The Thin Blue Line (1988 film)

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The Thin Blue Line
The Thin Blue Line poster.jpg
Theatrical poster
Directed byErrol Morris
Written byErrol Morris
Produced byMark Lipson
CinematographyRobert Chappell
Stefan Czapsky
Music byPhilip Glass
Distributed byMiramax Films
Release dates
Running time
103 minutes
CountryUnited States
Box officeUS$1,209,846 (US and Canada)[1]

The Thin Blue Line is a 1988 American documentary film by Errol Morris, about the trial and conviction of Randall Dale Adams for the 1976 shooting of Dallas police officer Robert W. Wood. Morris became interested in the case while doing research for a film about Dr. James Grigson, a psychiatrist known in Texas as "Dr. Death" for testifying with "100 percent certainty" of a defendant's recidivism in many trials, including that of Randall Adams. The film centered around the "inconsistencies, incongruities and loose ends" of the case, and through his investigation, not only comes to a different conclusion, actually obtained an admission of Adams' innocence by the original suspect of the case, David Harris. The "thin blue line" in the title "refers to what Mr. Morris feels is an ironic, mythical image of a protective policeman on the other side of anarchy".[2]

The film won many awards, but was a controversial film among documentary film critics, who felt the use of reenactment had no place in the documentary format. For this reason, the film was not nominated for an Academy Award, though it won several other awards for best documentary.[3] Roger Ebert "attributed its rejection to the inability of academy voters to appreciate innovative film making."[4]

In 2001, the film was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the United States National Film Registry as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".


Prior to the conception of The Thin Blue Line, Morris originally planned to film a documentary about prosecution psychiatrist Dr. James Grigson, known as Doctor Death,[5][6] who testified in more than 100 trials that resulted in death sentences.[7] As an expert psychiatrist, Dr. Grigson made a name for himself by giving testimony in capital cases for the prosecution. Under the law in Texas, the death penalty can only be issued if the jury is convinced that the defendant is not just guilty, but will commit violent crimes in the future if not put to death. In almost every instance, Dr. Grigson would, after examining a defendant, testify that he had found the individual in question to be an incurable sociopath, who he was "one hundred percent certain" would kill again.[8]

In pursuit of creating this idea, Morris sought and received funding for the initial project from the Public Broadcasting Service.[9] Using this grant, Morris was able to initially interview Grigson.[9] During this meeting, Grigson suggested to Morris that his research should begin with all the inmates he had testified against in court.[9] It was during this preliminary research that Morris met Randall Dale Adams, and learned of his case.[9] Grigson had told the jury that Adams would be an ongoing menace if kept alive, but Morris, after meeting Adams, became skeptical that he committed the crime.[10]

Morris later chose to refocus his research efforts into an investigation on the circumstances of Randall Dale Adams' conviction. Grigson does not appear once in the final cut of the film.[9]


The film presents a series of interviews about the investigation of the shooting of Dallas police officer Robert Wood and a re-enactment of the crime based on the testimony and recollections of Adams, Harris (the actual murderer), the judge presiding over the case (Donald J. Metcalfe), and several witnesses (including Emily Miller and R. L. Miller), as well as detectives (including Gus Rose, Jackie Johnson, and Marshall Touchton). Two attorneys (Edith James and Dennis White) who represented Adams at the trial where he was convicted also appear; they suggest that Adams was charged with the crime despite the evidence against Harris because Harris was a juvenile at the time, whereas Adams, as an adult, could be sentenced to death under Texas law. The prosecutor (Douglas D. Mulder) does not appear in the film.

The film's title comes from prosecutor Doug Mulder's phrase during his closing argument that the police are the "thin blue line" separating society from "anarchy". This is a re-working of a line from Rudyard Kipling's poem "Tommy" in which he describes British soldiers (nicknamed "Tommy Atkins") as the "thin red line", from the color of their uniforms and their formation.


