‘The Thin Blue Line’ as Detective Film

This essay was written by Christopher Campbell in December 2010 (before the founding of Nonfics) for a Master’s film studies class at NYU.

The Thin Blue Line
Criterion Collection

The following essay was written in December 2010 for a Master’s film studies class at NYU and was originally titled “The Documentary Detective Film: Genre and Focalization as Means to Solve a True Crime in Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line.” I am publishing the essay as a tie-in to the film’s new Criterion Collection release.

As a mode of cinema, documentary can appropriate elements of narrative discourse more associated with the fiction film, including the use of a popular genre to better formulate and tell a story through familiar terms and film language. Errol MorrisThe Thin Blue Line is a perfect example of this adaptation of narrational parameters to non-fiction, employing certain conventions and focalization methods of the detective film in both the documentation of a real-life murder investigation and the ultimate deduction of its true perpetrator. It may be argued that The Thin Blue Line is classifiable not just as a simple detective film but as a film noir. I shall recognize some of the ways in which syntactically this could be the case, for a revisionist labeling of it as something along the lines of “doc noir,” perhaps, but the forced application of the term noir to any and every modern detective film is a complicated and overextended practice with critics and scholars today. For the purposes of this essay and out of respect to greater and much lengthier considerations of film noir in total, I will instead try to adhere more generally to the basics of the detective genre.

The easiest way to define the detective film is to simply say it deals with a detective. David Bordwell and Kristen Thompson specify the genre “is partly defined by the plot pattern of an investigation that solves a mystery.”[1] Of the three main types of crime films, the subheading of detective film focuses on the investigator, often one in private practice, as a character and follows his narrative in the pursuit of discovering who committed the crime. This, as opposed to the gangster film, which focuses on the other side of the law — on the committer of crime (specifically, the gangster) — and the suspense thriller, which focuses somewhere in between — on the victim or potential victim of a crime.[2] In a way, The Thin Blue Line complicates the simplistic narrative approaches outlined here, in that it does also present much of the criminal’s story as well as that of a victim — not the murder victim but a victim of injustice, who has been misunderstood to be the killer. But these stories are not presented through their actions; rather they are presented through the action of the detective interrogating the other two figures. Meanwhile, though, there is no actual onscreen detective character. Instead, the filmmaker, Morris, functions as that character, and the film itself both is and presents his investigative process and also concerns his narrative above all others.

The primary narrative of The Thin Blue Line follows Morris, a veteran documentarian who was in fact fittingly working as a private investigator just prior to the undertaking of this film, as he interviews 18 individuals associated with the decade-old case of a murdered police officer in Dallas. The mystery of whodunit had already been officially solved, the suspected killer tried and convicted and the case closed, so Morris’s role seems initially as a mere documenter of the events of the original investigation. However, due to immediate inconsistencies among the testimonial accounts that he has recorded, as well as through the repeated presentation of dramatized reenactments of the murder, it becomes clear that he and his camera have reopened the case and a new investigation is underway.

This new investigation investigates the original investigation and, through it, investigates the murder case. A third plot layer is therefore added to Eleanor Anne Ponder’s consideration of the double plot structure of detective stories, as she describes here:

The activity of detection is the action of the forward-moving plot. The detective is engaged in finding out the identity of the perpetrator and the scope of his crime. The perpetrator and his criminal activities establish the second, previous plot. The previous, past plot is complete, or nearly so, when the present, forward-moving plot begins.[3]

In addition to the criminal activities being in the past, here the previous investigation is also already complete, or nearly so, when Morris’s forward-moving plot begins. Yet, The Thin Blue Line does not follow Morris’s investigation in a linear, forward-moving way. Instead, through editing, it is plotted with a chronological structure reflecting, in order, the original proceedings of the initial homicide investigation, the arrest of Randall Adams as a suspect, the lawyers’ investigation, the trial, the conviction and capital sentencing of Adams and, as a sort of epilogue, the aftermath and background story of David Harris, who is potentially and presumably the true killer. This plot structure is formed through the breaking up of Morris’s interviews with the 18 witnesses and cutting them all, together, as is typical for documentaries employing the device, to create a sort of oral historical retelling of the original narrative proceedings.

We can try to formulate how the linear version of this narrative occurs, beginning with the filmmaker/detective’s meeting of Randall Adams, a convicted prisoner claiming innocence of the crime he is serving a life sentence for. It continues with Morris separately interviewing, in unknown order, the following individuals: principal eyewitness and potential suspect David Harris; Dallas, Texas, homicide detectives Gus Rose, Jackie Johnson and Marshall Touchston; Dallas, Texas, internal affairs investigator Dale Holt; Vidor, Texas, police detective Sam Kittrell; David Harris’s friends in Vidor, Hootie Nelson, Dennis Johnson and Floyd Jackson; Adams’s defense attorneys, Edith James and Dennis White; Judge Don Metcalfe; “surprise” eyewitnesses Emily Miller, Robert Miller and Michael Randell; character witness Elba Carr; and appellate attorney Melvyn Carson Bruder. Presumably, the order of interviews might have been in the general order listed, with Morris following the chain of the investigation and logically visiting with persons spatially connected, such as all those situated in Dallas first, then all those in Vidor, and so forth.

