The Thin Blue Line (1988)

110 mins | Documentary | August 1988

Director:

Errol Morris

Producer:

Mark Lipson

Cinematographers:

Stefan Czapsky, Robert Chappell

Editor:

Paul Barnes

Production Designer:

Ted Bafaloukos
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HISTORY

The film ends with the following written epilogue: “Randall Adams is serving a life sentence, in Eastham Unit, Lovelady, Texas. David Harris is on Death Row, Ellis Unit, Huntsville, Texas, for the murder in 1985 of Mark Walter Mays. It has been over eleven years since the murder of Dallas Police Officer Robert Wood.”
       As noted in various contemporary sources, including articles in People on 26 Sep 1988 and LAT on 19 Jul 1989, documentary filmmaker Errol Morris met Randall Adams in 1985 while working on a Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) film about Texas psychiatrist Dr. James Grigson, also known as “Dr. Death,” who had a proclivity for testifying in favor of capital punishment. Morris was intrigued by Adams’s story and dropped the Dr. Death project to pursue a film about the 29 Nov 1976 murder of Dallas police officer Robert Wood. People stated that Morris, who supported his filmmaking career by working as a private detective in New York City, spent two years investigating Adams’s case. Morris interviewed over two hundred people, including witnesses that contradicted statements they made in court, and convict David Harris, who, according to Morris, failed to show up at a meeting “because he was off killing somebody.” Harris’s confessed murder of Mark Walter Mays resulted in his 30 Jun 2004 lethal injection at a state penitentiary in Huntsville, Texas. According to LAT , Morris planned to return to the Dr. Death film after winning a $260,000 MacArthur Foundation fellowship in 1989 for his work on The Thin Blue Line . Although Morris released Mr. Death: The Rise ... More Less

