A short(ish) introduction – As I noted recently, I’m changing the way that I post these essays. Instead of attempting to get them up in a once-per-week-on-Tuesday format, instead I’ll be watching and posting them more in an as-the-spirit-leads time frame. What will this mean in practice? Well, as you’ve probably noticed, it’s been a couple of weeks since I’ve actually posted anything from the list as I’ve been concentrating on other things, but this week I actually have a couple of different ones that will likely go up. The hope is that in changing to this format, I’ll be able to spend the time writing and researching those films that need more “processing” time without the limits imposed by the strict once-a-week format, yet also allowing myself the chance to take a movie like this one, which I watched yesterday and would like to go ahead and write about and get up on the blog while its still fresh in my mind and do that without having to wait for some pre-ordained schedule. In a way, admittedly, it’s more of a psychological change for me than anything that will be readily apparent to you as a reader, but it’s one that hopefully will lead to a better writing style on these for me, and a better reading experience for you. Anyway, with all of that (possibly unnecessarily, but I did want to try to give a little explanation for the change) said, this time out we’re looking at #244 on the list, Errol Morris. And as always, I want to note that you can find a full introduction to what the Sight and Sound Top 250 list is, and a look at the complete list of the movies on it, along with links to the ones I’ve already written about here. And, if you want to be sure not to miss any of these posts, be sure to head on over to the Facebook page and give it a “like”or follow me on Twitter (both of those links are also in the sidebar) where I post anytime one of these – or anything else on the blog, along with just random other links and thoughts that may not make it into full posts – goes up.
Errol Morris has had a very interesting career as a film maker. Especially early on, it seems that he would begin a project devoted to one topic, and then in the process of examining and researching that topic find a different thread that he considered more interesting, thus leading him to ultimately produce something completely different than what he set out to create. This is certainly what happened in the case of what has to be considered his most famous and influential work, 1988’s The Thin Blue Line.
In 1985, Morris, along with being a documentary film maker, was making his living as a private investigator for a private detective agency that specialized in Wall Street cases. It was during this time that he became interested in the figure of Dr. James Grigson, who was a psychiatrist in Dallas, TX. Dr. Grigson had become known as “Dr. Death”, because along with his regular practice, he had become something of a “go-to guy” when Texas prosecutors were trying a case and were seeking the death penalty. Under Texas law at the time (and it may still be the case, I don’t know), the death penalty could only be issued if the jury were convinced that the defendant was not only guilty, but would commit further violent crimes in the future if he were not put to death. For 15 years Dr. Grigson had been testifying for such cases, and in most cases his report for the courts would be that he was “one hundred per cent certain” that the defendant would kill again if he were to be released. He thus became a very important part of the Texas prosecutors’ arsenal.
Obviously, as both a film maker and as an investigator, such a figure was bound to catch Morris’s eye, and he quickly decided that he had found the subject of his next documentary. However, during the course of researching Dr. Death and the cases he had been involved in, Morris found himself even more intrigued by one of those cases in particular, that of Randall Dale Adams.
Wikipedia sums up Adams’ case this way:
Adams was serving a life sentence that had been commuted from a death sentence on a legal technicality for the 1976 murder of Robert Wood, a Dallas police officer. Adams told Morris that he had been framed, and that David Harris, who was present at the time of the murder and was the principal witness for the prosecution, had in fact killed Wood.
This led to Morris doing more research into the case, interviewing the principals involved, reading the transcripts of the trial and meeting with David Harris at a bar, all of which led to Morris believing that the wrong man had been convicted, and that it was likely that Adams was actually innocent.
During his investigation of the case and the making of the film, Morris conducted a series of interviews with most of the principals of the case, many of whom told stories and recollections that either contradicted each other or their earlier testimony. Using these interviews and recreations of the crime itself, Morris finally completed his documentary on the Adams case, and it was released in 1988 as The Thin Blue Line. Meanwhile, Adams’ death sentence had been overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1980 and commuted to life in prison by then Governor of Texas, Bill Clements, and, subsequent to the release of the film, Adams had his conviction overturned by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and the case was returned to Dallas County for a retrial. The district attorney’s office declined to prosecute the case again and Adams was ordered released as a result of a habeas corpus hearing in 1989. Morris’s unedited interviews were used as part of the defense case in this trial. Eventually Harris confessed to the killing, but he actually wound up being put to death for a different, completely unrelated murder.
Okay, so that’s the story, but what about the film itself? Well, to say the least, it’s an interesting concoction that is hard to watch now in the same context as it would have been upon its initial release. After all, subsequent to this we have had any number of movies and television shows that have followed in its footsteps, recreating and investigating unsolved mysteries, some of them immediate, some of them decades old. Therefore it behooves one to take a step back and look at just what Morris was creating here and how successful he was in his time.
It’s interesting to note that Morris himself did not want the film to be considered a documentary (though that is how it has subsequently come to be labeled), and Mirmax, the movie’s distributor, did its best to market the movie as “a new kind of movie mystery” as can be seen by the tagline on the poster above. When taken in that context, the movie actually comes across rather flat, especially since it never actually reaches the point of actually accusing or condemning Harris in the direct fashion that a modern viewer might expect it to. As a matter of fact, none of the various recreations of the shooting scenario that are presented throughout the film ever show one which depict Harris as the actual shooter.
In the end, I suppose that I have to say that the movie actually works better now when viewed as a historical document than as a film, per se. That’s not to say that it’s bad movie, just that it’s one that really is impossible to view with anywhere near it’s full impact without consideration for its original time and place, and simply as a stand-alone creation. Does that make it a failure? Hardly. This is a film that must be given its due. But, at the same time, because of its very nature and the assumptions that it makes of the audience’s familiarity with the Adams case itself it requires perhaps more from the modern viewer than it should to really be considered one of the all-time greats.
Here’s the trailer for The Thin Blue Line: