In 1985, documentary filmmaker Errol Morris arrived in Dallas, Texas. He was working on a movie about Dr Death - a forensic psychiatrist called Dr James Brigson who believed that he could tell if a murderer was guilty of a crime and if he or she would kill again - making the accused defendant eligable in Texas for the death penalty .
Over the course of his career, Brigson testified in 167 cases, nearly all of which resulted in the death penalty. His methods fascinated Morris who, as part of his research, decided to talk to some of the men who Brigson had helped put on death row.
Morris interviewed around 30 inmates. One of those men was Randall Dale Adams.
Adams had been convicted of the murder of Texas police officer Robert W. Wood. He insisted that he was innocent. However, that was nothing surprising. The vast majority of inmates interviewed said that they had been wrongly convicted.
In an interview with Bill Moyes for American Playhouse, Morris recalled that he didn’t believe Adams at first... but he didn’t disbelieve him either. However, as Morris looked deeper into Adams’s case, he realised one thing. Randall Dale Adams wasn’t part of the story, he was the story. Thus, The Thin Blue Line was born.
Today, of course, Errol Morris is an icon in the world of documentary film. In addition, The Thin Blue Line is widely recognised as one of the most important documentaries ever made - both in terms of the impact the film had on the case and also how it influenced the way we view the documentary genre.
Documentary directors such as Kevin Macdonald (Touching The Void, One Day In September, Whitney) and Joe Berlinger (Paradise Lost, Brother’s Keeper) have described The Thin Blue Line as a film that changed their life.
However, with The Thin Blue Line Morris was still at the beginning of his documentary filmmaking career. He had made two films (Gates Of Heaven in 1978 and Vernon, Florida in 1981) and worked as a private detective to make ends meet.
The combination of filmmaking and detective work proved incredibly potent. As documentary detective, Morris interviewed everyone involved in the case - including Adams, key witnesses, lawyers and the trial judge. He also spoke to a man called David Harris - a man who had the potential to blow this case out of the water.
The evidence that Morris uncovered was truly shocking - raising many unsettling issues both about the US justice system and also about the concept of truth and memory.
Breaking Away From Cinema Vérité
Of course, Morris was not just working as a private detective. He was also making a documentary. He soon realised that he wanted to create a film that explored more than just the facts of the case. He wanted to make a Hitchcockian film noir that examined the difficulties inherent in establishing truth.
At the time, documentaries were typically made in the cinema vérité style. Also called observational filmmaking, this technique usually involves a handheld camera and natural lighting to capture the “truth” of a situation.
Controversially, Morris decided to break away from vérité. In his interview with Bill Moyers, the director explained that “I set out to make a movie. For a handheld camera and available light, I have substituted a camera on a tripod with very carefully, theatrically lit settings.”
Morris also used stylistic techniques more commonly seen in fiction-based movies. In addition to his camerawork and lighting, he used costumes with a clear colour design to support his themes. In addition he asked composer, Philip Glass, to create a (haunting) film score.
It was a move that would cost him an Oscar. However, it was also a move that would release the documentary genre from its vérité shackles and make anything possible.
Morris recorded all the interviews for The Thin Blue Line at one time. He then shot the film’s reenactments later… years later. It was these reenactments that troubled the Academy. Was this a drama or a documentary - truth or imagination?
However, this was exactly the point that Morris was trying to make. I also have issues with documentary reenactments or reconstructions. The artifice often does not sit well with me at all.
I have no such problem whilst watching The Thin Blue Line. The reason is that Morris is not using the reenactments to tell us what is true. The dramatisations of the event change in subtle ways as each witness tells his or her story.
In fact, as Morris told Moyer, the reenactments “illustrate lies, they illustrate fantasies”. The director shows us everything in these scenes apart from what he believes actually happened. As a result, the documentary calls attention to the line between fact-based journalism and imagination, between style and realism, truth and lies.
“At its core, The Thin Blue Line is a movie about self deception,” Morris explained. “About how we can convince ourselves that something is true even though it isn’t. About how our need to believe what we want to believe is a lot stronger than our need to see the truth.”
The Thin Blue Line is a masterpiece of cinema. It is both one of the best examples of the true crime documentary sub-genre and also one of the best, most influential documentaries ever to be released. A must watch.
True Crime Documentary Recommendations
The Thin Blue Line is part of the filmmaking sub-genre of Documentary 7.
If you enjoyed this movie, I would also recommend:
The Thin Blue Line is also part of Doc 7's list of documentaries that have changed the world. The other films in this collection include:
Do you have any true crime documentaries (or docs that have changed the world) that you would like to recommend? If so, do let us know in the comments section below or over on Twitter. You can find me @500DaysOfFilm.