The film ends with the following written epilogue: “Randall Adams is serving a life sentence, in Eastham Unit, Lovelady, Texas. David Harris is on Death Row, Ellis Unit, Huntsville, Texas, for the murder in 1985 of Mark Walter Mays. It has been over eleven years since the murder of Dallas Police Officer Robert Wood.”
       As noted in various contemporary sources, including articles in People on 26 Sep 1988 and LAT on 19 Jul 1989, documentary filmmaker Errol Morris met Randall Adams in 1985 while working on a Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) film about Texas psychiatrist Dr. James Grigson, also known as “Dr. Death,” who had a proclivity for testifying in favor of capital punishment. Morris was intrigued by Adams’s story and dropped the Dr. Death project to pursue a film about the 29 Nov 1976 murder of Dallas police officer Robert Wood. People stated that Morris, who supported his filmmaking career by working as a private detective in New York City, spent two years investigating Adams’s case. Morris interviewed over two hundred people, including witnesses that contradicted statements they made in court, and convict David Harris, who, according to Morris, failed to show up at a meeting “because he was off killing somebody.” Harris’s confessed murder of Mark Walter Mays resulted in his 30 Jun 2004 lethal injection at a state penitentiary in Huntsville, Texas. According to LAT , Morris planned to return to the Dr. Death film after winning a $260,000 MacArthur Foundation fellowship in 1989 for his work on The Thin Blue Line . Although Morris released Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. in 1999 (see entry), the documentary is about an electric chair technician, not Dr. Grigson.
       On 16 Jun 1987, HR production charts reported that principal photography for the film began 1 Jun 1987 in New York. Since the interviews featured throughout the film were conducted over several years, HR was most likely referring to the re-enactment sequences. People noted that these scenes were “criticized for mixing fact and fictional re-creation in a way that hypes the movie at the expense of objectivity.” However, a 8 Sep 1988 HR review praised Morris for using re-enactments to portray the conflicting perceptions of the witnesses who testified against Adams, the detectives who described the murder and the different stories conveyed by Adams and Harris. HR observed that Morris altered the re-creation scenes throughout the film based on contradictory points of view to convey how easily personal accounts, as well as re-enactments, can be misinterpreted.
       A 26 Mar 1988 Billboard news item stated that sound postproduction was completed in San Francisco, CA.
       On 11 May 1988, Var announced that Miramax “acquired worldwide rights” to the film. Miramax described the film as a “’non-fiction feature’” rather than a documentary.
       According to a 6 Sep 1988 DV news item, the film grossed nearly $25,000 at Lincoln Plaza in New York in its first five days of release. Miramax sponsored a petition to pardon Adams and had representatives collect signatures from audiences at Lincoln Plaza. The petition was accessible at venues nationwide upon the film’s wider release.
       A 1 Dec 1988 LAHExam news brief announced that David Harris recanted his testimony at Adams’s trial and admitted he was alone when Officer Wood stopped his vehicle, but on 25 Feb 1989, LAHExam reported that Adams was denied parole. On 1 Mar 1989, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals overturned Adams’s conviction “based largely” on facts presented in the film, according to a 2 Mar 1989 LAT article. LAT stated that the film’s petition, which was signed by over 15,000 people since late 1988, may have also influenced the court to revisit the case and determine that “the prosecution suppressed evidence and knowingly allowed perjured testimony during Adams’s 1977 trial.”
       As reported in various contemporary sources, including LAT on 7 Jul 1989 and Village Voice on 1 Aug 1989, Adams sued Morris to regain the rights to his story. In 1986, Adams signed an option agreement that stipulated he would be paid $10 for a documentary, $40,000 for a television movie and $60,000 for a theatrically released motion picture, and Morris was given the right to renew the agreement after two years. According to Village Voice , Adams received offers for book and movie deals while he was still in prison, but his lawyer, Randy Schaffer, would not allow him to make any arrangements because of Morris’s option, which had been renewed in 1988 for $10. Although Morris was eager to return the rights to Adams, whom he considered a close friend until the lawsuit, he was unwilling to pay the plaintiff’s request for $60,000, which constituted 2% of the film’s royalties plus daily interest from the beginning of principal photography. While Schaffer contended the film was a theatrical release, entitling Adams to $60,000, Morris told Village Voice that it was “’grotesque to contemplate a court argument about whether the film is fiction or a documentary’” and impossible to pinpoint a date when shooting began. Furthermore, it was unclear if Miramax owned a stake in the option. According to Village Voice , Morris was in debt with production costs from the film, even though it grossed over $1 million, and he did not profit from the project financially. Morris noted that he organized a benefit screening of the film in Columbus, OH, to raise funds for Adams and his family. Adams denied his decision to sue Morris was financially motivated and told LAT that he only wanted to reclaim power over his story. A 4 Aug 1989 DV news item announced that Morris and Adams settled the case, giving Adams complete rights.
       Although the film won vast acclaim and recognition, including awards from the International Documentary Association, the National Board of Review, and the National Society of Film Critics, it was not nominated for an Academy Award, sparking protest from filmmakers and critics, according to a 12 Mar 1989 LAT article. While director Michael Apted called the Academy’s failure to acknowledge The Thin Blue Line “’one of the most outrageous things in the modern history of the Academy,’” critic Roger Ebert noted that the slight was “’the worst non-nomination of the year’” and represented a negative reaction to the film’s re-enactments. According to several members of the Academy’s documentary committee, the group voted to stop the film at its screening. Chairman Arthur Nadel stated that the film was paused when it was 85% complete and only a few members stayed until the end. Filmmaker Chuck Workman, who revered the film, added: “’It was discussed only in the sense that there was so much negative feeling about it… it was pretty much dismissed.’” The last ten minutes of the film, however, portray a decisive element in the story. As the camera focuses on a tape recorder, the audience hears an interview between Morris and Harris from Death Row. Without directly admitting to killing Officer Wood, himself, Harris states he knows for certain that Adams was not the murderer and confesses that he blamed Adams for the crime. A 16 Mar 1989 LAHExam news item reported that Morris attended the Academy Awards, either believing that he might still win or protesting the Academy’s failure to nominate his film.
       The end credits contain the following acknowledgements: “Film clips of: Swinging Cheerleaders , courtesy of Dandrea releasing, ©1974; The Student Body , courtesy of Brandywine Productions, ©1975; Boston Blackie , Ziv Television, ©1952; Dillinger footage, courtesy of Lorimar Distribution, Inc., ©1945, 1973. Newspaper clippings courtesy of The Dallas Morning News , The Dallas Times Herald , The Beaumont Enterprise , The Beaumont Journal , and The Vidorian . Photographs courtesy of D Magazine , Master Detective , Texas Monthly , The Dallas Morning News , and Dallas Times Herald . Ku Klux Klan photograph courtesy of The Houston Chronicle . Drawings from the Bender Visual Motor Gestalt Test ©1946, American Orthopsychiatric Association Inc. and Lauretta Bender, M.D. Aerial photographs courtesy of Landis Aerial Photography, Inc.”
       Also included in the end credits are the following “Special Thanks” to: Julia Sheehan, The Criminal Justice Center, Sam Houston State University, Dr.George Beto and Dr. Phillips, The Texas Department of Corrections, Phil Guthrie and Jay Byrd, Randy Schaffer, Dennis Powell, The Jefferson County District Attorney’s Office, Robert Hobbs and Paul McWilliams, Robert Smith, Volker Schlondorff and Bioskop Film, Suzanne Weil, John S. and Florence G. Lawrence Foundation, The Dallas County District Attorney’s Office and Henry Wade, The Irving Film Commission and Fred Strype, New York City Mayors Office for Film, Theatre and Broadcasting.
       The credits state: “Produced in association with American Playhouse with funds from Public Television Stations, The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, The National Endowment for the Arts, and The Chubb Group of Insurance Companies; Channel 4 (U.K), The Program Development Company.”
       When the end credit scroll concludes, the following statement appears: “In memory of my brother Noel Ian Morris (1942-1983).”