The film makes use of dramatic re-enactments, a composed score, and interview testimony that takes the place of a narrator.[11]

Morris is often credited with re-purposing film noir aesthetic to the documentary format.[12] Film scholar Charles Musser has credited Morris for using 'fiction film' techniques in The Thin Blue Line.[13] Morris himself has claimed all of his films are brazenly "anti-vérité" in style.[14]

The film's re-enactment scenes were built carefully from witnesses' statements.[15] Morris is commonly credited with the invention of re-enactment scenes in documentary format, though this is untrue.[11] Although the film recreates several versions of the shooting, it does not recreate one in which David Harris shoots the officer, the interpretation which it argues is true.


Prior to working on this film, Morris worked for several years as a private detective.[12] Once fascinated by the Adams/Harris case, he applied those skills to his research on the film.

Harris was later tried, convicted, and executed for committing the unrelated murder of Mark Walker Mays on September 1, 1985.[16] On the weekend of that murder, Morris had an interview scheduled with Harris. Morris remarked in an interview with James Hughes: "I often say it's my favorite excuse for missing an appointment: 'I'm sorry, I was off killing someone.'"[17]

Morris' interview style (that of the subject staring directly into the camera) led to a later invention that his wife termed "the Interrotron". It was first used in Fast, Cheap & Out of Control (1997), and places Morris behind a curtain staring into one camera, which feeds into a teleprompter-like device on the camera in front of the interviewee, which causes the interviewee to look at and talk to the image of Morris, and, therefore, the camera directly, rather than to a person sitting off to one side.[18]

The final scene, in which Morris and Harris are only heard, while shots of a tape recorder appear from various angles, was not originally planned. Morris' camera broke down on the day of the interview, forcing Morris to use a tape recorder to document the dialogue.[19]

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, National Endowment for the Arts, Program Development Company Productions Inc., public television stations, and The Chubb Group of Insurance Companies funded the documentary.[20]


The film was scored by composer Philip Glass.[21] The original film soundtrack was published by Dunvagen Music Publishers, Inc.[21] The music for the original film was produced by Kurt Munkasci, and the performing orchestra conducted by Michael Riesman.[21]

Morris has claimed that prior to Glass' involvement in the project, he personally edited The Thin Blue Line to a mix-tape of Glass' earlier works, including selections from Mishima and In the Upper Room and Glassworks.[14][22] In an interview with Marc Glassman of POV magazine, Morris explained his rationale for seeking Glass to compose the score:

I had the good fortune of actually convincing him [Philip Glass] to write the soundtrack himself. Someone asked me, ‘Why Philip Glass?’ And I said, ‘because he does existential dread better than anybody. He’s the master of existential dread.’[14]



Marketing the film was not an easy task, as Morris wished to avoid having the label of documentary attached to his film. Miramax, the film's distributor, had originally picked it up for its unconventional look, and used marketing hooks to make the film "transition from the arthouse to the multiplex".[23] Harvey Weinstein, the former head of Miramax, declared: "Never has Miramax had a movie where a man's life hangs in the balance". The poster for the film gave it the feel of a whodunit, with the tagline: "A softcore movie, Dr. Death, a chocolate milkshake, a nosy blonde and The Carol Burnett Show. Solving this mystery is going to be murder."

Weinstein even sent a note to Errol Morris pushing him to promote the film better during interviews. The note read, in part, "Heard your NPR interview and you were boring," and recommended the director sell the movie as a highly thrilling and emotional experience similar to watching thrillers or horror movies and that he adopt the usage of shorter and clearer sentences.[24]

Box office[edit]

The Thin Blue Line grossed $1,209,846 in the US and Canada.[1] On its opening weekend, in only one theatre, it took in $17,814.[1] Although the film is the 95th highest grossing documentary film released since 1982,[25] Morris says he lost money on the production.[26]

Home media[edit]

