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True Detective
by Terrence Rafferty

The New Yorker - September 5, 1988

Errol Morris's documentaries have a luxuriant weirdness, a deep unfamiliarity. In his first two films -- "Gates of Heaven"(1978), a report on pet cemeteries in California, and "Vernon, Florida" (1981), a loosely assembled collection of tales from a small Southern town, told by rambling coots and half-demented good old boys -- his choice of material and his fondness for lingering on the cracked discourse of his interview subjects identified him as a true connoisseur of native eccentricity, a hoarder of oddball Americana. His new movie, "The Thin Blue Line," shows that he's more than an inspired believe-it-or-not artist. Telling the story of a 1976 cop-killing in Dallas, and detailing the process by which a man who is almost certainly innocent was convicted and sentenced to death for the crime (with the likely killer as the prosecution's star witness), Morris burrows into a nightmarish realm of duplicity, faulty perception, and bottomless ambiguity. The movie is both detached and fanatically intense. Its materials have the heterogeneity, the heedless comprehensiveness, of documents in a dossier: there are interviews with the principals, close ups of key words and paragraphs from the newspaper accounts, courtroom sketches, maps, family-album snapshots of the suspects, diagrams of the crime scenes and of the entry and exit wounds in the victim's body, and a series of eerie reenactments of witnesses' different versions of the murder and the events that led up to it. But this stuff isn't organized in ways that we're used to. "The Thin Blue Line" doesn't have the structure either of "60 Minutes" style investigative journalism or of detective fiction, though it borrows elements from both; its form is circular, spiraling, its obsessive, repetitive visual motifs echoed in Philip Glass's hauntingly monotonous score. This is documentary as epistemological thriller; Morris seems to want to bring us to the point at which our apprehension of the real world reaches the pitch of paranoia -- to induce in us the state of mind of a detective whose scrutiny of the evidence, whose search for the connections between stubbornly isolated facts, has begun to take a feverish clarity of hallucination.

The movie is a trance-like, almost lyrical rendering of a small, messy murder case -- the kind of story that's usually found in local newspapers and, sensationalized, in true-detective magazines -- and it's as hypnotic as "Vertigo." Although Morris himself does appear in "The Thin Blue Line," he is this film's true detective, the investigator whose insomniac consciousness keeps reshuffling the evidence, generating ambiguous images of the crime from the contradictory testimony of witnesses, swerving constantly between words and pictures, between facts and hypotheses. He came upon the story by accident. In 1985, Morris was interviewing prisoners in a Texas penitentiary for a documentary on James P. Grigson, a Dallas psychiatrist who is known as Dr. Death, because his expert testimony in capital cases virtually guarantees that the defendant will be sentenced to death. One of the filmmaker's interview subjects was a man named Randall Adams, who claimed to have been wrongly convicted of a policeman's murder. Morris did some digging into the records of the case and trial, became convinced that Adams was innocent, and wound up on a long detour from the Dr. Death movie; the question of how Randall Adams could have landed in jail for something he probably didn't do took over the filmmaker's mind. Undoubtedly, the urgent, compulsive quality of "The Thin Blue Line" is, at least in part, a consequence of the film's unusual origin. The subject seems to have seized Morris's imagination unexpectedly -- in much the same way another Dallas murder, the Kennedy assassination, has drawn people, almost against their will, into its labyrinth of half-truths and contradictions, closed files and intimations of conspiracy.

Officer Robert Wood was killed on a cold night in November, 1976. He and his partner had stopped a car in a bad section of town just to tell the driver to turn his headlights on; when Wood reached the window on the driver's side, he was shot, several times, by the man at the wheel. Since the crime was apparently so senseless, and since the only known witness, Wood's partner, wasn't very observant (the movie suggests that she may have violated proce-dure by remaining seated in the patrol car, drinking a milkshake, while Wood approached the killer's car), the Dallas police had no leads and hardly any clues. A month later, they questioned sixteen-year-old David Harris, who had been bragging to his buddies in the small town of Vidor that he had killed a Dallas cop. He admitted to the police that he had been in the car that Wood pulled over, but claimed that the person who had done the shooting was Randall Adams, a hitchhiker he had picked up earlier that day. After interrogating Adams -- who insisted that the teenager had dropped him off at his motel a couple of hours before the time of the murder, and who refused to sign a confession -- the police decided that they would believe Harris, despite what might have seemed fairly strong circumstantial evidence pointing to him as the killer: both the murder weapon and the car had been stolen by Harris in Vidor; since he knew that the car was stolen, he would have had far more reason than Adams to panic at being stopped by a patrol car; he had a substantial criminal record, and was facing charges in Vidor at the time he gave his evidence, whereas Adams had no record at all and no history of violence. So why, the movie asks, was Adams prosecuted, much less convicted and sentenced to death?

