The Thin Blue Line (1988 film)

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The Thin Blue Line
The Thin Blue Line poster.jpg
Theatrical Poster
Directed by Errol Morris
Produced by Mark Lipson
Written by Errol Morris
Music by Philip Glass
Cinematography Robert Chappell
Stefan Czapsky
Distributed by Miramax Films
Umbrella Entertainment
Release dates
  • August 25, 1988 (1988-08-25)
Running time
103 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Box office US$1,209,846 (US and Canada)[1]

The Thin Blue Line is a 1988 American documentary film by Errol Morris, depicting the story of Randall Dale Adams, a man convicted and sentenced to life in prison for a murder he did not commit. Adams' case was reviewed and he was released from prison approximately a year after the film's release.[2]


The story began on Thanksgiving weekend in 1976. In October 1976, 28-year-old Randall Adams and his brother had left Ohio. They were driving to California. En route, they arrived in Dallas on the night of Thanksgiving, Thursday 25 November 1976. The next morning, Adams was offered a job. On Saturday, 27 November Adams went to start work at his new job but no one turned up because it was a weekend. On the way home, his car ran out of fuel.

David Ray Harris, who had just turned sixteen, came by in a car that he had stolen from his neighbor in Vidor, Texas before driving to Dallas with his father's pistol and a shotgun. Harris offered Adams a ride. The two spent the day together during which they also had some alcohol and marijuana. That evening they went to a drive-in movie.

Robert W Wood, a Dallas police officer, was working the graveyard shift with his partner, one of the first female police officers in Dallas that was assigned to patrol. Shortly after midnight, Wood stopped the stolen car in the 3400 block of N Hampton Road because its headlights were not on. As Wood walked up to the car, he was shot twice and killed by someone in the car.

The first shot hit Wood in the arm, passing through his flashlight. The next shot hit Wood in the chest. Wood's wife had bought him a bulletproof vest and had it under the Christmas tree, or had stored it away to give to him on Christmas Day. The Dallas Police Department investigation led back to Harris, who after returning to Vidor had told friends that he was responsible for the crime. When interviewed by police, Harris accused Adams of the murder.[3][4] Harris led police to the car driven from the scene of the crime, as well as to a .22 Short caliber revolver he identified as the murder weapon.

The film presents a series of interviews about the investigation and reenactments of the shooting, based on the testimony and recollections of Adams, Harris, the judge presiding over the case (Donald J. Metcalfe), and several witnesses (including Emily Miller and R. L. Miller) and 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 suggested that Adams was charged with the crime despite the evidence against Harris because he was a juvenile at the time and that 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 comment 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 was directed by Errol Morris and scored by Philip Glass. Morris was originally going 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 it was "one hundred per cent certain" would kill again.[8] Grigson 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.

The film contained re-enactment scenes built carefully from witnesses' statements, which became common in later documentaries.[9] 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.

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's camera broke down on the day of the interview, forcing Morris to use a tape recorder to document the dialogue.[10]

Prior to directing the film, Morris worked as a private detective. Once fascinated by the Adams/Harris case, he applied those skills to his research on the film. The weekend that David Harris killed Mark Walker Mays, Morris actually 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.'”[11]

Morris's 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 and Out of Control (1997), and it places Morris behind a curtain staring into a camera, which feeds into a teleprompter-like device that the interviewee can interact with. The interviewee, therefore, looks directly at Morris, and the camera.[12]

Marketing the film was not an easy task, as Morris wished to avoid the label of documentary attached to his film. Miramax, the film’s distributor that had originally picked it up for its unconventional look, used marketing hooks to make the film “transition from the arthouse to the multiplex”.[13] Harvey Weinstein, head of Miramax, declared: “Never has Miramax had a movie where a man’s life hangs in the balance”. He even sent a note to Errol Morris pushing him to promote the film better during interviews. The note includes “Heard your NPR interview and you were boring” and recommends the director to sell the movie as a highly thrilling and emotional experience similar to watching thrillers or horror movies, to adopt shorter and clearer sentences.[14] This example proves how special and different the documentary was that it required references to narrative cinema to attract the audience’s attention. This also helped Miramax gain more publicity in return.

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.[15]

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,[16] Morris says he lost money on the production.[17]

Home media[edit]

The Thin Blue Line made its DVD premiere in July of 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.[18] 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.[19]


Morris's investigation suggests that five witnesses committed perjury.[20] 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; the case was returned to Dallas County for a retrial.[21] The district attorney's office declined to prosecute the case again and Adams was subsequently ordered released as a result of a habeas corpus hearing in 1989.

