This 1978 directorial debut by leading screenwriter Paul Schrader is a compelling illustration of the corrupting influence of power, on this occasion set in the unionised 1970s' US motor industry. With a screenplay co-written with brother Leonard, Schrader creates a brilliantly authentic atmosphere of the lot of the modern (1970s) working man, with repeated sequences shot on the car production line, initially introduced to us (over the opening credits) accompanied by the industrial throbbing beat of Captain Beefheart's version of Jack Nitzsche's song, Hard Workin' Man.
At the centre of Schrader's outstanding debut is a career best (non-comic) acting performance from legendary US stand-up comedian Richard Pryor playing Zeke Brown, one of the car production workers who is struggling to make ends meet, and to satisfy the increasingly consumer-driven demands of his wife and family (to the extent that he is claiming benefits for 3 imaginary children, including one hilariously named Stevie Wonder Brown). Pryor is ably supported on the acting front by Harvey Keitel (delivering, along with that in Meanstreets, one of his best ever roles) as Polish-immigrant Jerry Bartowski (whose home is sprinkled with religious imagery - tying into the Schraders' own strict religious upbringing) and Yaphet Kotto, similarly outstanding as Zeke and Jerry's co-worker, Smokey James. Given the reputed difficulties Schrader had with his three stars during the shoot (including an alleged incident where Pryor 'did a Kinski' and threatened to shoot Schrader because of the number of retakes Schrader was demanding), the director manages to elicit a convincing sense of camaraderie (initially, at least) among the three actors. The film's main narrative centres on the principal trio's financial pressures leading to them attempting to break into their union's office safe in order to steal an alleged booty of $10K, only to discover instead a series of documents incriminating the union in corrupt financial practices.
As corrupt union official Eddie Johnson, Harry Bellaver also delivers a superbly menacing performance, as Zeke's attempts to bribe the union begin to backfire. Similarly, Borah Silver is excellent as the aggressively racist foreman, Dogsh.it Miller. Schrader peppers the film with many outstanding sequences including the powerful, tour-de-force episode where Smokey is (deliberately) trapped in the car factory's paint-shop (a scene which lends an alternative, devastating meaning to the film's title) and, going somewhat against the film's grain, the hilarious robbery sequence, where the film's central trio adopt a Marx Brothers-like comic persona (full of non-synchronised watches and comedy - arrow through the head! - disguises).
Outside of a handful of comic touches, however, Schrader's film, in the main, is a compelling portrayal of (predominantly, union) corruption and paranoia which builds superbly to a climax in which Zeke and Jerry's friendship has been torn apart, largely as a result of political manipulation, causing them to resort to racist abuse, whilst tearing at each other's throats ('Everything they do is to keep us in our place'). A powerfully portentous ending to one of the outstanding (and largely overlooked) US films of the 1970s.