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What Were the '70s Trying to Tell Us? Blue Collar (1978) and Cutter's Way (1981)

When I chose these two movies for my ‘70s series months ago, I knew they would be a tough sell, but I also felt confident that (1) these films were unfamiliar to my audience, and (2) they needed to be seen and discussed. I also felt some audience members would be offended at the content in these films, so I warned them in my regular movie group emails and in my presentations several weeks before. People walked out of both films, not a lot of people, but still, people walked out. Yet most stayed and discussed these two challenging films, providing everyone with something to think about as they drove home. Maybe they’re still thinking about these movies. I hope so.



If you’ve seen it, you know that Paul Schrader’s Blue Collar doesn’t hold anything back. It’s raunchy, loaded with profanity, racism, sexuality, and more. (Hey, it’s a Richard Pryor movie, for cryin’ out loud!) One woman left after five minutes, and two more people departed after 10 minutes. I understand. This movie isn’t for everyone. I told them (all regular attenders) that I hoped they would join us again and they assured me they would.

If you’re reading beyond the spoiler warning, there’s no need for me to tell you the plots of each film. I’m more interested in discussing the audience’s reaction to each movie.

As I always do, I made a few comments after Blue Collar, talking about director Paul Schrader’s difficulties with his three stars Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel, and Yaphet Kotto, but especially how the management in the film uses racism and manipulation to keep everyone in line, practically enslaved to the company while working in a soul-crushing environment. Smokey’s final voiceover really says it all: “They pit the lifers against the new boys, the young against the old, the black against the white. Everything they do is to keep us in our place.” Those lines could easily have come from a prison movie, and in a way, that’s exactly what Blue Collar is.

“You may be offended by much in the movie,” I told the audience, “but what’s really offensive is what’s going on underneath the surface.” But - at least initially - my opinion was in the minority.

“I’m sorry,” one gentleman in the audience said after the film, “but these guys got exactly what they deserved.” Wow. Another said, “They all made bad choices.” Wow again.

Then a woman spoke up, addressing the first two people who commented. “I don’t agree with that at all. These guys are trapped, they’re up against the wall. They’ve been mistreated and are desperate. What would you have done?”

What followed was an interesting, yet civil, discussion about these characters, their environment, and their choices. And yes, some of those choices were bad, but what’s worse: those choices or the people in power who make conditions so unbearable that they have no other choices?

We heard from people who had been in unions, people who had lived in the Detroit area, and people who had been in financial straits similar to those depicted in the film. We also heard from people who had experienced none of those things. People with vastly different experiences and from various walks of life were sitting there, talking it out, each trying to make the other understand. I can only hope that those audience members, regardless of their worldviews, had something important to think about on the way home.

With Cutter’s Way, I freely admitted that I cheated. Yes, this is a film from the ‘80s, not the ‘70s, but here’s my three-fold justification for including it in the series: (1) The novel from which the film was adapted, Cutter and Bone by Newton Thornburg, was published in 1976, (2) the film has been called the last great film of the 1970s, despite the fact that it was released in 1981, and (3) the movie serves as a bridge between the Vietnam war and the corporate madness of the 1980s.

This was a first: I asked if anyone in the audience (more than 30 people) had ever seen Cutter’s Way. No hands went up. In my introduction, I asked them to think while they watched, “What is this movie? A mystery? A detective story? Something else?”

Immediately after the film, I went back to the final scene and discussed what was going on and asked what they thought about it. Was J.J. Cord guilty of the murder? I don’t think there’s any doubt that he was (but one member of the audience presented a fairly strong argument against Cord’s guilt). I also pointed out that this is a huge moment for Bone, whom Cutter frequently accuses throughout the film of walking away from problems and responsibility. Here, Bone is literally connected to Cutter (although the veteran is dead at this point), his fingers intertwined with his, holding the gun. Bone is finally taking action, although his hand is shaking terribly. I mentioned that the first time I saw the film, I thought Cord was reaching for a gun, but it was the mirrored sunglasses he was after, which (I believe) confirm that he’s the killer of the young girl. After that moment, Bone doesn’t hesitate, but fires and the screen goes black.

Now the speculation begins. What do we think happened next? Did Bone’s shot actually hit Cord? (Bone’s hand was shaking quite badly.) If he missed, what would be the next logical step? Cord would call in his boys and have Bone killed to make it look like self-defense? Would he just have Bone arrested and tried? Maybe Cord was hit. What if he was only wounded? If he was killed, what would his security team do? What would his wife do?

There was more speculation: Mo’s death could’ve been caused by Cord, or perhaps it was Mo’s fault, either through negligence or perhaps she fully intended to kill herself. Some in the audience loved the ambiguity; others didn’t.

As was the case with Blue Collar, some audience members had little sympathy for the characters in Cutter’s Way, especially Bone. As far as I know, we had no Vietnam veterans in the group, but many were sympathetic to Cutter’s plight as well as Mo’s struggles to keep both Cutter and herself together. But Bone (played by Jeff Bridges, who almost always plays a likable character) wasn’t exactly lauded. Yet at least one person in the group said, “At least he finally took a stand for something at the end.”

I also briefly mentioned the careers of John Heard and Lisa Eichhorn, and the reason almost no one saw the film upon its initial release*, but mostly I addressed what the film is. It clearly contains elements of mystery and detective work, but primarily Cutter’s Way is a tale of the American dream gone bad. (We also discussed the theme of the old ways and cultures passing away.) It seems to be saying at least a couple of things: that people in positions of power can seemingly do anything they want with no fear of consequences, and that the Vietnam war damaged us in ways we’re still trying to deal with today.

These were two heavy, weighty films. I admire anyone who came to join us for either and I greatly admire those who attended both. Next time we’ll lighten it up considerably with Cold Turkey (1971) on Thursday, May 23 at 6:15pm. Do join us!

Photos: DVD Beaver, Writers Without Money, Listal, Filmous, Jonathan

* Cutter’s Way was the project championed by two executives at United Artists, executives who got jobs at another studio as the filming was wrapping up. In the movie industry - then and now - incoming executives usually don’t support any project made by the outgoing executives. If the film’s a hit, the new execs never get the credit, and if it’s a flop, they get the full blame. Cutter’s Way had almost no advertising and played in theaters for one week. The initial reviews were negative, but several other critics praised the film. By that time, it was too late. Cutter’s Way was done, only to be discovered through cable, and later VHS, DVD and Blu-ray. What I’ve given you, however, is just the short version of the story. There’s much more to it. I would encourage you to listen to the excellent commentary by Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman on the Twilight Time Blu-ray.

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