have much to lose, the trio decides to rob their union’s safe. The union itself provides minimal assistance, and the money is insured, anyway.


What transpires, though — characteristic of the fatalistic Schrader — is not a gleeful robbery-centric thriller but rather a despondent, momentarily suspenseful drama that does a credible job of developing its blue-collar ennui. It also deftly captures the class differences and racial imbalances that affect the relationships between the primary characters and higher-ups. (And with each other). The “heist” itself is not a cheap thrill but an outburst of desperation. (Disappointingly, the preyed-upon safe contains just $600.)


The final act of Blue Collar is its most affecting. A character dies, under mysterious — albeit graphically depicted — circumstances. 

Another ends up essentially “selling out" by siding with suffocating plant personnel after getting a promotion. There are three masterful scenes residing in the concluding stretch: one involves Jerry being followed by a sinister figure with a gun; another finds the latter and Smokey having an emotionally bald heart to heart on a front porch, revealing their fears and acknowledging their circumstantial, survivalist self-absorption; the last, which also works as the film’s finale, depicts the complete breakdown of one of the relationships, finally devolving into a swapping of racial epithets. The Schraders map the downward spiral of the movie cogently, though the developing of the descent is so furtive that we might initially mistake the setbacks for tragicomedy.


Conversely, there’s no mistaking the conceit of Bad Lieutenant (1992): it's a grimy redemption drama, though the redemption never comes and the dramas are more akin to horror. It, like Blue Collar, stars Keitel, but here, he’s inculcated  — hazardously so — with power, not hungry for it. In the movie, he plays an unnamed NYPD lieutenant (whom I’ll refer to as The Lieutenant) at the end of his rope. He abuses hard drugs, has nymphomaniacal tendencies, is addicted to gambling, and can be volatile — characteristics that knot to make him both an abominable father and ill-fit for his high-stakes job. (As The Lieutenant drives his kids to school in the morning, it is obvious how much he would prefer to misbehave; the same goes for when he’s perusing a crime scene.)  

In the film, which watches his transgressions with salacious fascination rather than misplaced sympathy, he yearns for salvation. That pining does not come organically, though. It's brought on when he stumbles on a disturbing case, which involves the rape of a nun (Frankie Thorn). When The Lieutenant speaks with her shortly after the incident, she explains, with seraphic authenticity, that she has forgiven the men who assaulted her. After the exchange, The Lieutenant thinks to himself: If this woman can feel no malice toward the men who have traumatized her so deeply, then there must be a way I, too, can find peace in my heart.


The dichotomy between good and bad is so pronounced in Bad Lieutenant that there might as well be trademark signs after each defining characteristic. The Lieutenant, who is immoral and corrupt to his fingertips, is capital-B Bad. The nun, who speaks with the same affect as a serene, unbothered deity, is an ethereal personification of good. The film’s co-writer and director, Abel Ferrara, seems to be making a point out of the exaggeration: This is a film of extremes — comprising visual shocks and unchecked depravity — so of course it must take an almost otherworldly force to break through the sinful crust.  


I consider the movie a fascinatingly wretched portrayal of the fall of a man who was never great to begin with. Keitel’s performance is articulate and confoundingly brave — few performers allow themselves to appear as vulnerable, or as execrable, as he does here. Some might have reservations about watching a movie about police corruption and brutality, given how unchecked it tends to be on a day-to-day basis. But Bad Lieutenant does not make for a feature-length sympathy letter to a devil, nor does it glorify the devious behavior of its antagonistic anti-hero. It is, rather, a portrait of a man demarcated by his evils, and how those evils eventually destroy him.  


Blue CollarB+

Bad LieutenantA-