Posted by Susan Doll on March 13, 2017
The Thin Blue Line (1988), which is available for streaming via FilmStruck as part of the series Documentaries by Errol Morris, is more than a documentary. It is an investigation into the case of Randall Adams, who was falsely convicted of the murder of Dallas policeman Robert Wood.
Randall Adams was one of the hundreds of rural poor eking out a meager living on the margins of working-class Texas. His (mis)fortunes turned from bad to worse when he met David Harris, a wild teenager with a penchant for violence. The two hung out for a brief time before parting ways after Adams declined to allow Harris to crash in his motel room. A short time later, Adams was arrested for killing Officer Wood during a routine traffic stop. The primary witness was Harris, who claimed he was in the passenger seat when Adams pulled out a gun and shot Wood. Intent on a quick conviction, the Dallas County Sheriff’s Department “discovered” other witnesses in addition to Harris who swore that Adams was a dangerous murderer.
One of those witnesses was Dr. James Grigson, a Dallas psychiatrist who often testified for the prosecution in murder cases. Originally, Morris planned to make a documentary about Grigson, who had helped put dozens of people on death row. Grigson’s pat testimony was to proclaim that if an accused murderer were to be released, he would likely kill again. Morris chose about a dozen of the people that Grigson had helped convict to interview for the film, including Adams. While researching the case, he was immediately suspicious of Harris’ version of events. The more he examined the testimonies of the witnesses and law enforcement, the more he realized there had been a terrible miscarriage of justice. The focus of his documentary changed; it was now a movie about Randall Adams. Fate must have decided that Adams was due for a break, because Morris’ selection of people to interview had been completely random. He could just as easily have selected someone else.
Film scholars, who live to categorize, systematize and classify movies, most often categorize The Thin Blue Line as a participatory doc, meaning the filmmaker plays a more active role in the film than is typical for documentary. Contrary to popular belief, nonfiction films are not objective displays of fact; they are purveyors of point of view. All docs reveal the hand, or suggest the point of view, of the filmmaker, though some styles do so with great subtlety. This understanding of the nonfiction format is not the profound insight of modern-day scholars, it was the declaration of the man who coined the word “documentary” and defined its agenda. John Grierson described documentary as “the creative treatment of actuality,” which acknowledges the subjective input of the filmmaker when re-presenting objective reality.
Participatory docs are more flagrant in their subjectivity, more purposeful in revealing the point of view of the director. They actively promote an agenda that goes beyond documentary’s usual purpose of education and information. Participatory docs, like The Thin Blue Line, can be deceptive, often mimicking other, more familiar types of nonfiction filmmaking.
At first glance, The Thin Blue Line seems like a typical expository documentary—something you might see on a true-crime cable channel. It combines talking-head interviews with re-enactments and two-dimensional material such as maps, newspaper headlines and diagrams. But, Morris has subverted the typical use of these techniques as a tactic in his investigation to suggest Adams’ innocence and to reveal a miscarriage of justice. He also includes artfully photographed, almost abstract close-ups of items that are clues in the case as well as bold color-corrected treatments of key scenes. The arty close-ups and bold colors are likely the influence of Morris’ day job, which is director of television commercials for such major clients as Apple Computers, United Airlines and Miller Beer.
Morris’ deliberate tactics are apparent in the opening sequence, which includes the first interview segments with Adams and Harris intercut with specific images. This is an editing technique known as Russian montage in which one shot is juxtaposed with another to suggest a meaning beyond the surface. Adams begins to relate his tale, which is followed by a close-up of the red flashing lights of a police car. The flashing lights are color corrected to be a piercing red, and they signify getting “caught” by authorities. The juxtaposition suggests he is guilty. But, the next interview segment is with Harris, who tells his version of events, followed by a photograph of a gun. The gun will become a point of contention in the case, a detail that just doesn’t fit well into the official version of events. The juxtaposition raises question about Harris’ statements.
Some of those interviewed are discredited through this type of montage editing. A female witness claimed to have seen Adams in the car interacting with Wood as she and her husband drove by the scene. In her interview, she reveals how much she loves solving crimes. She even fancies herself to be good at it. Morris intercuts her comments with clips from an old Boston Blackie movie, suggesting her reason for coming forward may have had something to do with her desire to play amateur detective. Later, a neighbor suggests she likely cut a deal to get a family member out of a sticky legal situation, further undermining her credibility.
Another twist to the talking-head technique employed by Morris is the “interrotron,” a device of his invention. Often described as a modified Teleprompter, it allows Morris to project his image on a monitor placed just above the camera. Those being interviewed look at Morris’ image as they answer the questions, which is almost like looking directly into the camera. From the viewers’ perspective, they look like they are talking to us as they spill their versions of events. Morris claims it heightens the intimacy of the interview experience, which sometimes leads to unexpected revelations. As he has noted many times, he probes his subjects without knowing what they will reveal—unlike other documentaries in which the filmmakers know the answers before asking the questions.
Morris also used a unique approach to reenactments in that they do not show what really happened. They are not illustrations of true events. As Morris said in an interview for the book The Art of Documentary by Megan Cunningham, “They’re dramatic reenactments of unreality.” For example, the official account of events by Robert Wood’s partner, who was with him that night, claims she followed procedure for a routine traffic stop, meaning she got out of the car to back him up when he approached Adams in the car. We see that account reenacted in the minimalist, high-contrast style adopted by Morris for the film. Later, it’s discovered that they had stopped at a fast-food restaurant just before the incident, and she had gotten a milkshake. Morris also reenacts this extended version of events. It is likely she stayed in the car to enjoy her shake but burst out the door after her partner was shot, a moment suggested by a slow-motion shot of the shake artfully flying through the air.
Morris’ deliberate editing, moody re-enactments and arty close-ups of meaningful clues and motifs serve to cast doubt on the official version of the crime while pulling us into the mystery. These stylistic choices are also evidence of his voice as a filmmaker—a voice that reveals his belief that Adams was innocent. I hesitate to reveal the coup de grace moment at the end—the truth of what happened to Officer Robert Wood and why—for the sake of those who have not seen The Thin Blue Line. The fact that Adams was innocent is widely known, but the unraveling of the killer is a fascinating moment that should be experienced without prior knowledge.
Sometimes film can be a weapon. In this case, The Thin Blue Line was a weapon for justice, because it succeeded where the system failed. Material from the film, including some of the interviews were later submitted as evidence in court. The interviews showed that several witnesses had committed perjury. The conviction was overturned, and Adams was freed.
To view The Thin Blue Line click here.
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