The summary and note for this entry were completed with participation from the AFI Academic Network. Summary was written by participant Dane Heiss, a student at Oregon State University, with Jon Lewis as academic advisor.
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SOURCE CITATIONS
SOURCE
DATE
PAGE
Billboard
26 Mar 1988.
---
Daily Variety
21 Mar 1988.
---
Daily Variety
6 Sep 1988.
---
Daily Variety
4 Aug 1989.
---
Hollywood Reporter
16 Jun 1987.
---
Hollywood Reporter
8 Sep 1988
p. 4, 19.
Hollywood Reporter
20 Jan 1989.
---
LAHExam
1 Dec 1988.
---
LAHExam
25 Feb 1989.
---
LAHExam
16 Mar 1989.
---
Los Angeles Times
2 Sep 1988
p. 4.
Los Angeles Times
2 Mar 1989.
---
Los Angeles Times
12 Mar 1989.
---
Los Angeles Times
7 Jul 1989.
---
Los Angeles Times
19 Jul 1989.
---
Los Angeles Times
1 Jul 2004.
---
New York Times
26 Aug 1988
p. 6.
People
26 Sep 1988.
---
Variety
23 Mar 1988
p. 13.
Variety
11 May 1988.
---
Village Voice
1 Aug 1989.
---
CAST
PRODUCTION CREDITS
NAME
PARENT COMPANY
PRODUCTION TEXTS
An American Playhouse Presentation
An Errol Morris Film
DISTRIBUTION COMPANY
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
DIRECTORS
Prod mgr
PRODUCERS
Exec prod
Assoc prod
Asst prod
Prison interview prod
PHOTOGRAPHY
Dir of photog
Dir of photog
Addl photog
Addl photog
Addl photog
Addl photog
Motion control photog
1st asst cam
2d asst cam
Cam asst
Cam asst
Cam asst
Stills
Gaffer
Best boy
2d elec
2d elec
Key grip
Grip
Grip
ART DIRECTORS
Prod des
Art dir
Asst art dir
Courtroom drawings
Art dept asst
FILM EDITORS
Assoc ed
Asst ed
Asst ed
Asst ed
Ed intern
Ed intern
Contributing ed
Ed consultant
Negative cutter
SET DECORATORS
Prop master
Scenic
COSTUMES
MUSIC
Orig mus comp
Mus prod
for Euphorbia Productions Ltd.
Mus cond
Assoc mus prod
Rec eng
Asst eng
Contracting and admin
Mus rec at
New York City
Mus published by
ASCAP
SOUND
Addl prod sd
Sd post prod supv by
San Francisco
Re-rec mixer
Re-rec mixer
Re-rec consultant
Sd eff ed
Addl sd eff
Dial ed
Dial ed
Sd asst
Addl post-prod facilities
New York
Addl re-rec
VISUAL EFFECTS
Spec eff
Titles des by
Opticals IP/IN
Opticals IP/IN
MAKEUP
Key hair & make-up
of Bruno Le Salon
PRODUCTION MISC
Unit mgr
Prod consultant
Prod office coord
Prod office coord
Prod office coord
Post-prod coord
Loc scout
Craft services
Prod asst
Prod asst
Prod asst
Prod asst
Prod asst
Prod asst
Prod asst
Prod asst
Prod auditor
Asst auditor
Res asst
Tech consultant
Addl interlocutor
Addl interlocutor
Catering
ANIMATION
COLOR PERSONNEL
Col timer
DETAILS
Release Date:
August 1988
Premiere Information:
New York opening: 26 August 1988
Los Angeles opening: 2 September 1988
Copyright Claimant:
Third Floor Productions
Copyright Date:
4 October 1988
Copyright Number:
PA3883806
Physical Properties:
Sound
Dolby Stereo ® in Selected Theatres
Color
Color by DuArt Laboratories, Inc.
Duration(in mins):
110
Countries:
United Kingdom, United States
Language:
English
Passed by NBR:
No
SYNOPSIS

