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Paul Schrader began as a film critic and went on to write the scripts for Taxi Driver, The Yakuza, and Obsession. This is his directorial debut.

Zeke, Jerry and Smokey are close friends who work in an automobile factory in Detroit. The assembly line work they are engaged in is grinding and monotonous. Anxiety is relieved in two ways. Firstly, through a rough-house sense of humour that ineffectually mocks the conditions to which they are daily subjected. Secondly, through the periodic release of explosive, pent up frustrations, illustrated in the incident in which an irritated worker destroys an out-of-order soft drink machine.

At home, it is a constant struggle to pay the bills and to keep up with the necessary luxuries of suburban life — a car, a colour television. Zeke's wife pretends that the neighbour's children are her own to hoodwink the prying tax investigator. Jerry's daughter sensing her father's money problems, makes a pathetic attempt at putting together a brace for her teeth from a piece of wire.

The union, as much as the factory bosses, are only out to exploit the workers. When the trio decides to rob the union safe in the course of a wild, drunken night, they find little money but are compensated in their discovery of a document revealing the union's corrupt financial enterprises.

As the union tries to persuade the three men, by means subtle and unsubtle, to give back the document and not act upon it, the three friends ways part. Smokey is trapped in a paint room and dies. In the deluded hope of reforming it, Zeke joins the union and becomes shop steward. Jerry, finally alone, is forced to fall back on his own resources.