The Thin Blue Line

Documentaries seldom have the real-world impact of THE THIN BLUE LINE, a study of an unjustly imprisoned man that actually led to his conviction being overturned. Still, one wishes filmmaker Errol Morris had jettisoned some of the movie's stylistic devices to spend more time on details; the result would have been a film that might not have looked as nice...read more

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Documentaries seldom have the real-world impact of THE THIN BLUE LINE, a study of an unjustly imprisoned man that actually led to his conviction being overturned. Still, one wishes filmmaker Errol Morris had jettisoned some of the movie's stylistic devices to spend more time on details;

the result would have been a film that might not have looked as nice but would certainly have left fewer nagging questions in viewers' minds.

With no narration and generally staying in chronological sequence, Morris tells this story by combining interviews with staged re-enactments. (The interviewees are not identified until the end credits, which sometimes causes both frustration and confusion.) Filmed separately in their respective

prisons, Randall Adams and David Harris (jailed for a different murder committed years later) tell their versions of the events leading to Adams's conviction for the 1976 murder of a Texas policeman.

On the day of the murder, Adams, a 28-year-old laborer new to Dallas, was picked up while hitchhiking by Harris, a 16-year-old in a stolen car. Although the two spent the day, Adams says he was in his room asleep later that night when Officer Robert Wood was shot to death by someone in a car he

had pulled over.

Dallas police traced the car and murder weapon to Harris, who told them that it was actually Adams who pulled the trigger. Although Harris, who already had a substantial criminal record (Adams had none), was by far the most likely suspect, there was no hard evidence against him. Adams, however,

could be tried on the basis of Harris's accusation. And Adams, if found guilty, could be given the death penalty: the 16-year-old Harris could not. The case against Adams seemed weak. But at the last minute the politically ambitious prosecutor produced a trio of surprise witnesses who claimed to

have seen Adams at the murder site. Although their evidence was shaky and probably motivated by reward money, Adams was found guilty. In sentencing him, the judge took the advice of Dr. James Grigson, a Texas psychiatrist known as "Dr. Death," who viewed Adams's continued pleas of innocence as a

"proof" that he was a remorseless sociopath, and sentenced him to death. When his case was reversed by the US Supreme Court because of a legal technicality, Adams was denied a new trial, forced instead to accept a commutation of his sentence to life imprisonment. (It seems likely that, given new

evidence which had become available, a second trial would have resulted in Adams being found innocent, thus embarrassing the local police.)

The film concludes with a startling coda, in which Harris clearly (if obliquely) admits that he and not Adams killed Officer Wood.

In between his acclaimed early documentaries GATES OF HEAVEN (1978) and VERNON FLORIDA (1981), Morris supported himself by working as a private investigator. He came across Adams's case accidentally while researching a film on "Dr. Death." Convinced that Adams's conviction rested on shaky evidence

at best, Morris put his skills as investigator and filmmaker together. The film, however, is not a straightforward account of Morris's investigation - the bulk of the evidence he uncovered is not used in the film. THE THIN BLUE LINE is actually a moody horror story disguised as a documentary,

designed to make the viewer feel how arbitrary and fragile the world of law and society really is. (Quoting the prosecutor's summation speech at Adams's trial, the title refers to the line that separates social order from chaos: in the credits, the word "blue" appears in red, indicating that this

line is illusory at best, if not wholly deceptive.) Consciously referring to the style of film noir, Morris offers repeated recreations of different incidents, in which faces cannot be seen and objects loom in the frame out of proportion to their importance, causing viewers to doubt everything

they see.

Morris describes this film by comparing it to an episode of "The Twilight Zone," which indicates the problem with it: it's too long for this approach, making its point and then repeating it endlessly (rather like the Philip Glass score). With so much interesting and damning hard evidence at hand,

Morris would have better served both himself and his audience by downplaying the mood and giving us more answers to our questions.

Randall Adams was released from prison shortly after the film made his case a cause celebre. In an irony worthy of the film, he and Morris then entered into a brief legal battle over the rights to Adams's life story. (Violence, profanity.)

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  • Released: 1988
  • Rating: NR
  • Review: Documentaries seldom have the real-world impact of THE THIN BLUE LINE, a study of an unjustly imprisoned man that actually led to his conviction being overturned. Still, one wishes filmmaker Errol Morris had jettisoned some of the movie's stylistic devices… (more)

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