In 1989, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in Ex parte Adams[22] overturned Adams' conviction on the grounds of malfeasance by the prosecutor Douglas D. Mulder and inconsistencies in the testimony of a key witness, Emily Miller.[23][24] The appeals court found that prosecutor Mulder withheld a statement by Emily Miller to the police that cast doubt on her credibility and also allowed her to give perjured testimony. Further, the court found that after Adams' attorney discovered the statement late in Adams' trial, Mulder falsely told the court that he did not know the witness's whereabouts. The case remained in limbo.[25] In 1981, Mulder returned to practice private law in Dallas,[26] and the new prosecution then dropped charges in 1989.[27] The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals said (and Adams agreed) that "conviction was unfair mainly because of prosecutor Doug Mulder."[28][29]

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.[30] 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."[31]

Morris, for his part, remembers: "When he 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."[32]

Despite being wrongly imprisoned for twelve years, Adams received no payment from the state of Texas. It is said that if Adams were “found to be wrongly convicted under today’s law in Texas, he would get $80,000 for each year of incarceration,” additionally “at the time his conviction was thrown out, wrongly convicted prisoners could get a lump sum payment of $25,000 if pardoned by the governor.” However, since Adams was released because his case was dismissed, not pardoned, he received no payment from the state after his release for his wrongful conviction.[4] Adams later worked as an anti-death penalty activist. He died of brain cancer in October 2010 but lived in such obscurity that his death was not discovered by the media until June 2011.[4]

David Ray Harris[edit]

Harris had testified in the original trial that he was the passenger in the stolen car, that he allowed Adams to drive and that Adams committed the murder. He recanted this testimony at Adams' habeas corpus hearing, but never admitted guilt in a judicial setting and was never charged in the case. In 2004, Harris was executed by lethal injection for the unrelated 1985 murder of Mark Mays in Beaumont, Texas, which occurred during an attempted abduction of Mays' girlfriend.[33][34][35]

Critical reception[edit]

The Thin Blue Line has a metascore of 79 on Metacritic[36] and 100% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.[37] Gene Siskel, writing for the Chicago Tribune, named it the 7th best film of 1988.[38]


The Thin Blue Line won Best Documentary honors from the New York Film Critics Circle, the Kansas City Film Critics Circle, the National Board of Review, and the National Society of Film Critics.[39] Morris himself won an International Documentary Association Award, an Edgar Award, and a MacArthur Fellowship Genius Grant (1989).[40][41] The film was marketed as "nonfiction" rather than as a documentary which disqualified it from being considered in that category for an Academy Award.[9]


Variety credits the film in a 2008 retrospective of documentaries as “the most political work of cinema in the last 20 years.”[42] The film has had a considerable influence on later television and documentary film, often credited with pioneering the style of modern crime-scene reenactments.[9] 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".[43] 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.[44] The film was parodied in Season 1 of Documentary Now! as "The Eye Doesn't Lie".

Postmodern themes[edit]

Some scholars believe that by calling the certainty of events surrounding the murder case into question, Morris positions the film as a postmodern text. Referencing theorist Fredric Jameson's framework, film critic Linda Williams refers to documentaries that seek only to reveal the past as supporting 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.[45]

Stanford Law Review author Richard Sherwin believes The Thin Blue Line actually presents two plots. Through the construction and ordering of the non-linear story Morris presents, he reveals 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, is what Sherwin points to as an example of “postmodern skepticism." Sherwin notes sociologist Jean Baudrillard's interpretation of the postmodern media landscape "flattening" meaning, and the impossibility of “truth, authority, and history” existing, as fitting within this notion.

He criticizes The Thin Blue Line for failing to resolve what he calls an “acausal” plot, referencing certain details about the case that were presented but remain unanswered, such as where Adams actually was the night of the crime. 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. In short, reveal through the clouding of history a present challenge, that of resisting the lure of a narrative and fulfilling “their sworn duty to convict only in the absence of reasonable doubt."[46]

In an interview at the Museum of Modern Art, however, Morris denies being a postmodern at all, joking that “one of the nice things about Cambridge, Massachusetts is that 'Baudrillard' isn't in the phone book”.[47] 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 after.[48]


  • 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.
  • 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