In an interview from prison, convict Randall Adams recounts his arrival in Dallas, Texas, in October 1976. Although he and his brother were on their way to California, Adams decided to stay in Dallas because he found a job. Inmate David Harris, in a separate prison interview, states that he ran away from home to Dallas after stealing his father’s guns and a neighbor’s car. The men describe meeting each other at a gas station on 29 Nov 1976, the date Dallas police officer Robert W. Wood was shot dead. A month later, on 21 Dec 1976, Adams was detained by police and, according to Adams, threatened at gunpoint to sign a confession. In their interviews, Dallas homicide detectives Gus Rose, Jackie Johnson and Marshall Touchton describe the night of the murder, when Officer Wood stopped the assailant for driving without headlights. The detectives suggest that Wood only intended to warn the driver because he left his ticket book in the squad car. After Wood was shot five times, his partner, Teresa Turko, who was one of the first female patrol officers in the district, returned fire as the assailant drove away, even though procedure dictated that she call for backup first. Since Turko failed to remember the license plate number, with the exception of the letters “HC,” the only lead to finding the assailant was her recollection of the vehicle, a blue Chevrolet Vega. According to evidence discovered at the scene, Turko also failed to follow the standard procedure of following her partner out of the squad car for assistance. The case remained in limbo until police in ... +


