Among the most important documentaries ever made, 'The Thin Blue Line,' by Errol Morris, erases the border between art and activism. A work of meticulous journalism and gripping drama, it recounts the disturbing tale of Randall Adams, a drifter who was charged with the murder of a Dallas police officer and sent to death row, despite overwhelming evidence that he did not commit the crime. Incorporating stylized reenactments, penetrating interviews, and haunting original music by Philip Glass, Morris uses cinema to build a case forensically while effortlessly entertaining his viewers. 'The Thin Blue Line' effected real-world change, proving film’s power beyond the shadow of a doubt.
This month, documentarian Errol Morris' first three films are being added to the Criterion Collection. While his debut 'Gates of Heaven' was championed by the likes of director Werner Herzog and critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert (the latter of whom called it one of the ten greatest films ever made), 'A Thin Blue Line' is where Morris made a name for himself with this investigative documentary, which made national headlines for calling into question the integrity of the Texas judicial system.
At the outset, Morris had been planning on making a documentary about Dr. James Grigson, a psychiatrist whose nickname was Doctor Death. In Texas, the death penalty was issued not only if a person was found guilty but also if it were determined they would continue to kill. Grigson was a go-to guy for prosecutors seeking the death penalty and he testified on the state's behalf in over 100 trials. Doing his research, Morris was intrigued by one Grigson testified against: Randall Adams, who was convicted of killing Dallas police officer Robert Wood.
As is usual with Morris' subjects, Adams speaks directly to the camera as he tells his story with any questions asked off camera. He tells of leaving Ohio with his brother looking for work. They were bound for California and stopped off in Dallas, TX on Thanksgiving night 1976. Over that weekend, Randall ran out of gas and was helped out by 16-year-old David Harris. Discovering they had mutual interests, they hung out together and partied. Later that night, Officer Wood pulled over a stolen car. As he approached the vehicle, Wood was shot repeatedly and killed. After becoming the longest unsolved police shooting in Dallas, Adams was identified as the shooter.
In addition to Adams, Morris interviewed police detectives, defense attorneys, the judge, and eyewitnesses, including Harris, involved with the case. No one is identified on screen until the end credits, so it's not always clear at first who is talking. With Morris not being part of a conversation as an interviewer, he allows the audience to focus more attention on what the subject says and how they say it. Every time someone recounts what happened that fateful night to Officer Wood, a re-enactment is shown as described, each with slight and not-so-slight variations. However, he never reveals the identity of the shooter during them.
Although many traditionalists had a problem with Morris' techniques, which were typical of fiction films more than documentaries, the results were undeniably significant. 'The Thin Blue Line' has gone onto to become a landmark film. Its influence remains prevalent nearly 30 years later. Seen not just in TV shows like NBC's 'Dateline' and HBO's 'The Jinx' but an entire cable channel, Investigation Discovery, owes much to Morris groundbreaking work.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Thin Blue Line' (#753 in The Criterion Collection) comes on a 50GB Region A Blu-ray disc in a clear keepcase. The discs boot up directly to the menu screen without any promotional advertisements. Included is a 12-page, fold-out booklet containing "A Radical Classic," an essay by Charles Musser.
The video has been given a 1080p/AVC-MPEG-4 encoded transfer displayed at 1.78:1. The following text appears inside the leaflet that comes with the Blu-ray: "Supervised by director Errol Morris and producer Mark Lipson, this new high-definition digital transfer was created on a Spirit 2K film scanner from the 35mm original negative. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, warps, and flicker were manually removed using MTI's DRS and Pixel Farm's PFClean, while Digital Vision's Phoenix was used for small dirt, grain, and noise management."
The colors appear in bold, bright hues, as seen in the red of the police car light and the yellow of hotel sign. Whites are bright also. Adams' prison jumpsuit and a Burger King cup both stand out and help demonstrate the contrast when against the rich, black backgrounds. The image is quite sharp, offering very fine texture details. Scratches can be seen in the plastic cover housing the police lights and close-ups of newspapers reveal the pulp of the paper stock and the tiny dots of the pictures.
The source looks very clean; not counting the archival footage of what I presume is an excerpt from a Boston Blackie film, which has white specks and black scratches. An abundance of grain can be seen during this segment and also some nighttime exterior shots. Otherwise, the film grain appears natural.
The liner notes also reveal that “the original 2.0 surround soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit from a 35 mm magnetic tracks. Clicks, thumps, hiss, hum, and crackle were manually removed using Pro Tools HD, AudioCube's integrated workstation, and iZotope RX4.”
The audio mix is naturally dialogue-heavy. Other than an obvious technical issue with a tape recorder, all the subjects can be clearly and cleanly heard. The gunshots during the re-enactments aren't very powerful. The track's dynamic range is narrow and use of bass is limited. Phillip Glass' score best demonstrates them both. The elements are mixed well together.
Errol Morris 'The Thin Blue Line' should be mandatory viewing. It demonstrates how corruptable a societal institution can be and that even people within a system might not be able to change. It is as scary as it is eye-opening because anyone could easily have found themselves in Adams' place. Critertion does a great job with the HD presentation and the director-approved features help tell more of the story about what went on during production and after the film was made. Highly recommended.