The Thin Blue Line made its DVD premiere in July 2005 from MGM. In Australia, the film was released on DVD by Umbrella Entertainment in June 2007. The DVD includes Umbrella Entertainment trailers as special features.[27] A special edition Blu-ray of the film was released in North America by the Criterion Collection in March 2015. New features include interviews with Morris and filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer.[28]


Critical response[edit]

The Thin Blue Line was assigned a 100% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes,[29] and an average score of 79 out of 100 on Metacritic, based on 12 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews".[30] Gene Siskel, writing for the Chicago Tribune, named it the 7th best film of 1988.[31] The film won several smaller awards. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences refused to consider it for Best Documentary because of its use of reenactments.[3] Kim Newman from Empire called the film "riveting and terrifying. Highly recommended testimony to the dangers of shoddy investigations."[32] Roger Ebert gave the film 3.5 out of 4 stars, and wrote that "Morris' visual style in The Thin Blue Line is unlike any conventional documentary approach. Although his interviews are shot straight on, head and shoulders, there is a way his camera has of framing his subjects so that we look at them very carefully, learning as much by what we see as by what we hear."[33] Desson Thomson gave the film a perfect score, saying the film was "more like a waking nightmare than a docudrama. A true story of murder and justice evidently miscarried, wrapped in the fictional haze of a surrealistic whodunit, it will leave you in a trance for days."[34]

The Thin Blue Line was placed on more critics' top ten lists than any other film of 1988, edging out Bull Durham by one vote.[35]


Year Group Award[36] Result
1988 International Documentary Association IDA Award Won
Kansas City Film Critics Circle Best Documentary Won
Los Angeles Film Critics Association Best Documentary/Non-Fiction Film Nominated
National Board of Review Best Documentary Nominated
New York Film Critics Circle Best Documentary Won
1989 American Cinema Editors Best Edited Documentary Nominated
Boston Society of Film Critics Best Documentary Won
Deauville Film Festival Critics Award Nominated
Edgar Allan Poe Awards Best Motion Picture Won
Film Independent Spirit Awards Best Feature Nominated
Best Director Nominated
Golden Horse Film Festival Best Foreign Film Won
National Society of Film Critics Best Documentary Won
2001 National Film Preservation Board National Film Registry Won
2014 Cinema Eye Honors The Influential Honors Award Won

Since the film was marketed as "nonfiction" rather than as a documentary, it was disqualified from being considered in the documentary category for an Academy Award.[15]


In a 2008 retrospective of documentaries, Variety credited the film as "the most political work of cinema in the last 20 years".[37] The film has had a considerable influence on later television and documentary film, often credited with pioneering the style of modern crime-scene reenactments.[15] In 2001, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".[38] Current TV placed the film 2nd on their list of 50 Documentaries to See Before You Die in 2011. In a 2014 Sight and Sound poll, film critics voted The Thin Blue Line the fifth best documentary film of all time.[39]

The film was parodied in Season 1 of Documentary Now! as "The Eye Doesn't Lie".[40]


Morris' investigation suggested that five witnesses committed perjury.[41] As a result of publicity around the film, Adams (whose death sentence had been overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1980 and subsequently commuted to life in prison by the Governor of Texas, Bill Clements) had his conviction overturned by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals,[42] and the case was returned to Dallas County for a retrial.[43] The district attorney's office declined to prosecute the case again,[44] and Adams was subsequently ordered released as a result of a habeas corpus hearing in 1989.

