Winter 2020


Documentary Noir

In the opening sequence of The Thin Blue Line, Errol Morris enhances his quest for the truth with innovative, and controversial, style

By Rob Feld

The Thin Blue Line (1988) is more than a documentary telling the story of the 1976 shooting of a police officer and the incarceration of the wrong man for the crime. It is also an attempt to demonstrate Morris' own ruminations upon the various ways in which the murder may have transpired, to bring clarity to the mystery.

One cold night in West Dallas, Texas, Officer Robert Wood and his partner, Officer Teresa Turko, made a routine highway stop of a blue Mercury Comet. As Wood approached the driver's side window, he was shot. Officer Turko may or may not have been inside her car at the time (a detail revealed later in the film), but eventually fired upon the fleeing vehicle, though she did not see the shooter or the license plate. Randall Adams, a 27-year-old drifter, wound up on death row for the crime. But Morris' investigation homes in on the chief prosecution witness against him as the true killer, a 16-year-old runaway otherwise on a crime spree, David Harris. Morris' investigation ultimately led to Adams' release from prison.

The expressionistic and contrary restagings of the traffic stop and shooting were met with distrust and even confusion. But the documentary, like so much of Morris' work in film and letters, reflects not truth, but the very search for it.

"There's a confusion about the nature of truth in documentary," says Morris. "Truth is never guaranteed. You pursue truth. It becomes a quest. To the best of your abilities, you want to pursue this story and bring it to a conclusion if you can. I tried to use visuals in a way that was not just illustrative, but to take you deeper and deeper into the central mystery. I'm very proud of The Thin Blue Line because I think it was innovative and different from any documentary made before, but I'm even prouder of my investigation. It's the best investigation I will ever do as a private investigator or as a filmmaker."

This police light is at the heart of The Thin Blue Line. Something strange, fetishistic, mysterious. The police car on that lonely roadway in West Dallas and the tragedy caused by a routine traffic stop—a tragedy that encompassed several murders, several attempted murders, and a miscarriage of justice that brought an Ohio drifter within hours of execution in Old Sparky, the Texas electric chair. This was a film noir story extraordinaire. Except, unlike most film noir, it actually happened. Director of photography Stefan Czapsky (and I) talked about the police light. We wanted something intensely bright—to blow out the frame. We ended up with the landing lights for a Learjet—so bright that the plastic globes housing them atop the police car constantly melted down and had to be replaced.

David Harris at Lew Sterrett Justice Center, the Dallas County jail. It was my last interview at the end of a very long investigative process. Harris had failed to show up several times for a filmed interview. It is one of my favorite excuses for missing an appointment—"I was off killing somebody." In retrospect, I was at considerable risk following Harris around Texas. He could have easily killed me. I spoke to him the day before he was executed. By this time, Old Sparky had been replaced by a lethal injection gurney. It's what we call progress. Shooting in a prison is catch-as-catch-can. We shot all the interviews on Super 16mm 7248, and the dramatic sequences on 35mm 5248.

Randall Adams at Eastham Unit, also known as "The Ham." It was my first interview for The Thin Blue Line, almost three years before I filmed David Harris. I avoid talking to people in advance of an interview, although I prepare scrupulously and think about what I'm trying to achieve. But beyond that, I let it happen. There's this nefarious idea that real people aren't actors and that actors aren't real people, which I think is untrue. Really good interviews are performances. It doesn't mean they're fake. But the ability to get a good interview on film involves directing. You're not sitting there as a potato in a chair. You're trying to make something happen in front of the camera. This is true with actors. It's true with real people. For better or for worse, they're both people.

Up on a crane here for the traffic stop. I love wide shots. Wide shots put us in a scene but we don't necessarily look into the scene. Close-ups we scrutinize. We try to explore them. We react to the different focal lengths radically differently. This is probably a 25mm or a 21mm lens. I wish it was wider. I love the 10mm, I love the 12mm, and I love the 14mm. Can't live without them—or at least their equivalents in a wide-format camera. I had a genius production designer, Ted Bafaloukos, who created extraordinarily beautiful storyboards. Our intention was to illustrate the various versions of what might have happened that night. The goal is to pursue the truth, to investigate the truth of what happened that night.

