THE THIN BLUE LINE

USA

1988

Randall Adams

David Harris

Gus Rose

Jackie Johnson

Marshall Touchton

 

Director: Errol Morris

Production co: Third Floor Productions

Producer: Mark Lipson

Cinematography: Stefan Czapsky, Robert Chappell

Editor: Paul Barnes

Production designer: Ted Bafaloukos

Sound: Steve Aaron

Music: Philip Glass

101 mins

35mm

 

Synopsis

On November 28, 1976, a Dallas policeman—Robert Wood, an American Indian—was shot dead by the driver of a car he had stopped because it was running on parking lights. Misled as to the make of the car by the testimony of the dead man’s partner—Teresa Turko, one of the first policewomen on the force—the hunt for the cop-killer came to a dead end. Until, nearly a month later, the police 350 miles away in Vidor, Texas, took David Harris into custody: a sixteen-year-old who had boasted to friends of having killed Wood, Harris led police to the murder weapon, hidden in a swamp. Under questioning he admitted to having been in the car, claimed to have been boasting about killing Wood, and fingered a casual acquaintance met that day, Randall Adams, as having fired the shots. And there, documented in interviews with everybody concerned, began what seems, incontrovertibly, to have been an extraordinary miscarriage of justice. Harris had a long record of crimes of violence (before, during and after the trial); Adams had none. The trial, conducted by an inexperienced defence and ambitious prosecution, with a murky background of suppressed evidence and bribed witnesses now exposed, emerges as the result of an urgent need for a scapegoat: Harris, at sixteen, could not be sentenced to death; Adams, at twenty-eight, could and was, in May 1977. Saved from execution on a technicality by the U.S. Supreme Court, Adams had his sentence commuted to life imprisonment in 1980. When the film was shot, Adams was still in jail. Harris under sentence of death for another killing, admits obliquely but unequivocally in a tape-recorded statement that Adams is innocent. Two weeks after The Thin Blue Line opened in Dallas, a new appeal by Adams was turned down, but the judge, having denied prior involvement in the case, was found to have assisted the prosecutor in 1977. Adams has recently been released pending retrial.

Press Materials

 

“Documentarist-extraordinary Morris’ original and delightfully bizarre slice of investigative film journalism attempts, successfully, to set the record straight about one Randall Adams, imprisoned in 1976 for the murder of a Dallas cop. It is also a philosophical thesis on problems of knowledge and truth, which uses highly stylised dramatic reconstructions of the crime to offer a multitude of perspectives on what really happened, and a darkly comic, nightmarish study in self-delusion and deception. The legal figures and witnesses Morris interviews are transparently weird, shifty, obsessive and unreliable. Indeed, the movie—immaculately structured, beautifully shot, sensitively scored by Philip Glass—is a poignant and hilarious essay on oddball America. Morris’ skill in suggesting that Adams’ original trial involved at best miscarriage of justice, at worst corruption, ensures that the audience becomes a surrogate jury. The film provokes sadness, anger, relief, admiration, and wonder; enjoy it, and worry.” — Geoff Andrew, Time Out

 

“Errol Morris, known for his peculiar documentaries Gates of Heaven and Vernon, Florida, once entertained a rapt interest in criminal responsibility while a graduate student in philosophy at U.C. Berkeley. Reviving this passion, he traveled to Dallas to research a documentary on "Dr. Death," a psychiatrist who often served as an expert witness in capital crimes. But Morris became sidetracked by a story of one of the prisoners who'd been sentenced to die, at least in part because of the doctor's testimony. Randall Adams, convicted nine years earlier of a cop killing, sat on Death Row, declaring his innocence. Morris had his own conviction that a miscarriage of justice had been done. He then filmed interviews with Adams, lawyers, police involved in the case, witnesses, the jury, and the man Morris was sure had actually committed the crime. New evidence surfaced, making the film unfold like a classic thriller-only there's that disturbing ache that real lives are in the offing. "The Thin Blue Line is the ultimate paranoid dream," says Morris. "It's like my other movies in its style, but the stakes are much higher here-a man's life. It's the only film I know of where the investigation was actually done with a camera." Thanks to Morris' persistence and his admirable detection, Adams will soon be re-tried.” — Pacific Film Archive, 1988

 

“Rather like the cinematic equivalent of Truman Capote’s literary achievement in In Cold Blood, Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line constitutes a mesmerising reconstruction and investigation of senseless murder. Employing strikingly original formal devices to pull together diverse interviews, filmclips, photo collages and recreations of the crime from many points of view, the film cannot be easily classified, which is to its credit… Clearly a self-conscious artist rather than a socially conscious documentarian, Morris has in spite of himself, made a film that succeeds both as an object d’art and a nonfiction narrative. The things he chooses to show, and the way he reveals them, betray the eye of a highly creative filmmaker, one in whom the passion for legal justice is only slowly awakened during the course of the investigation. Visual design, lighting and editing are impeccable and entirely at odds with the technique of an ordinary documentary. Also of critical importance is Phil Glass’s rushing score, which bestows the drama with a relentless propulsiveness. The title refers to the police, described by the judge here as all that separates the public from the rule of anarchy.” — Cart, Variety

 

“… a breakthrough film that adds inventive visuals to Morris’s usual talking heads and distinctly deadpan interview style. Aside from being a brilliant piece of collagistic film-making, Line has definite crowd-pleasing elements: a murder, a wrongfully-accused suspect, a twisty-turny investigation, surprise revelations and a pointed depiction of moral ambiguity, seedy Texas-style… The cast of characters in this drama, most of whom turn up to testify, rival those in the Coen Bros’ Blood Simple as quintessentially unthinking, but not necessarily malicious Americans…” — Katherine Dieckmann, American Film

 

“On the face of it, The Thin Blue Line seems an entirely new departure for Errol Morris, the man who made Werner Herzog eat his shoe in the process of establishing himself with Gates of Heaven and Vernon, Florida, as the quirky historiographer of the heartlands of American eccentricity. An exemplary slice of investigative reportage, no longer lightly juggling amusing follies but gravely producing one man’s right to justice out of the conjurer’s hat, it offers what seems to be unassailable proof that Randall Adams has been the victim of a shameful legal traversty.

 

“Not only is the evidence of Adams’ innocence marshalled with total lucidity, but the intricate maze of pieces that go to make up the jigsaw are fitted together with an instinctive feel for the logistics of exposition, elaboration and suspense that an old hand at whodunitry like Agatha Christie would surely have admired. And in piecing his picture together, Morris has also been lured into his first real attempt as mise en scène with the stylised reconstruction of the crime—or rather, the fantasy image drawn of it by the police and prosecution—that recurs at intervals, subject to modifications as new evidence is adduced (or fabricated) during the course of the trial, but never coming close to what must have been the truth to which everyone so studiously turned a blind eye.