Thin Blue Line, The (Blu-ray Review)13 Apr, 2015 By: Mike Clark
$29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray
The prodigious list of amazing things about Errol Morris’ landmark miscarried-justice buster includes the fact that it got made in the first place, though you’d think that after Roger Ebert had time after time called Morris’ preceding Gates of Heaven (also just out from Criterion) one of the greatest movies ever, Morris wouldn’t have had to pull so many teeth. But it’s a different era now when documentaries like The Jinx and Going Clear (and not all that long before them, Blackfish) rattle very big cages with semi-regularity. As we see and hear Morris himself quote his wife as having noted during the essential 40-minute interview featurette that Criterion has included with its Blue Line package, entire cable stations are now devoted to the kind of projects that he worked so exhaustingly to bankroll a quarter-century ago.
Things got so bad that he had to take years off to find a line of work — though electing to become a private detective (working for and learning from, he says, one of the best), it wasn’t, in the long run, a bad thing. Morris later went to Texas in hopes of making a documentary on a psychiatrist nicknamed Doctor Death — one whose evaluations of murder suspects almost always slum-dunk resulted in subsequent residence for them on Death Row due to their alleged proclivity, said the doc, to commit additional crimes. But in the course of his research, Morris’s sleuthing nose sniffed out a case that smelled of fish or, more to the point, a Moby Dick whale: one about an Ohio drifter apparently railroaded for the wholly uncharacteristic (for him) murder of a Dallas cop that a teenaged walking rap sheet (who testified against the prosecution) had almost certainly committed. (Footnote: Doctor Death shouldn’t be confused with the so-called Mr. Death, subject of another Morris film and a key member of the filmmaker’s gallery of weirdos. That dude was a professional executioner who spent his honeymoon at Auschwitz.)
Even though Blue Line was not just among the most praised achievements of a banner movie year but the entire 1980s, the Academy rejected it during the nominations process, as it did for Crumb and Hoop Dreams (Oscar’s record with documentaries in that period was not something anyone would want to put on a job resumé.) As the eminent film scholar Charles Musser points out in the Criterion liner essay, the voters were put off by the journalistic impurity of certain re-enactments — which admittedly can be overdone in non-fiction cinema, though here they are simply a conscious motif to emphasize only a couple points over and over again. One, was the fatally shot officer’s inexperienced partner positioned outside the police car where she was supposed to be while her colleague was handling business — or drinking a milkshake inside their vehicle? And two: Was accused Randall Dale Adams in the driver’s seat — where the shot came from — or even in the car? Adams claimed to have been back in a motel with his brother watching Carol Burnett on TV following a long afternoon of beer drinking and drive-in movie amusement with the teen (David Ray Harris), who’d given out-of-gas Harris a lift.
I don’t know where Morris finds the oddballs (especially the supporting ones) who populate most of his movies, but were he working in fictional territory, you’d have to credit him with casting instincts close to the late Billy Wilder’s. A fiction writer could probably invent some of the slick good-old-boys interviewed here who were charged with prosecuting the crime that landed Adams in jail — almost certainly because he was older and thus eligible for execution in death-happy Texas when underage Harris wouldn’t have been. But it would be a challenge to dream up the witnesses interviewed here who fingered Adams after they allegedly drove by the incident as it occurred during a fog (both on car windows and over their brains). The standout of these is the kind of bottled blonde some resourceful film programmer could use to promote retrospectives on Sam Fuller or maybe Hugo Haas. Trained, she says, by the Boston Blackie movies watched during her formative years, she claims she regularly solve murders that keep happening around her. This, apparently, was just he latest.
The Adams saga ended in bittersweet fashion, starting with the sweet: About a year after Blue Line’s release, the state of Texas dropped charges against Adams and released him (which wasn’t the same thing as officially clearing him of guilt). But in a move that even Morris himself (on the disc interview) concedes was possibly ill advised, he got Adams to sign an agreement granting him co-ownership of the latter’s story, which Adams’ lawyer understandably thought a step too far. On the other hand, Morris had spent years laboring for Adams’ cause without much promise of anything in return. Not too long after Adams’ release, the two ceased communication and never interacted again; Adams died in obscurity in 2010.
Included in the extras is a “Today” show joint satellite interview with Morris in one studio and Adams plus lawyer in another; Bryant Gumbel is the host so you know it was a different era. And for the era — despite having had its filming style somewhat co-opted over the years — Blue Line was a true groundbreaker, something attested to with vigor on another bonus extra by filmmaker Josh Oppenheimer, whose The Act of Killing received its own huzzahs a couple years ago. The print here is one of renewed luster, and this is its own reward because it’s been said that the documentary had fallen into sad shape. And this is important because its look was “designed,” something the Academy likely didn’t care for very much, either.