The crime is shown as a sequence of odd close-ups, wide shots, medium shots, expressionistic angles—a longer lens, through the windshield of the police car, parked behind the suspect's vehicle. The lighting is exquisite. We are in film noir country here.

Looking back at the police car. Robert Wood is approaching the suspect's vehicle. Officer Turko, his partner, is still inside although not clearly visible. It leaves the mystery of whether she got out of the car at first. Officer Wood with his flashlight approaches the stopped car. He spun several times when he was shot so we cast a dancer to play him. We wanted someone who could execute a pirouette again and again. It's all in slow motion—I like over-cranking. It gives the action a surreality.

We're inside the suspect's vehicle, the blue Comet. Whose hand is on the wheel? We don't know. It slips off. He's reaching underneath the seat for a gun. It's hard to get the camera where you want when you're shooting in cars—sometimes you have to take the seats out, sometimes the windshield, sometimes you even have to saw the car in half. Every shot in this sequence is exquisitely framed. It's a quest for truth beyond a quest for reality. To answer the questions: Who took the gun from underneath the driver's seat? Who sent five slugs into the cop? Truth is served by trying to determine the truth. It isn't pursued by choosing a 50mm over a 35mm lens. It isn't pursued by having a handheld camera rather than a camera mounted on a dolly. All of this is in service of a mystery that I am trying to solve.

There were few streetlights. In all likelihood Wood's partner, Officer Turko, never got out of the car. She did not see clearly whether there were two occupants in the vehicle or one. The audience is asked to think about these images and these pieces of evidence. I don't know for sure, but my guess is her partner gets out of the car. It's a cold night, she stays inside. Her partner walks to the driver's side of the vehicle, gets shot multiple times. She runs and the car speeds off into the night, suggesting that she was not really in a place either to see the license plate of the car or who was in it. You're setting up a mystery. You're not reenacting; I believe that term is misleading and incorrect.

We shot this on City Island in New York and in a garage in Brooklyn. Officer Wood approaches the car with his ominous shadow preceding him. A low angle shot lit by the bright headlights of the police car. I used a music cue from Philip Glass, from "Facades." It worked so extraordinarily well that I kept saying, "We better get someone to write like Philip Glass." And then I thought, why not Philip Glass himself? It took months to get him to look at a rough cut of the film but once he did, he said immediately that he would write the music. He still says that it's the score that he is most proud of.

As a fledgling filmmaker, you're told never to cross the line. As a consummate rule-breaker, we crossed the line repeatedly with the gunshots. It's one way to create drama. It heightens the tension. People complained about the gunshots, saying they didn't sound realistic—whatever that means. So, we remixed it to add reverb, make them louder, throw some more bass in there.

The flashlight had fallen and shattered. So, I imagined how that must've looked. Details are really important in understanding a story. Creating these visuals enables us to consider the various alternatives and possibilities of what might've happened. I felt that to try to bring an audience into that mystery in this way was actually the most honest way of telling it.

We know Officer Turko did get out eventually, but I don't believe she ran out until after the shooting. On the soundtrack you hear the tires, the burning of rubber and the car screeching away into the night, with her repeatedly firing her pistol to no avail. Stefan Czapsky was the most accomplished DP in America for lighting at night and achieving really rich blacks. Sometimes we joked about creating a look that I had seen in countless crime dramas from the '40s and '50s—a documentary noir.

Visuals and these things are not there to tell you what really happened—or most certainly not to illustrate what I believe really happened—but to take you into the heart of the mystery of what happened. If something is ambiguous, it's not trying to hide anything, but trying to frame a set of questions. I don't want to argue that it's a representation of what things were really like, but it is an attempt to evoke what things were like. I wasn't there on the roadway and it was a very dark night. I am still not illustrating the crime; I'm illustrating the mystery around the crime.

Officer Wood's autopsy photograph. I like having archival material as part of the editorial mix. It reminds you of the underlying reality of the crime. Creating a mix of real archival material—newspapers, autopsy photographs, police diagrams, etc.—becomes part of investigating the crime. I like the fact that we feel this is an autopsy picture; it has a different feeling from all of the other material. There's something about the image that is real. The story can't be so abstract that you lose sight of the human tragedy at the heart of what happened. A person actually lost his life on this roadway on that night.

Photo: (Top) Alamy; Screenpulls: MGM Home Entertainment