After Adams' release from prison, he ended up in a legal battle with Morris concerning the rights to his story. The matter was settled out of court after Adams was granted sole use of anything written or made on the subject of his life.[45] Adams himself said of the matter: "Mr. Morris felt he had the exclusive rights to my life story. I did not sue Errol Morris for any money or any percentages of The Thin Blue Line, though the media portrayed it that way."[46]

Morris, for his part, recalled: "When [Adams] got out, he became very angry at the fact that he had signed a release giving me rights to his life story. And he felt as though I had stolen something from him. Maybe I had, maybe I just don't understand what it's like to be in prison for that long, for a crime you hadn't committed. In a certain sense, the whole crazy deal with the release was fueled by my relationship with his attorney. And it's a long, complicated story, but I guess when people are involved, there's always a mess somewhere."[47]

Despite being wrongly imprisoned for twelve years, Adams received no payment from the state of Texas. Had Adams been found to be wrongly convicted under today's law in Texas, he would get $80,000 for each year of incarceration. However, since Adams was released because his case was dismissed, and not because he was pardoned, he received no payment from the state after his release for his wrongful conviction.[48] Adams later worked as an anti-death penalty activist. He died of brain cancer in October 2010 at the age of 61, but lived in such anonymity that his death was not discovered by the media until June 2011.[48]


Some scholars believe that by calling the certainty of events surrounding the murder case into question, Morris positions the film as a postmodern text.[49] Referring to theorist Fredric Jameson's framework, film critic Linda Williams writes that documentaries that seek only to reveal the past support the notion of an "intensified nostalgia for a past that is already lost". Conversely, The Thin Blue Line suggests Adams' innocence by clouding a previously established history.[50]

Stanford Law Review author Richard Sherwin believes The Thin Blue Line actually presents two plots. He says Morris presents one plot through the construction and ordering of the non-linear story, revealing an easy-to-follow narrative implicating Harris instead of Adams, not unlike the story that implicated Adams in the first place, because it presents an easy-to-believe retelling of history. The other plot, Sherwin says, is an example of "postmodern skepticism". Within this notion Sherwin notes sociologist Jean Baudrillard's interpretation of the postmodern media landscape as "flattening" meaning as well as the impossibility of the existence of "truth, authority, and history".

Sherwin criticizes The Thin Blue Line for failing to resolve what he calls an "acausal" plot, referring to certain details about the case that were presented but remain unanswered, such as where Adams actually was the night of the crime (Adams himself answers this question by stating that he was watching TV in his motel room and fell asleep, but this is left without conclusive explanation, with Adams' brother, who was in the motel room at the time, not appearing in the movie to corroborate the explanation). Instead, the end of the film abandons the "acausal" plot by returning to the easy-to-believe narrative, that which paints Harris as the perpetrator. Sherwin argues that for the film to succeed as an affirmative postmodern work, it must contextualize the past events within a present narrative. He argues that it should take on the challenge, through the clouding of history, of resisting the lure of a narrative and fulfilling "their sworn duty to convict only in the absence of reasonable doubt."[51]

In an interview at the Museum of Modern Art, Morris denied being postmodern in any way, and quipped:

"I am no post-modernist. I live in Cambridge, Massachusetts. And one of the nice things about Cambridge, Massachusetts is that "Baudrillard" isn't in the phone book. To me, there's a physical world out there, pure and simple. There's a world where things actually happen. In The Thin Blue Line, it was of all-consuming importance to figure out who was driving that car; who pulled the gun out from underneath the seat, who shot the cop. Questions like these are not up for grabs."[52]

