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The Truth Is Not Enough, Telling It Is: Looking Back At ‘The Thin Blue Line’

Courtesty of The Criterion Collection.
Randall Dale Adams in "The Thin Blue Line."

In a 2005 essay for NPR’s “This I Believe” series, filmmaker Errol Morris laid out the personal philosophy behind his documentary filmmaking: “Truth is not relative, it's not subjective. It may be elusive or hidden, people may wish to disregard it, but there is such a thing as truth.” Documentaries, by their nature, are created not through an illusory omnipresent eye, but by a person, and from the perspective of that person. With The Thin Blue Line, Morris used that personal quest for truth to build the case for Randall Dale Adams’ innocence.

Adams had been convicted for the 1976 killing of a Dallas police officer. Having finished his first two documentaries, Gates of Heaven and Vernon, Florida, Morris was a filmmaker on hiatus, spending his days working for a New York private investigative firm. The two met when Morris traveled to Texas in 1985 to interview James Grigson, an infamous psychiatrist and friendly witness for the prosecution who helped send scores of men to death row by unfailingly testifying that if released, the convicted prisoner would most certainly kill again. In Randall Dale Adams’ case, his conclusion was drawn after speaking to Adams for only 15 minutes. (Later, in 1995, Grigson would be expelled by the American Psychiatric Association for unethical conduct.) On Grigson’s suggestion, Morris began interviewing Texas inmates, and became convinced that Adams was telling the truth when he said he wasn’t the shooter.

The resulting film from the investigation, The Thin Blue Line, was a quantum leap forward in style and substance for Morris. Both Gates of Heaven and Vernon, Florida reveal truths about human nature through one-on-one interviews with the subjects, but The Thin Blue Line takes the format into uncharted territory, drawing comparisons to television programs like “In Search of…” and “Unsolved Mysteries.”

Talking head interviews are intercut with recreations of the crime, as well as the time before and after. Old film clips accompany the testimony of one witness as she reminisces about watching detective movies as a child. Close-up shots of popcorn, clocks, or a milkshake flying through the air all focus the viewer’s attention on key points. And most notably, The Thin Blue Line features a soundtrack by Philip Glass that dramatically underscores the reenactments and interviews in ways sad, sympathetic, and urgent.

“How many movies can you think of where crucial pieces of evidence were uncovered in front of a camera?” Morris asks in one of the supplements on Criterion’s new Blu-ray and DVD release of the film. Emily Miller, husband R.L. Miller, and Michael Randell all claimed at Adams’ trial to have seen Adams pull the trigger, killing officer Robert Wood during a routine traffic stop that night in 1976. But no sooner do they open their mouths for Morris’s camera than they’re either contradicting themselves or offering outlandish stories. Morris recalls: “[Witness] Emily Miller said to me some of the craziest stuff that I’ve ever put on film. She tells me about her love of detective stories, Boston Blackie, et cetera. She says to me, ‘Every where I go, there are murders, even around my house.’ Ooooh-kay? What am I to imagine, someone being garroted in the dining room?”

On camera, witness Michael Randell says, “I’m a salesman, and you develop something like a total recall. I don’t forget places, things, or streets.” Within seconds, he’s struggling to remember the car the shooter drove. “It was a blue Ford… well, it was a blue something. The officer pulled up to the car. I think he was up to the car. Let me think. He was up to the car?” With this last question, Randell glances at Morris off-camera, hoping for any validation. It would be comical if it weren’t such a deadly serious business.

Adams had originally been given the death penalty for the murder of Officer Wood. At the time of the trial, Adams says in the film, there was a bloodthirstiness on the part of the prosecution. “You have a D.A. — he does not talk about when they convict you, or how they convict you,” Adams says in the film. “He’s talking about how he’s going to kill you. He don’t give a damn if you’re innocent, he don’t give a damn if you’re guilty.” The July 2, 1976 Gregg v. Georgia decision reaffirmed the use of the death penalty in the United States, and Texas seemed all too ready to dive back in.

Edith James, one of Adams’ defense attorneys, echoes Adams’ sentiment in the film when she says that one of the chief reasons the prosecution went after him with such zeal is that he was old enough to be put to death. Adams’ companion on the night of the shooting, David Harris, was just a teenager at the time, and therefore ineligible.

Nevertheless, Harris reeked of guilt. He fit original descriptions given by witnesses, and he had a history of violence. He had even bragged to his friends in Vidor, Texas, that he was the killer. Instead, he fingered Adams to spite him for not giving him a place to stay that night. “That might be the only, total reason why he’s where he’s at today,” Harris mumbles on film.

Having had his death sentence reduced to life in prison years earlier by none other than the U.S. Supreme Court, Adams had been incarcerated for over 12 years when his conviction was finally overturned by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, citing malfeasance by the prosecuting attorney Douglas Mulder, and inconsistencies (aka “whoppers”) in the testimony of Emily Miller. Adams was released in 1989, one year after The Thin Blue Line brought his case before the eyes of the nation. David Harris was never charged for the murder of Officer Robert Wood, and was executed in 2004 for an unrelated murder.

The Thin Blue Line changed the course of one man’s life, and has inspired scores of other investigative documentaries, including Capturing the Friedmans, and this year’s HBO smash The Jinx. One thing it didn’t change was Texas’ love of the death penalty. Before Gregg v. Georgia in 1976, Texas carried out an average of 4.8 executions a year. Since our country’s bicentennial, the state has killed 13.5 inmates per year.

The Thin Blue Line on Blu-ray

Criterion’s special edition of The Thin Blue Line includes a highly engaging conversation with director Errol Morris, which I’ve quoted from above. I could listen to him tell stories for hours, the best of which is the night he first met and interviewed David Harris in Vidor, Texas. Fellow documentarian Joshua Oppenheimer (The Act of Killing) offers his thoughts on the film in another feature, and there’s an archive segment from NBC’s Today show with Adams, his attorney Randy Schaffer, and Errol Morris.

For further viewing, Criterion has also released Morris’ first two films, Gates of Heaven and Vernon, Florida, in one set. Through an exploration of the business of pet cemeteries, the former illuminates something about human nature, and was one of the late Roger Ebert’s favorite films of all time. “I have seen this film perhaps 30 times,” he wrote. “And am still not anywhere near the bottom of it.”