I’m breaking a few rules with this week’s Now Fear This. The goal with this feature was to highlight relatively unknown films that, while not classics, are much better than their nonexistent reputations might indicate. This week’s pick, The Thin Blue Line is a legitimate classic. A landmark documentary, it’s the movie that announced to the world that Errol Morris was a filmmaker who would need to be watched closely, lest he subvert every last convention of the genre and simultaneously blow every mind in the theater with his keen understanding of the human condition. The reason it’s showing up here, where I mostly discuss horror films, is that The Thin Blue Line can be appreciated as one of the more terrifying horror movies ever made.
In a decision that jibes with its illustrious forward-thinking track record and in no way reveals them to be a bunch of narrow-minded Luddites, the Academy declined to nominate The Thin Blue Line as Best Documentary in 1989 for some of the same innovations that have made it a blueprint for films that came after. Specifically, Errol Morris used re-enactments and clips from other films to illuminate the testimony of his subjects, at the time a stunning advancement in the technique of documentary storytelling, which have since become the equivalent of the wrench in the documentarian’s toolbox. Though he had two prior films, the hilarious cult favorite Gates of Heaven and the bizarre Vernon, Florida, it was The Thin Blue Line that created the Errol Morris brand in the minds of most cinema nerds.
Not long ago, I had a conversation at a party with a friend about Morris. We’re both huge fans, and it was one of those debates where we were essentially only arguing the relative placement of greatness. He backed The Thin Blue Line both as Morris’s best film and the entry point into Morris’s oeuvre. Though I disagreed on the second point (Fast, Cheap, and Out-of-Control has a better range of subjects for the neophyte and I have a deep love for the gothic sleaze of Tabloid), it’s difficult to argue the first, especially because of all of Morris’s films, The Thin Blue Line has had the most concrete effect on the real world. It saved a man’s life.
On November 29, 1976, Dallas police officer Robert Wood was shot and killed at a traffic stop. Eager to make an arrest, the Dallas police located a resident of nearby Vidor, a juvenile delinquent named David Harris. He immediately fingered drifter Randall Adams for the crime. The cops collected some additional eyewitness testimony and built a case against Adams. Though it was a little shaky and Adams continually protested his innocence, he was sentenced to die.
Morris uses interviews with nearly everyone of significance in the case, including Adams, Harris, the Dallas police, several eyewitnesses, lawyers, and the judge to narrate each step of the story. He illuminates details of the crime with a detailed re-enactment, altering details as testimony changes between players and in some case as the players change their stories. It’s a fascinating visual device to illustrate the slippery nature of both truth and memory. Morris shows us the shooting as related by half a dozen people, the small details painting a picture that does not quite match.
One by one, Morris’s interviews pick each witness apart, exposing the inconsistencies and ulterior motives behind their testimony. Harris, who claims to have been in the car at the time of the shooting, has a long record of violent behavior and possible mental illness, and bragged to friends shortly after the crime about killing a cop. The eyewitnesses are far from reliable themselves. The most damaging testimony in the trial came from a married couple, who turn out to be a shady pair who allegedly told others they would be willing to say anything for the substantial reward money offered. The man later says he saw nothing, and the woman, a space cadet with delusions of Nancy Drew, just wanted to get involved. The partner of the officer killed told one story on the night of the murder and an entirely different one after being debriefed by Internal Affairs.
In the middle of everything is Randall Adams, stubbornly insisting on his innocence. His story, while strange to modern ears, lacks the holes marking the others. He claims to have run out of gas and was walking to a nearby station, which, I guess is something that used to happen. He was hitchhiking, something I have gone on record on as being a surefire ticket to an organ-harvesting, when Harris picked him up. Instead of going about the errand, exchanging a handshake and going their separate ways, Harris and Adams decided to hang out. They drank beer (despite Harris being sixteen at the time), and went to a drive in movie double bill that featured a softcore cheerleader movie. Am I crazy or does this sound like the set up to every horror film about overly-friendly drifters you’ve ever seen? Things start relatively normal, then they take a turn for the inappropriate, and pretty soon you’re running from some masked asshole with a chainsaw.
Not for Adams. He just got arrested for cop-killing in the execution-happy state of Texas.
It’s a more realistic end to the story, and a far more frightening one because of the feeling it could happen to anyone. Randall’s story about the frightening tactics employed by the Dallas police might have been shocking at the time, but after scandals like Rampart it’s easier to believe the police would do something like this just to close a case. The railroading continues with the testimony of Dr. James Grigson, a psychiatrist who has testified in more than a hundred death penalty trials and earned the nickname “Dr. Death” by recommending execution in nearly every one.
The film results in a stunning depiction of a system stacked to convict an innocent man almost solely on the testimony of a killer. If that’s not a chilling story, I don’t know what is.