Paul Schrader’s 1978 directing debut heads deep into the darker districts of Springsteenville for a raw, funny, harsh and dirty portrayal of the way the little guy can get caught up and crushed among the cogs of the system.
Zeke (Richard Pryor), Jerry (Harvey Keitel) and Smokey (Yaphet Kotto) work monotonous shifts on the production line of a Detroit automobile factory. Pressed for cash, they come to realise their union has been exploiting them at least as much as their bosses have, and decide to take action for themselves, devising a scheme to rob the union headquarters. Their heist succeeds, but the haul is paltry – however, in with the money are records implicating the union as having links with loansharking and other organised crime. The three attempt to blackmail the union with the evidence, but are soon out of their depth in a paranoid, violent landscape where everything starts to crumble around them and friendship is the first thing to go.
Schrader co-wrote the script with his brother, Leonard, both drawing upon their childhood, raised in the 1950s among a community of Polish autoworkers in Michigan. Schrader’s lifelong obsession with film noir is to the fore in the dark hues, flashes of fevered light and the inexorable onslaught of fate. A grimy blue tone infects the visuals throughout, with the dark and fiery factory dominating the film just as it does the lives of the protagonists. The three leads give fine performances, particularly the eternally undervalued Kotto, exuding a strong, quiet decency. Ry Cooder and Jack Nitzsche did the steam-hammering music; listen out for Captain Beefheart.