Using innovative, slow-motion re-enactments, Errol Morris cast new light on the murder of a Dallas policeman. As a result, the man wrongly convicted of the crime went free.
There aren’t too many American filmmakers who exhibit the moral seriousness of Zola in pursuit of justice for Dreyfus while also veering off into the jokiness of David Byrne. But then Errol Morris, a man whose most tasteful and accessible work is a mordantly funny documentary on pet cemeteries, is a pretty unusual fellow, and The Thin Blue Line is a very odd film.
Originally, Morris had planned a documentary about psychiatrist Dr. James P. Grigson, (aka Dr. Death and Dr. Doom), a particularly repellent expert witness who has testified in ill capital punishment cases over the past eighteen years, enabling the prosecution to secure 102 death sentences by insisting on the perfect sanity and eternal murderousness of practically anybody. In the course of research, Morris encountered the case of Randall Dale Adams, convicted of murdering Dallas police officer Robert Wood—one of Dr. Death’s many wins. Fascinated by the case, Morris decided that Adams had almost certainly been framed by the police and prosecutors.
From very near the beginning of the case, the Dallas prosecutor knew that David Harris, a 16-year-old runaway, had stolen both the car officer Wood was shot from and the pistol with which he was killed. The prosecutor also knew that David Harris had later boasted about committing the murder. Adams’s lawyers think that the prosecution ignored these facts because under Texas law Harris was too young to be electrocuted, and further believe that an undefeated prosecutor and a police department with a strong desire to execute somebody for the death of an officer concocted new evidence and persuaded Harris to become the prosecution’s star witness. Harris was not immensely persuasive when put before a jury, and the film suggests that the prosecutor produced three last-minute perjured witnesses to clinch the case. The Thin Blue Line ends with an interview with Harris in which the filmmaker comes within a whisker of getting him to confess to the killing.
But The Thin Blue Line tells this story in a curious way. It’s not just Morris’s habit of editing out his interview questions, by now an ancient trick in documentary film, nor is it Philip Glass’s brilliant and immensely effective score. The oddity lies in the film’s highly stylized effects — brazenly campy, jokey effects, which seem deliberately inappropriate to the seriousness of the material and often deliberately enraging.