In a video interview for the Columbia Journalism Review, Morris reiterates his view of an inherent value in truth, acknowledging that our view of history will always be flawed, but that truth should still be sought.[53]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c "The Thin Blue Line (1988)". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved June 25, 2010.
  2. ^ October 23, ALVIN KLEIN Originally Published; 1988. "Film Dissects Murder and Justice - New York Times". Retrieved April 15, 2020.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link)
  3. ^ a b Musser, Charles. "The Thin Blue Line: A Radical Classic". The Criterion Collection. Retrieved April 28, 2020.
  4. ^ "'The Thin Blue Line': Justice for All? : An inside look at why a documentary that had real-life impact didn't make the cut in the Oscar race". Los Angeles Times. March 12, 1989. Retrieved April 28, 2020.
  5. ^ Gillespie, Pat (June 14, 2004). "Expert psychiatric witness was nicknamed Dr. Death". Dallas Morning News. Retrieved March 21, 2009.
  6. ^ Bell, Laura (July 26, 1995). "Groups Expel Psychiatrist Known for Murder Cases; Witness nicknamed 'Dr. Death' says license won't be affected by allegations". Dallas Morning News. Retrieved March 21, 2009.
  7. ^ "Study: State relies too much on 'killer shrinks'". Fort Worth Star-Telegram. March 31, 2004. Retrieved March 11, 2008.
  8. ^ "Errol Morris: Profiles". Retrieved November 16, 2021.
  9. ^ a b c d e Resha, David (April 8, 2015). The cinema of Errol Morris. Middletown, Connecticut. ISBN 978-0-8195-7535-7. OCLC 904598386.
  10. ^ Ferncase, Richard K. (1996). Outsider features : American independent films of the 1980s. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press. ISBN 978-0-313-02936-3. OCLC 667291123.
  11. ^ a b Resha, David. (April 8, 2015). The cinema of Errol Morris. Middletown, Connecticut. ISBN 978-0-8195-7535-7. OCLC 904598386.
  12. ^ a b Ferncase, Richard K. (1996). Outsider features : American independent films of the 1980s. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press. ISBN 978-0-313-02936-3. OCLC 667291123.
  13. ^ Musser, Charles. "The Thin Blue Line: A Radical Classic". The Criterion Collection. Retrieved April 14, 2020.
  14. ^ a b c Toronto, Point of View Magazine • 392-401 Richmond Street West •; email, ON • M5V 3A8 • Canada •639-0653 • Send us an (April 4, 2005). "Errol Morris Speaks Out! – Point of View Magazine". Retrieved April 14, 2020.
  15. ^ a b c Morris, Errol (April 3, 2008). "Play It Again, Sam (Re-enactments, Part One)". The New York Times. Archived from the original on April 7, 2008. Retrieved March 11, 2008.
  16. ^ "David Ray Harris". Office of the Clark County (Indiana) Prosecuting Attorney. Retrieved October 20, 2017.
  17. ^ "Errol Morris: Interview". Retrieved November 16, 2021.
  18. ^ "Errol Morris: Eye Contact". Retrieved November 16, 2021.
  19. ^ Curry, Renée R. "Errol Morris's Construction of Innocence in "The Thin Blue Line"" Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature 49.2 (1995): 153-67. JSTOR. Web. 29 Nov. 2010.
  20. ^ The Thin Blue Line - Combined Details. IMDb. Retrieved June 25th, 2010.
  21. ^ a b c "Thin Blue Line, Music From – Philip Glass". Retrieved April 14, 2020.
  22. ^ "The Thin Blue Line – Philip Glass". Retrieved April 14, 2020.
  23. ^ Schatz, Thomas. Hollywood (Critical Concepts in Media and Cultural Studies). p. 382.
  24. ^ "Letters of Note: You're boring". Retrieved November 16, 2021.
  25. ^ "Documentary Movies at the Box Office". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved July 30, 2011.
  26. ^ Yant, Martin (November 15, 2001). "Adams v. The Death Penalty". Columbus Alive. Retrieved March 11, 2008.
