The Thin Blue Line

The Thin Blue Line

Murder is, by definition, no laughing matter. So it’s disconcerting to hear the details of a particularly sanguinary killing, the roadside shooting of a Texas policeman, recalled and recounted by an array of jolly smiling faces.

The Thin Blue Line was filmed in 1987 and revisits a capital crime more than a decade past, so time may have massaged memories and erased some of the ill feeling. The audience, however, is in unfamiliar territory so the air of joviality is unbalancing and just one of the manipulative techniques director Errol Morris utilises in the film.

The crime occurs near midnight one October evening in 1976. Alongside a Dallas highway a police officer has pulled over a car being driven without headlights. He approaches on foot. His partner has chosen to remain inside the squad car so he is alone. What he does not know is the vehicle is stolen and the occupant is in possession of multiple (some also stolen) firearms. As he approaches, the driver pulls a hand gun and shoots him multiple times. He is left to bleed out and die as the car speeds away into the night.

Morris reconstructs the events of the night, playing out the interaction between cop and perp again and again. We see the scene over and over from different angles, with a different focus and with different players added to or removed from the action. Sometimes there are two people in the car, at other times there is only one. In some scenes the shooter is portrayed with a head of long fuzzy hair, at other times he is younger and the hair is shorter.

This whole exercise is very much in keeping with the testimonies of the witnesses, which contradict each other and often conflict with earlier testimony. Statements made on the day after the incident are markedly different from those given in court four months later; some observations given at trial change once again when recounted on camera a decade later. Indeed two crucial late stage witnesses seem to be motivated purely by police favour and reward money. They are almost certainly guilty of perjury.

The Thin Blue Line

Morris tries to capture each one of these contradictory versions in his recreations of the night’s events, including the one that led the jury to pass a sentence of death on Randall Adams, a drifter newly arrived in Dallas.

Concurrent to making documentaries, Morris was also employed as a private investigator and as the film progresses the director makes it increasingly clear that he not only believes a miscarriage of justice has occurred but also has a damn good idea who is guilty of the crime. By the end of the film, it’s not unreasonable to believe the director did a better job than either the prosecution or defense at finally bringing some sense of justice to those involved in this case.

Morris came to this subject in a roundabout way. His initial focus was not the murder case but rather James Grigson, an expert criminal psychiatrist instrumental in securing a death sentence in this and more than a hundred other trails. His supposedly scientific reasoning was that the defendant would ‘100% murder again’ were he to be released. Adams was just one of those sentenced to death on Grigson’s testimony, one of a number of subjects Morris interviewed and one that immediately struck him as an incredibly unlikely murderer. This film grew from that gut feeling.

The Thin Blue Line is one of only a handful of documentaries preserved forever in the US National Film Registry and belongs to a select group of artworks whose impact has transcended their craft to have a significant effect on American jurisprudence.

Absolutely essential viewing.

I’m delighted to offer this review as part of the The Colours Blogathon hosted by Thoughts All Sorts

The Thin Blue Line – directed by Erroll Morris (1988)

In Short
Investigating a decade old murder by way of documentary could reverse the verdict and convict the real killer.

Trailer here