Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Underrated Movie #12: The Thin Blue Line

Title: The Thin Blue Line
Year: 1988
Director: Errol Morris
Stars: Randall Adams, David Harris
The Story: Gob-smacking documentary about a hapless drifter who finds himself falsely convicted of murder in Texas, until the filmmaker cracks the case before our very eyes.

How it Came to be Underrated: I’m really stretching things today, since this movie found a huge audience (for a doc), and made Morris’s career, but still, not enough people have seen it. Here's what led me to that conclusion: A few times now, I’ve tried to pitch a super-dark TV show about a prosecutor who enjoys convicting the innocent. Each time, I get a room full of blank stares, and then someone blurts out, “but a prosecutor would never intentionally convict an innocent person!” Each time, I wanted to ask, “Haven’t you people seen The Thin Blue Line??” (Adams’s appeals lawyer lays it down: “The prosecutors in Dallas have said for years: any prosecutor can convict a guilty man. It takes a great prosecutor to convict an innocent man.”)

Why It’s Great:
  1. Morris is now recognized as a grand master and his methods have become familiar, so it’s easy to forget just how controversial this was at the time. Cinema Verite, a style of documentary filmmaking that consists entirely of handheld, follow-along footage, had been dominant for 20 years, until it had become sort of a cult. Morris had come out of that school, but he suddenly abandoned it for this movie. This movie was cool, calm and collected, with crisp cinematography, slick Philip Glass music, and even –horror of horrors- recreations, which were a big no-no. Though these recreations were tasteful and abstract, they were still considered strictly abhorrent–until this movie connected to audiences better than any theatrically released doc had in years.
  2. Randall Adams is such a wonderful character. He doesn’t fit the role of ‘noble martyr’ very well, but he does prove to be a lovable loser. He’s the sort of guy who has a bumper sticker that says “I’m a Lover. How’s Your Lovelife?” He meets David Harris, the real killer, and they’re soon sipping beers at a drive-in double-feature of Student Body and Swinging Cheerleaders, (though Adams admits “I didn’t really care for the second feature.”) This is the unfortunate story of what happens when “hanging out” goes very, very wrong.
  3. Morris isn’t ashamed to use suspenseful literary devices like foreshadowing. Early on, a detective tells us about the shuffling, sly manner in which Harris would confess his crimes once he knew he couldn’t get out of it. Later, when Harris finally tries to come clean to Morris about what happened, we recognize what he’s doing and a chill goes up our back.
  4. As a result of this movie, Adams’s conviction was finally overturned, but you have to keep reminding yourself that nobody onscreen knew that would happen, which is why Morris is able to get the powers-that-be in Dallas County to talk so blithely about their frame-up. Harris was the well-known local scamp, (“He just seemed like a friendly kid.” “‘Yes, Sir’ ‘No, Sir’-- Never disrespectful.”) but Adams was “only a drifter”. By the time they pulled Harris in, they’d already arrested Adams, so “we didn’t want him to tell us something that he thought, we wanted him to tell us what we knew.” The more you think about that statement, the more chilling it becomes.
Underrated Compared To: bad, bad Hollywood movies about the wrongfully convicted.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Every movie Morris has made will knock your socks off. The best are Gates of Heaven (1978), Fast, Cheap and Out of Control (1997), Mr. Death (1999), and The Fog of War (2003)

How Available Is It?: It’s on dvd and you can watch it instantly on Netflix.

Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: The Masculiner!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hey brother - let me get this straight. You want to get some beers, check into a motel, and then frame me for murder? That's cool. It's the 70s. Let's just hang out.