  27. ^ "Umbrella Entertainment". Archived from the original on October 16, 2013. Retrieved May 21, 2013.
  28. ^ "Criterion Collection". Retrieved January 10, 2015.
  29. ^ "The Thin Blue Line". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved June 25, 2010.
  30. ^ "The Thin Blue Line". Metacritic. Retrieved June 25, 2010.
  31. ^ "Siskel and Ebert Top Ten Lists (1969-1998) -> 1988". Retrieved June 25, 2010.
  32. ^ "The Thin Blue Line". Empire. January 1, 2000. Retrieved April 28, 2020.
  33. ^ Ebert, Roger. "The Thin Blue Line movie review (1988) | Roger Ebert". Retrieved April 28, 2020.
  34. ^ The Thin Blue Line (1988) - IMDb, retrieved April 28, 2020
  35. ^ "100 Film Critics Can't Be Wrong, Can They? : The critics' consensus choice for the 'best' movie of '88 is . . . a documentary!". Los Angeles Times. January 8, 1989. Retrieved November 16, 2021.
  36. ^ The Thin Blue Line - IMDb, retrieved April 13, 2020
  37. ^ Anderson, John. "Op-Ed Films for the Ages." Variety 20 Feb. 2006: A2. Film & Television Literature Index with Full Text. Web. 26 Nov. 2010.
  38. ^ "Films Selected to The National Film Registry, Library of Congress 1989-2008 (National Film Preservation Board, Library of Congress)". Library of Congress. January 17, 2010. Retrieved June 25, 2010.
  39. ^ "Silent film tops documentary poll". BBC News. August 2014. Retrieved August 1, 2014.
  40. ^ "Documentary Now! | 5 Ways The Eye Doesn't Lie is Just Like Thin Blue Line | IFC". YouTube. Retrieved November 16, 2021.
  41. ^ Morris, Errol. "Thin Blue Line: Five Key Witnesses". Retrieved March 11, 2008.
  42. ^ 768 S.W.2d 281 (Tex. Ct. Crim. App. 1989) (en banc), at [1].
  43. ^ Ex parte Adams, 768 S.W.2d 281 (Tex. Ct. Crim. App. 1989) (en banc), at [2].
  44. ^ Miller, Bobbi (March 24, 1989). "DA DROPS MURDER CHARGE AGAINST ADAMS". Dallas Morning News. Retrieved March 11, 2008.
  45. ^ "Freed Inmate Settles Suit With Producer Over Rights to Story". Dallas Morning News. August 6, 1989. Archived from the original on July 16, 2012. Retrieved March 11, 2008.
  46. ^ Yeager, Danny (Summer 2000). "Danny Yeager Interviews Randall Dale Adams". Vol. X, No. 3. The Touchstone. Archived from the original on February 22, 2001. Retrieved March 11, 2008.
  47. ^ Bull, Brian (July 2, 2004). "An Interview with Errol Morris". Wisconsin Public Radio. Retrieved March 11, 2008.
  48. ^ a b Martin, Douglas (June 25, 2011). "Randall Adams, 61, Dies - Freed With Help of Film". The New York Times. Retrieved December 27, 2012.
  49. ^ Gallagher, Richard. "10 Great Postmodern Documentaries That Are Worth Your Time". Retrieved November 16, 2021.
  50. ^ Williams, Linda. "Mirrors without Memories: Truth, History, and the New Documentary." Film Quarterly 46.3 (Spring, 1993): 9-21. JSTOR. Web. 26 Nov. 2010.
  51. ^ Sherwin, Richard K. "Law Frames: Historical Truth and Narrative Necessity in a Criminal Case." Stanford Law Review 47.1 (Nov., 1994): 39-83. JSTOR. Web. 23 Nov. 2010.
  52. ^ "Errol Morris: Interview". Retrieved November 16, 2021.
  53. ^ "Recovering Reality: A Conversation with Errol Morris". YouTube. Retrieved November 16, 2021.

Further reading[edit]

  • Renée R. Curry: Errol Morris' Construction of Innocence in "The Thin Blue Line". In: Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature, Vol. 49, No. 2 (1995), pp. 153–167.
  • Matthew Sorrento: Documenting Crime: Genre, Verity, and Filmmaker as Avenger. In: Caroline Picart, et al. (eds.): Framing Law and Crime. Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 2016. ISBN 978-1-61147-705-4.
  • Linda Williams: Truth, History, and The Thin Blue Line. In: Barry Keith Grant/Jeannette Sloniowski (eds.): Documenting the documentary: close readings of documentary film and video. 1998. ISBN 978-0814326398

External links[edit]