Thin Blue Line
“The Thin Blue Line” While preparing a documentary about Dr. James Grigson, Errol Morris unearths the story of Randall Adams and David Harris. One fateful day, Adams’ car runs out of gas on the side of the road in Dallas, Texas. That same day, after running away from home, stealing a car, and his father’s gun, Harris drove his car through Dallas. Then he comes across Adams walking to get gas for his car. Harris helps Adams and they spend the rest of the day together. That night, Officer Robert Wood was murdered on Inwood Road. Adams is tried and convicted of the murder, and sentenced to death.
After learning of this Morris changed the focus of his documentary and created The Thin Blue Line. Through his unconventional narrative, Errol Morris guides the viewer through many versions of the night in question. He uses juxtaposition of scenes, non-conventional reenactments, archival footage and other ways to tell the story of the murder of Officer Wood and the defense and conviction of Adams. Morris’ use of reenactment is unconventional as he doesn’t show the faces of the actors and shows multiple interpretations of scenes.
As Adams recalls his interrogation by Gus Rose, Morris interprets the scene with a reenactment. While Adams is talking about Rose’s style of interrogation, the Morris displays “Rose’s” shoes as he walks into the room, tossing a gun on the table. Adams remembers being told at gunpoint to sign a confession and his refusal to do so, and Morris accentuates the point with a scene of a revolver being pointed directly at the camera. This leads the audience to understand the unfair treatment that Adams is feeling.
Morris forces the audience to consider what kind of “truth” the Dallas Police Department is looking for when one of their detectives is willing to use the threat of death in order to get a confession. Morris uses scenes like this to create sympathy for Adams and distaste for the way the accused is treated. As three new speakers come to describe the scene surrounding Officer Wood’s death, Morris uses multiple reenactments with slight changes to emphasize the discrepancies in the recollections of the night.
Later in the film three surprise witnesses are introduced and each describes what they remember of the night, giving the audience more possibilities as to what happened. Some remember two people in the car; others only remember seeing one. Wood’s partner starts off by remembering a fur collar and then weeks later changes the story to a person with bushy hair. Morris points out each change to the story leading the audience to doubt the story given to the jurors about that night.
Another interesting way Morris films the documentary is to subtly adjust the viewer’s opinion of Emily Miller and Judge Don Metcalfe. While Mrs. Miller describes her life and how she sees crimes happening all around her, “Yeah, when I was a kid I used to want to be a detective all the time because I used to watch all of the detective shows on TV. When I was a kid they used to show these movies with Boston Blacki and he always had a woman with him. “And I wanted to be a wife of a detective or be a detective, so I was always watching detective stories. Morris inserts juxtaposed images of Miller and archival footage of old detective stories to hint of the state of Miller’s mind. The idea that Miller sees murders and crimes happening all around her makes the audience wonder whether or not she is making things up just to be a part of the spotlight. Similarly, while Judge Metcalfe is explaining how respect for the law was paramount in his family and that he learned his respect through his father, Metcalfe describes his father as, “an F. B. I man probably at the worst possible time to be in the FBI.
It was from 1932 to 1935 in Chicago… My father would tell me that when Dillinger was killed, within a matter of two minutes people were dipping their handkerchiefs in the blood to get souvenirs. ” During Metcalfe’s recalling past stories, Morris juxtaposed footage from an old film about Dillinger’s death. This gives the audience the idea that the judge wishes to live in the glory days of law enforcement when constant shoot outs with gangsters occurred regularly. The question forced upon the audience is whether Metcalfe uses his position to carry out his delusions or is the impartial judge he portrays.
Another subtle and barely noticed use of directorial editing is Morris’ use of color. During Judge Metcalfe’s story about his father, the lady in red is revealed as really the lady in orange tying the colors red and orange together in the viewer’s mind. When the viewers see orange, they think of guilt. The audience sees Harris sitting in his orange jumpsuit with a red light behind him and assumes his guilt. When they are shown Adams in white they are led to think of his innocence.
When they see the red police light flashing after some scenes they think of the oppression of law enforcement and how Adams might have been set up as a scapegoat. It’s small but the use of color has a subtle power when it comes to the viewers’ perceptions and how they view any situation. Morris takes the viewer through many different variations of the night’s events pushing the viewer to question whether or not the truth was actually found. By doing this he attempts to get the audience to stray from the straight path of the narrative, all the while leading the audience through the story from beginning to end.
Richard Sherwin, the writer of the Post Modern Challenge argues people have a strong desire for stories to be neat and tidy with a start, middle, and an end. Sherwin believes even though Morris creates a non-linear narrative, the way he creates it still builds a clear start to finish story. The problems with these types of stories are they are unrealistic. There are many lines of questioning left unanswered by Morris’ film. Sherwin notes that some of these questions, if answered, could lead to Adams and Harris having an illicit relationship.
If that is the case Adams might have been in the car when the shooting happened. Leading the viewer to ask whether Adams was ashamed of what he did that night or was he more afraid of being a gay man in Texas than he was of a murder conviction. Sherwin also contends that Morris’ film is partially about fate and the possibility people are not in control of their own lives, that fate or destiny is already decided. People don’t want to believe this because it makes their choices meaningless, but Morris points it out as a possibility.
Through his editing and juxtaposition, his repetitive reenactments and the use of archival footage, Morris shows the audience the story of Randall Adams and David Harris. He leads the viewers to believe they have solved the crime and come to the conclusion that Adams is innocent and Harris is guilty all on their own. Sherwin shows the flaws in Morris’ reasoning and explains the audience’s difficulty coping with the problems of the postmodern challenge and with the possibility that fate controls their lives. The end result is people have choices they can make, like Adam’s choice to spend ime with Harris after getting gas for his car, but it’s not just their choices that affect their lives it’s the choices of everyone around them as well. The police decide Adams is guilty, Harris testifies against him, and witnesses want the reward money. These are deciding factors in Adams’ life but he could only control his own part in the story. Works Cited Sherwin, Richard. “The Postmodern Challenge: A Case Study. ” When Law Goes Pop: The Vanishing Line Between Law and Popular Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000. The Thin Blue Line. Dir. Errol Morris. Cassette. HBO Video, 1988.