Morris's answers, or suggestions of answers, are complex, and whirl by us at such speed that we're barely able to keep up. We register one fact, and then another comes at us, then another and another, until, finally, we seem to be taking it all in on an almost subliminal level -- our attention is so intensely focused that everything resonates, ev-erything connects, with a logic we have stopped even trying to articulate. In showing us the lies, the fears, the social pressures, the cultural influences, the unwarranted assumptions, the ulterior motives, the stubbornness, and the plain confusion that combined to produce the case against Randall Adams, Morris -- who has a degree in philosophy, and who once worked as a private detective -- seems to be investigating not just this squalid murder but the very nature of untruth. It's hard to think of another movie (let alone another documentary) that has such a richly developed sense of the texture of falsehood, that picks out so many of the strands that, woven together, blind us. The Dallas police, their anger stirred and their pride challenged by the murder of one of their own, needed to arrest someone; if they believed Harris, they had a crime with a witness; if they believed Adams, then Harris was alone in the car, and they had nothing. The District Attorney, Douglas Mulder, who had never lost a capital case, needed a conviction and a death sentence: Harris, as a juvenile, couldn't be tried for first-degree murder; Adams, who was twenty-seven, could. At the trial, the victim's partner, who was feeling the heat of a departmental investigation of her conduct on the night of the killing and therefore may have been especially eager to cooperate, changed her testimony from her original report: having initially said that there was only one person in the car, she now claimed to have seen two; the driver was now described as having had bushy shoulder-length hair (like Adams), rather than short hair and a fur-collared jacket (like Harris). The judge, the son of an F.B.I. agent, was a man with a passion for law enforcement; he admits that he "welled up" during the D.A.'s emotional closing argument about "the thin blue line" of police risking their lives to protect society. One of the prosecution's chief witnesses, sprung on the defense at the last moment, was a woman named Emily Miller, who "used to watch all the detective shows on TV" and loved to make herself useful to the authorities -- particularly in this case, since there was a twenty-one-thousand-dollar reward involved, and her daughter had just been arrested for a felony. (The charges were quietly dropped.)

Morris sucks us into the process by which a man, Randall Adams, becomes a kind of fictional character in a story whose momentum seems unstoppable. Adams, labeled a "drifter" by the police and the press (although he had been holding down a decent job ever since he arrived in Dallas, two months before the murder), is, when we see him interviewed in prison, a wan, ghostly, soft-spoken man. He's much thinner than the mustached hippie we've seen in newspaper photos from the time of his arrest, and he has a flat, weary voice. Although Adams isn't on Death Row anymore -- in a complicated legal maneuver, the State of Texas commuted his sentence to life imprisonment in 1977 (after the Supreme Court struck down his death penalty), so that it wouldn't have to give him a new trial -- he looks and sounds like someone on the verge of disappearing. He seems barely real, a shadowy image animated only sporadically by glints of bitter humor. The re-creations of the murder and the events surrounding it have a stronger presence than Adams himself. Even when these scenes are representing accounts that are probably false, they're compelling. We watch the same actions occur over and over again, with slight but significant variations, on the same dark stretch of road -- a setting that Morris endows with an unearthly vividness, composed of the piercing beams of headlights, silhouetted figures, flashes of gunfire, the revolving red light on top of the police car, and rich, enveloping nighttime blackness -- and we think, against all reason, that one more detail, a different angle of vision, will suddenly reveal the truth, that these reconstructions somehow have the power to take us to the heart of things. Once David Harris had told his story, Randall Adams' life was obliterated, to be replaced by an endless series of constructions and reconstructions of a single moment (a moment at which he was most likely asleep in his motel room). It's as if time had simply stopped for him the instant the image of him shooting Robert Wood lodged in the minds of the Dallas police, and he had been condemned to live the rest of his life exclusively in the minds of others: cops, judges, juries, lawyers, newspaper readers, Errol Morris, audiences watching this movie -- all of us, for our various reasons, rehearsing that terrible moment, with the figure of Randall Adams flickering in and out of the picture.

Adams' fate is worthy of a Borges hero, one of those melancholy spirits trapped in infinite loops of metaphysical treachery. It's no small feat for Morris to have made a documentary that evokes this kind of existential unease in its audience. There are times, though, when things get all muddy and confused, and that's not because reality is, you know, hopelessly ambiguous; it's because the filmmaker's style is too fancy and elliptical, or because he just hasn't bothered to give us information we need. The legal proceedings, in particular, are almost never entirely lucid. The flowering absurdity of Adams' experiences with the courts wouldn't lose its horror if Morris troubled to explain a few crucial points of law. But this is a powerful and thrillingly strange movie, and Morris's occasional excess of artiness shouldn't be taken as an indication of indifference to the reality of Randall Adams' plight. In fact, the filmmaker himself uncovered several pieces of new evidence, testified in Adams' behalf at hearings on motions for retrial, and coaxed a near-confession out of David Harris, which we hear, on tape, in the movie's final scene. (Harris has since, in a recent interview with a newspaper reporter, come even closer to an outright admission of guilt. He's on Death Row for another murder, and Adams is still petitioning for a new trial.) Morris, who clearly has a very sophisticated understanding of the relationship between art and reality, did a thorough, painstaking investigation in the real world, and then did something different on film: he turned the case into a kind of tabloid poetry, a meditation on uncertainty and the fascination of violence. If we quibble every now and then with his presentation of the facts, it's his own fault; "The Thin Blue Line" makes us all obsessed detectives.

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