In an interview from prison, convict Randall Adams recounts his arrival in Dallas, Texas, in October 1976. Although he and his brother were on their way to California, Adams decided to stay in Dallas because he found a job. Inmate David Harris, in a separate prison interview, states that he ran away from home to Dallas after stealing his father’s guns and a neighbor’s car. The men describe meeting each other at a gas station on 29 Nov 1976, the date Dallas police officer Robert W. Wood was shot dead. A month later, on 21 Dec 1976, Adams was detained by police and, according to Adams, threatened at gunpoint to sign a confession. In their interviews, Dallas homicide detectives Gus Rose, Jackie Johnson and Marshall Touchton describe the night of the murder, when Officer Wood stopped the assailant for driving without headlights. The detectives suggest that Wood only intended to warn the driver because he left his ticket book in the squad car. After Wood was shot five times, his partner, Teresa Turko, who was one of the first female patrol officers in the district, returned fire as the assailant drove away, even though procedure dictated that she call for backup first. Since Turko failed to remember the license plate number, with the exception of the letters “HC,” the only lead to finding the assailant was her recollection of the vehicle, a blue Chevrolet Vega. According to evidence discovered at the scene, Turko also failed to follow the standard procedure of following her partner out of the squad car for assistance. The case remained in limbo until police in Vidor, Texas, learned from Harris’s friends that he bragged about shooting a policeman in Dallas. Sam Kittrell, a police detective in Vidor, states in an interview that Harris first denied the charges, but he later took the officer to a swamp behind his home in Rose City, Texas, to retrieve the murder weapon. According to a Dallas detective, who described the boy as “friendly,” Harris changed his story as the consequences of the crime appeared more dire and ultimately reported “facts” that corroborated “what we knew”: Adams was the killer. In his interview, however, Adams reports a different story. He says Harris had an “arsenal” of weapons in his car that he fired for amusement. On the night of the murder, the men consumed beer and marijuana, then attended a double feature at a drive-in theater, but Adams asked to leave during the second picture, The Swinging Cheerleaders , because it offended him. Driving back to Adams’s temporary home at the Comfort Motel, they stopped at a store and parted ways. Although Adams claims he signed a police statement containing this version of the events, Dallas homicide detectives argue that Adams signed a confession that stated he “blacked out” and his failure to remember was suspicious. Adams’s defense attorney, Edith James, reports in an interview that the prosecution was lead by district attorney Douglas Mulder, who had never lost a case. Convinced that Adams was innocent, James enlisted the assistance of her colleague Dennis White, who also felt they could win the case because the police had no evidence. In an interview, White points out that Vidor was home to Texas’s Ku Klux Klan headquarters and its community held the false assumption that Officer Wood was black, making them uncooperative. Further hindering Adams’s defense, Mulder spread a rumor in Vidor that White was an “eastern-educated civil liberties attorney.” White claims he was followed during his visit to Vidor and received assistance from only one police officer, who reported that Harris committed an armed robbery with the same pistol that killed Wood not long after the officer’s murder. In court, however, Judge Metcalfe refused James and White’s request to use Harris’s criminal history as evidence against him. In her interview, James reflects that sixteen-year-olds, such as Harris, were not eligible for the death penalty while Adams, who was twenty-eight, provided a “convenient” scapegoat. When Adams’s brother refused to testify for fear of perjuring himself, Adams went to trial without witnesses. Officer Turko, who previously mistook Harris’s Mercury Comet for a Chevrolet Vega, incorrectly reported two letters of the license plate, and failed to follow standard procedures at the crime scene, also falsely testified that she followed Wood when he got out of the squad car. Adams notes that her testimony conflicted with her original report. Although James and White were confident of an acquittal, three surprise witnesses appeared in court, claiming to have seen Adams in the car before Wood was shot. In an interview, James states that witnesses Emily Miller and her husband, R. L., came forward because they were in trouble with the law and sought immunity. Elba Carr, a former co-worker of Emily Miller’s at Fas-Gas, says that the couple told her they were willing to lie under oath for the $21,000 reward. The third surprise witness, Michael Randell, recalls in an interview that he saw two people in the car and the driver had a moustache, but he did not see the murder. Judge Metcalfe says that he tried to hide his emotion in the courtroom, but admits his eyes welled with tears during Mulder’s closing argument which stated: “the thin blue line of police separate the public from anarchy.” After Adams was found guilty, his capacity for remorse was tested by psychiatrist Dr. James Grigson to determine if the death penalty was an appropriate sentence. Dr. Grigson, also known as “Dr. Death” because of his consistent recommendations for capital punishment, testified that Adams was a serial criminal, despite the fact that he had never before been arrested. After the jury sentenced Adams to death, James and White filed an appeal, but they were prohibited from providing evidence to discredit the Millers. Appellate attorney Melvyn Carson Bruder states in an interview that he was shocked by the court’s 9-0 decision to uphold Adams’s conviction. When the United States Supreme Court later overturned the ruling by a vote of 1-8, just days before Adams’s execution date, district attorney Henry Wade demanded a retrial, hoping to convict Adams again. However, Bruder explains, Wade ultimately asked the governor to commute Adams’s sentence to life in prison to prevent the defense from proving his innocence. White says he ended his criminal law practice after Adams’s case because of his disillusionment with the legal system. A short time after the trial, Harris joined the military, but he continued to commit crimes and was imprisoned on several occasions. In an interview, Harris admits that Mulder coached his testimony and claims the lawyer was trying to “deceive the jury” and “deceive justice.” The third surprise witness, Randell, admits his testimony was unreliable and says the Millers “got paid for lying.” In September 1985, Harris confessed to another murder, but he reasoned that the man deserved his death because he pursued Harris with a gun after Harris broke into his apartment and attempted to kidnap his girlfriend. Harris’s confession lead to a death sentence for capital murder. Vidor detective Kittrell notes Harris is both charming and psychopathic. Harris remembers the drowning death of his brother when he was three years old and says that he had to fight for his father’s attention afterwards. On 5 December 1986, Harris gave a final interview from Death Row. On a cassette tape recording, Harris calls Adams a “proverbial scapegoat” and speculates that “thousands of innocent people” are convicted. Harris admits Adams did not kill Officer Wood and says he blamed the crime on Adams because he was young and scared. Harris suggests that Adams’s life would have turned out differently if he had only given him a place to stay that evening. +

GENRE
Genre:


Subject
Subject (Major):

Legend
Viewed by AFI
Partially Viewed
Offscreen Credit
Name Occurs Before Title
AFI Life Achievement Award

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