Thin Blue Line, The

Quite possibly, no commercially distributed film in 1988 had a smaller audience than “Thin Blue Line,” which received spotty theatrical booking before its video release and PBS telecast. Yet no American film made during the entire decade was as significant in blurring the boundaries between what’s real and reel, and in demonstrating the remarkable impact a “small” movie can have.

Offering a variation on the Hollywood “Wrong Man” plot (one of Hitchcock’s most prevalent themes), the documentary examines the true story of Randall Dale Adams, convicted to death for a crime he didn’t commit.

Errol Morris (who previously made “Gates of Heaven” about a pet cemetery), a former private eye, became obsessed with the Randall Dale Adams case while researching another movie about a psychiatrist nicknamed Dr. Death, a popular expert witness at capital trials. He is called Dr. Death by defense lawyers due to his consistent findings that convicted murderers were so unrepentant that they deserved execution. Morris met Adams while visiting the prison to research the Dr. Death case. Listening to Adams’ plea of innocence, Morris decided to narrow his focus and make a crusading film with the immediate goal of reopening the case.

A drifter from Ohio, Adams was imprisoned for the murder of policeman Robert Wood in 1976. Adams had been riding with David Harris on the day of the murder. Morris interviewed Harris, then on death row awaiting execution for another murder. Harris’s comments suggested that he framed Adams to save his own skin, and that the authorities didn’t want to reopen the case because they didn’t want to be publicly embarrassed or seen as incompetent or corrupt. Some local lawyers believe police and prosecutors both wanted to wrap up the case quickly, to preserver Dallas County’s conviction rate, which is the highest in the State.

Among the records turned over to Morris by the Dallas District Attorney’s office was evidence that the prosecution bent the guarantees of a fair trial in their efforts to obtain conviction. The prosecution and police force were so eager to convict Adams that they concealed testimony and stacked evidence against him. “The Thin Blue Line” makes no attempt at “fairness,” namely, to show both sides of the case, emphatically taking the position that Adams is innocent.

Morris believed that a conspiracy existed between the Dallas Police and the District Attorney’s office. Adams’ lawyer went back to court, and a Texas appeals-court judge upheld a lower court’s recommendation to set aside the conviction. The judge claims that the state is guilty of suppressing evidence favorable to the accused, deceiving the trial court, and knowingly using perjured testimony.

The case was reopened due to Morris’ exposure of misconduct in his docu. The critical element was Harris’s confession in the film. Harris claims he fingered Adams, because former assistant D.A. Doug Mulder promised him a deal if he talked. Mulder denies the charge, but several pending felony counts against Harris have been dropped.

Morris became an impassioned advocate for Adams, who had spent 11 years in prison. An intriguing question prevails: Did Adams con director Morris into making a movie that would set him free

Morris breaks many rules, mixing and matching interviews with surviving participants with re-creations of the event. Actors play the film’s eerie re-enactments of certain episodes.

Adams was released after years in a Dallas County prison for a crime he didn’t commit. At one point, Adams was only 3 days from being executed; he was saved by the U.S. Supreme Court while considering a legal technicality. An anti-capital punishment movie, “Thin Blue Line” makes the viewer aware that if Adams’s death sentence had not been commuted, the apparently innocent man would have been dead when Morris arrived to make a movie about prison life.

Adams, who was saved by the media, was at risk of becoming the media’s prisoner after an appearance on “Nightline.” The case leaves a residue of uneasiness: If Morris had not stumbled onto suppressed evidence, Adams would have been dead. .

A brilliant work of pulp fiction, “Thin Blue Line” is both a riveting investigation of a murder and am equally riveting meditation on the difference between truth and fiction. The film re-invents the story as it re-examines it, using eerie re-enactments of certain episodes. By 1989, prestigious pseudo news shows like “Saturday Night With Connie Chung” were regularly featuring re-creations of events for added impact.

Not structured as an investigation, Thin Blue Line unfolds like a dark reverie, a nightmare filled with exaggerated images and “small” details that assume greater importance as the film goes along. Morris explores the darker side of justice, the hidden motives, the withheld data, the questionable interpretations of facts. Each interview creates more questions than it can possibly answer. As a result, the “truth” gets murkier and murkier and almost slips away.

Oscar Scandal

Allegedly, “Thin Blue Line” was not nominated for the Best Documentary Oscar because of its staged sequences. “Purists” complained that Morris had violated the sanctity of the form by augmenting reality with theatrics, even though the BBC for years has featured “dramatized documentaries,” as do important and prestigious shows like “Saturday Night With Connie Chung”