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Thin Blue Line, The  (1988)


Rating: NR

Distributor: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Release Date: July 26, 2005
Review posted: July 27, 2005


Reviewed by Dylan Grant




On a cold night in November 1976, when drifter Randall Dale Adams was picked up by teenage runaway David Harris, his fate was sealed.  Later that night, a police officer was shot in cold blood.  And though all the facts point to Harris, a sociopath with a lengthy rap sheet, Adams was convicted of capitol murder.  Did Adams pull the trigger?  If not, can Errol Morris unlock the secrets of this baffling case?




After making Vernon, Florida, Errol Morris took a few years off from filmmaking.  He was broke and needed a job.  Of all things, he became a private detective.  What better experience to bring to this, his third film, the story of a man wrongly convicted of capitol murder and sitting on death row in Texas, where the furnaces are always burning.  There are so many details to this case that it would be easy to confuse them, but at the heart of it, Randall Dale Adams never should have been in prison in the first place.  Morris hit his stride with this film, combining penetrating interviews, cinematic reenactments, and the kind of fetishistic close ups for which his films would come to be known.  With The Thin Blue Line, Morris acts not only as detective but also as counselor, pleading the case for Adams that no one else was able to.


Morris keeps the same nonjudgmental style that had been present before, and he never editorializes.  He never has to.  The facts and the people involved speak for themselves.  The Dallas Police Department detective talks about how Adams never showed any signs of remorse, that he “overacted his innocence.”  Of course, it never occurs to them that it might be because Adams was innocent.  The assumption is that he is such a stone killer that something like remorse would never occur to him.  Miles away, in a small town outside of Dallas, young David Harris, known in the area as a delinquent with a rap sheet, is taken in for stealing a car, the very car in which the crime was committed.  Despite the fact that Harris handed over the murder weapon, and despite the fact that he had bragged to friends about shooting a cop, Randall Adams went on trial for murder and was soon convicted.


What Morris does here is quite remarkable.  He lets the police and the so-called eyewitnesses speak for themselves (and what they have to say is stunning in how unreliable it is), and he also shows us how easy it is to get the facts wrong, how people do not always see what they think they see.  It does not take long before we start to wonder how this case was not laughed out of the courtroom. 


Of course, it was not, and Randall Adams was sentenced to death for the murder of Officer Wood.  It is Adams’ story that is at the heart of the film.  His experience with Texas justice is not one any of us would want to repeat, and the film does not paint the most flattering picture of that state.  In a country were one is supposedly innocent until proven guilty, Randall Adams was doomed by the fact that he could never prove his innocence.  “Why did I get picked up by him [Harris], why did the car break down where it did,” Adams muses, as though he has wondered this over and over, every day since, “I don’t know.”  Adams was a classic victim of circumstance; the kind of character Hitchcock made films about.


The mystery is what is so compelling about this film, and Morris renders it expertly, exposing the facts as no one ever did while the case was being tried.  In the end, David Harris, in prison for another crime, confesses to the murder.  He pinned it on Adams because he just happened to be there.  The confession of Harris is mere gravy by that point, as the facts alone are enough to prove that Adams did not commit the crime. 


The Thin Blue Line shines a light a corner of the criminal justice system that few ever get to see and few would ever want to.  What the film also did was save a man’s life, something few other films can lay claim to.  This is also the film with which Morris really established himself and his style; it is the first time we get a clear hint of what is to come.




The Thin Blue Line is presented in the original 1.85:1 shooting ratio, and the transfer is pristine.  The color levels are expertly rendered both in the interviews and the cinematic sequences.  The picture is sharp and free of flaws.




This DVD is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround.  Like his other films, much of the soundtrack here is comprised of dialogue.  There is little that would demand a high tech sound system.  The presentation is crisp, and all channels come through without distortion.




Mr. Personality – "First Person" TV Episode: An episode of the series Morris created (and which will be released on the same day as this DVD) that focuses on one Michael Stone, a forensic psychiatrist and “expert on evil.”  Stone has come up with a 22 point “scale of evil” but concedes that no matter how bad an example one comes up with, there is always a worse example.  Says Stone: “There seems to be no end to the possibility of human depravity.”  Stone seems to say that “evil” is relative, that there is much gray area, and he seeks to define the psychopathic personality.  This is a fascinating piece on an interesting person, delivered as only Morris can.  (27:44)


This TV episode is incredible, but it would be nice to have a word from the director on the film itself, a commentary, perhaps, or a word on what has happened to Adams since his release.




The Thin Blue Line is one of the best documentaries ever made, and certainly one of the most important.  Many films have shed light on the darker corners of the world, but very few have actually saved a person’s life, and this one did.  The bonus material we have here is fascinating, but something specific to the film would have made it that much better.  This one is not to be missed.




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