Documentary on the Friedmans, a seemingly typical, upper-middle-class Jewish family whose world is instantly transformed when the father and his youngest son are arrested and charged with shocking and horrible crimes.
Errol Morris's unique documentary dramatically re-enacts the crime scene and investigation of a police officer's murder in Dallas, Texas. Briefly, a drifter (Randall Adams) ran out of gas and was picked up by a 16-year-old runaway (David Harris). Later that night, they drank some beer, smoked some marijuana, and went to the movies. Then, their stories diverged. Adams claimed that he left for his motel, where he was staying with his brother, and went to sleep. Harris, however, said that they were stopped by police late that night, and Adams suddenly shot the officer approaching their car. The film shows the audience the evidence gathered by the police, who were under extreme pressure to clear the case. It strongly makes a point that the circumstantial evidence was very flimsy. In fact, it becomes apparent that Harris was a much more likely suspect and was in the middle of a crime spree, eventually ending up on Death Row himself for the later commission of other crimes. Morris implies ...Written by
Tad Dibbern <DIBBERN_D@a1.mscf.upenn.edu>
This film was released the very same year the National Film Registry was first established. The film was selected to be preserved at the Registry 13 years later, making it the first film to be preserved that is as old as the Registry itself. See more »
Melvyn Carson Bruder:
Prosecutors in Dallas have said for years - any prosecutor can convict a guilty man. It takes a great prosecutor to convict an innocent man.
See more »
In memory of my brother Noel Ian Morris (1942-1983) See more »
I can imagine a lot of people sort of nodding off at the idea of a "documentary." High schools show too many, on subjects like the life cycle of the loggerhead turtle. I see people snoozing at the thought of yet another educational non-fiction film.
Well, I guess there was a period when they carried a bit more chic than in recent years. Flaherty made some money. And Mondo Cane, of course, if that was a documentary.
But the whole field seems to have been revolutionized lately by Ken Burns and Errol Morris, the former with "The Civil War" series on PBS and the latter with this film. Morris had made an earlier movie, mostly about an animal cemetery, but the subject seems to have had limited popular appeal.
"The Thin Blue Line" however is about the shooting death of a police officer and the subsequent conviction, imprisonment, and death sentence of an innocent man.
The movie really IS innovative. There is no narration, for one thing. For another, the talking heads we see aren't labeled at the bottom of the screen -- "Chester Smith, Accountant at Robbin, Cheatham, and Frisk Law Firm." Instead, Morris shows us close ups of newspaper clippings and other printed materials which just happen to mention the name of the person we are about to be introduced to. It's a small thing, true, but I can't recall the device's ever having been used before. It's unobtrusive and effective. (That's the sort of thing I mean when I call this film "innovative".) The events are restaged and presented again and again from different points of view, the whole being carefully constructed, like a jigsaw puzzle, but a jigsaw puzzle for children, easy to comprehend.
And it's easy to see why Morris latched on to this topic. Not only is it interesting per se, an investigation into the justice system in Texas, in which almost all the authority figures seem intent on extinguishing forfeited lives, but the actual performers we see on screen are remarkably at ease in the presence of the camera. They smile conspiratorially, practically winking at the camera. They look dramatically towards heaven and say things like, "It's crazy." But all in a pleasant Texas drawl. Nobody gets excited. Nobody breaks down and sobs. (There's innovation for you!) Nobody get angry and shouts at the camera. It's all very smooth.
But although the performances are good, they are still performances. No one seems to admit having made a mistake. Everyone enters his house justified. Randall Adams, the innocent guy who was railroaded into the slams because he was 28 years old and could therefore be given the death penalty, has been in jail long enough to know what he's about when he presents his case. He has a practiced, wounded appearance and manner, although he describes his experiences as if they happened to somebody else. You pick up things in jail, along with the tattoos. David Harris, the actual perp, smiles and shrugs disarmingly, and he keeps saying "I guess" and "whatever." As cool as an ice cube in Sweetwater. He is, in fact, a textbook-perfect example of what used to be called a psychopath. He's pleasant looking, charming, and utterly without any conscience.
In some ways the most interesting character is the spaced-out blonde who claims to have eyewitnessed the killing and identifies Adams as the murderer in court. She's the most interesting because her motives are the most obscure. Everyone else's goals are clear. Adams wants to save his neck. The prosecutor wants another conviction. But this babe is really something.
She's constructed an old TV detective program with herself as the central figure.
Two additional points. One is that the psychiatrist known as "Doctor Death" spent only 15 minutes with Adams in prison before testifying that Adams was an incurable murderer. I'm laughing as I write this. Anyway, Dr. Death gave Adams two tests. The first, which Adams describes as a lot of circles and squiggly lines, is the Bender Gestalt Test which was originally designed to measure brain damage. In the second part of the examination, Adams is asked to explain the meaning of a couple of adages. "A rolling stone gathers no moss," for example. It used to be thought that schizophrenics were given to "concrete thinking" and that they had trouble reasoning abstractly enough to interpret these old sayings. It's not used anymore. One thing always bothered me about it anyway. One of the items is "A new broom sweeps clean", and I could never figure out EXACTLY what that was supposed to mean.
The second point is that Adams was given a new trial and released after this film was shown. In other words, Errol Morris saved Randall Adam's life, which would otherwise have been spent in prison. So what does Adams do after he's out of prison? He sues Errol Morris for having taken advantage of him! In TV interviews explaining his suit, Adams uses exactly the same bewildered expressions and gestures of helplessness that he does in this film. At least those eleven years weren't a complete waste of time because he obviously learned something, or whatever.
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