  1. ^ a b c "The Thin Blue Line (1988)". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved 2010-06-25. 
  2. ^ "`Blue Line' inmate freed after 12 years". Chicago Tribune. March 22, 1989. Retrieved 2008-03-11. 
  3. ^ "The Thin Blue Line Transcript". Retrieved 2008-03-11. 
  4. ^ a b c Martin, Douglas (June 25, 2011). "Randall Adams, 61, Dies - Freed With Help of Film". New York Times. Retrieved 2012-12-27. 
  5. ^ Gillespie, Pat (June 14, 2004). "Expert psychiatric witness was nicknamed Dr. Death". Dallas Morning News. Retrieved 2009-03-21. 
  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 2009-03-21. 
  7. ^ "Study: State relies too much on 'killer shrinks'". Fort Worth Star-Telegram. March 31, 2004. Retrieved 2008-03-11. 
  8. ^ Morris, Errol (February 2, 1989). > "Predilections". New York Times. Retrieved 2010-01-12. 
  9. ^ a b c Morris, Errol (April 3, 2008). "Play It Again, Sam (Re-enactments, Part One)". New York Times. Retrieved 2008-03-11. 
  10. ^ Curry, Renée R. "Errol Morris' 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.
  11. ^ "The Eleven-Minute Psychiatrist: The Stop Smiling Interview of Errol Morris." Interview by James Hughes. Errol Morris. Web. 28 Nov. 2010. [1]
  12. ^ Morris, Errol. "Eye Contact." Errol Morris. Web. 22 Nov. 2010
  13. ^ Schatz, Thomas. Hollywood (Critical Concepts in Media and Cultural Studies). p. 382. 
  14. ^ "Letters of Note: You're boring". 
  15. ^ The Thin Blue Line - Combined Details. IMDb. Retrieved June 25th, 2010.
  16. ^ "Documentary Movies at the Box Office". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved 2011-07-30. 
  17. ^ Yant, Martin (November 15, 2001). "Adams v. The Death Penalty". Columbus Alive. Retrieved 2008-03-11. 
  18. ^ "Umbrella Entertainment". Retrieved 21 May 2013. 
  19. ^ "Criterion Collection". Retrieved 10 January 2015. 
  20. ^ Morris, Errol. "Thin Blue Line: Five Key Witnesses". Retrieved 2008-03-11. 
  21. ^ Ex parte Adams, 768 S.W.2d 281 (Tex. Ct. Crim. App. 1989) (en banc), at [2].
  22. ^ 768 S.W.2d 281 (Tex. Ct. Crim. App. 1989) (en banc), at [3].
  23. ^ Gross, Bruce (December 22, 2004). "Dangerous predictions: the case of Randall Dale Adams". American College of Forensic Examiners. Retrieved 2015-10-07. 
  24. ^ Tomaso, Bruce (July 5, 1989). "Possibilities beckon beyond `Thin Blue Line': Film maker hopes to capitalize on his documentary's acclaim". Dallas Morning News. Retrieved 2008-03-11. 
  25. ^ Jackson, David (May 14, 1988). "INMATE INNOCENT, CONVICT SAYS: But ruling could block new trial in slaying of Dallas officer". Dallas Morning News. Retrieved 2008-03-11. 
  26. ^ "HOW THE BEST LAWYERS STACK UP". D Magazine. May 1, 2001. Retrieved 2008-03-11. 
  27. ^ Miller, Bobbi (March 24, 1989). "DA DROPS MURDER CHARGE AGAINST ADAMS". Dallas Morning News. Retrieved 2008-03-11. 
  28. ^ Jackson, David (March 3, 1989). "ADAMS BLAMES MULDER FOR MURDER CONVICTION". Dallas Morning News. Retrieved 2008-03-11. 
  29. ^ "Presumed Guilty". Fort Worth Star-Telegram. July 14, 1991. Retrieved 2008-03-11. 
  30. ^ "Freed Inmate Settles Suit With Producer Over Rights to Story". Dallas Morning News. Aug 6, 1989. Retrieved 2008-03-11. 
  31. ^ Yeager, Danny (Summer 2000). "Danny Yeager Interviews Randall Dale Adams". Vol. X, No. 3. The Touchstone. Archived from the original on 2001-02-22. Retrieved 2008-03-11. 
  32. ^ Bull, Brian (July 2, 2004). "An Interview with Errol Morris". Wisconsin Public Radio. Retrieved 2008-03-11. 
  33. ^ "David Ray Harris #916". Retrieved 2010-06-25. 
  34. ^ Stone, Rachel (June 28, 2004). "Convicted killer to be executed". Beaumont Enterprise. Retrieved 2008-03-11. 
  35. ^ "‘Thin Blue Line’ prisoner executed in Texas: Killed man in 1985, falsely implicated another in officer's slaying". MSNBC. June 30, 2004. Retrieved 2008-03-11. 
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  38. ^ "Siskel and Ebert Top Ten Lists (1969-1998) -> 1988". Retrieved 2010-06-25. 
  39. ^ "The Thin Blue Line (1988) - Awards". IMDb. Retrieved 2010-06-25. 
  40. ^ "Errol Morris - Awards". IMDb. Retrieved 2010-06-25. 
  41. ^ "IDA Documentary Awards 2009 - International Documentary Association". Retrieved 2010-06-25. 
  42. ^ Anderson, John. "Op-Ed Films for the Ages." Variety 20 Feb. 2006: A2. Film & Television Literature Index with Full Text. Web. 26 Nov. 2010.
  43. ^ "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 2010-06-25. 
  44. ^ "Silent film tops documentary poll". BBC News. Retrieved 1 August 2014. 
  45. ^ Williams, Linda. "Mirrors without Memories: Truth, History, and the New Documentary." Film Quarterly 46.3 (Spring, 1993): 9-21. JSTOR. Web. 26 Nov. 2010.
  46. ^ 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.
  47. ^ "The Museum of Modern Art with Ron Rosenbaum." Interview by Ron Rosenbaum. Errol Morris. Web. 22 Nov. 2010. [4]
  48. ^ "Recovering Reality: A Conversation with Errol Morris". Perf. Errol Morris. YouTube. Columbia Journalism Review, 4 Mar. 2008. Web. 30 Nov. 2010. [5]

External links[edit]