In a fictional detective film, though, Morris might have been seen continually revisiting or making contact with certain individuals — particularly suspects Adams and Harris, as well as Detective Kittrell, who offers information on events spread out over a longer period of time — to check on and update facts in the case. The only person apparently interviewed more than once by Morris is Harris, who is revisited at the end of the film for a near-confession of the murder and at least a confession of perjury and admittance that Adams is not the murderer. Only the audio of this interview is presented, via tape recorder and a shot of a tape player. This final scene of the documentary can be viewed as corresponding to the last or near-last scene in the fiction detective film in which the detective reveals who the killer is and gets that person to admit guilt. In classical examples of the genre, the confession is key because the plot does not continue on to the legal proceedings of the case. The same goes for The Thin Blue Line, which ends before any subsequent judicial aftermath is presented. Because this is a documentary and involves a true story, we can look into the events that follow those in the film, but as far as filmic context goes, the story ends with Morris’s discovery, through Harris’s tape-recorded confession, that Adams is indeed innocent (and likely a heightened presumption that Harris is guilty of the murder, though this is speculation and concerns something never further investigated nor proven to be true).

The film begins by alternating between pieces of two interviews, one with Randall Adams and the other with David Harris, each relating information regarding their fateful meeting one night in Dallas when the former ran out of gas and was picked up by the latter. These and other direct interviews, even though a commonality for much of the documentary mode, here specifically serve as and are equated with the interrogations of witnesses by the protagonist in the detective film. However, unlike in most fictional detective films, which would present these chronologically or otherwise separated, Morris intercuts between them so as to keep with the linear narrative flow and also, more importantly, to better contrast the disparate testimonials by placing them side-by-side, against one another. As per Eisensteinian montage theory, the two different things put together form a third, and in this film that third thing is the doubt about the truth of singular testimony and also recognition of the unreliability of singular narrators.

Examples other than the continued contrast of Adams’s word versus Harris’s, intercut narrations include the following: those of Adams and two separately interviewed homicide detectives telling of Adams’s arrest interrogation; Harris’s friends’ accounts of his boastful behavior following the incident versus the detectives’ recollection of Harris’s denial and their assumption of what his thought process was at the time; Robert and Emily Miller’s separate, conflicting descriptions of the murder from their otherwise seemingly aligned eyewitness perspectives and memory. Differently, some groupings of interviews joined through editing are not meant to clash, montage-style, and are instead merely the piecing together of likeminded testimonials forming a cohesive narrative of certain events, such as the following: the detectives separately yet corroboratively discussing their investigation as it unfolded; aligned, intercut remarks from Harris’s friends recalling his admission of the murder and his attitude regarding the robberies he committed (these are also intercut with detectives telling of Harris’s denial, as noted above); and similarly aligned interviews with Adams’s two defense attorneys.

In line with Rick Altman’s semantic and syntactic approach to genre,[4] the general semantics of the detective film, as they are found in The Thin Blue Line, including themes of crime, mystery, and justice, as well as somewhat the celebration of the individual (although more through the focus on individual perspectives than “through the hero’s occupation and world view,” as Thomas Schatz considers it),[5] are basically only informed by the genre’s syntax, and are less substantial to the genre as are the syntactical elements, to which The Thin Blue Line conforms far more positively.

For instance, the two investigative master plots perfectly adhere to the syntactic confines of the detective film as recognized by Neale and Ponder. The first investigation was engaged for the pursuit of the police officer’s murder while the second, Morris’s film, is engaged to foremost uncover the potential injustice of Adams’s conviction while also possibly to discover or prove the identity of the real killer. Other syntactic elements of the genre, as The Thin Blue Line contains them, include the types of characters involved, such as the detective (Morris, as well as, for the initial investigation, the homicide detectives), the murderer (initially identified as Adams, later revealed to be David Harris) and corrupted or confused witnesses (Robert and Emily Miller, Michael Randell, police officer Teresa Turko and also Harris, among others). There are also the syntactical elements of false clues, some of which relate to those problematic witnesses, physical evidence, the murder weapon, the body and most importantly, as far as David Bordwell is concerned, the retardation, suppression, and restriction of protagonist knowledge and simultaneous audience privilege, as dictated by the narrative structure.[6] Cited by Neale, Bordwell claims:

The genre aims to create curiosity about past story events (e.g., who killed whom), suspense about upcoming events, and surprise with respect to unexpected disclosures…we learn what the detective learns when she or he learns it…By restricting the range of knowledge to that possessed by the detective, the narration can present information in a fairly unselfconscious way; we pick up fabula [material] information by following the detective’s inquiry.[7]

If we accept that Morris represents the detective character, this kind of shared restriction of knowledge and privilege between him and the audience fits The Thin Blue Line. Yet there is an additional consideration with this film: the fact that in his piecing together the structure of the documentary Morris is already privileged with a sort of narrative omniscience. We, therefore, need to consider Morris as two separate figures, one being the unseen detective of his investigatory narrative and the other being the filmmaker/narrator telling the story of that narrative.

Morris doesn’t literally narrate the film through voiceover, which may be thought of as both a departure from documentary convention, at least of the time, and a departure from film noir syntax, if one is to attempt to index The Thin Blue Line into this genre. Elements or tropes that could contribute to a noir classification include the film’s heavy employment of what appears to be flashbacks, in the form of dramatized reenactments related to interview testimonials hinged on memory, and the use of expressive shadows in these reenactments. It is more appropriate, however, to consider each of these elements as simply related to the film’s narrative focalization(s), or the perspective of the character(s) in terms of what narrational information is communicated through that perspective. We can imagine Gerard Genette would appreciate the complexity of focalization in this documentary because it deals almost entirely in multitudes of perspective, point of view, privilege of information, retelling of information, contradictory accounts, memory, false memory, false testimony, unreliable testimony and even speculation. And it is arguably the best cinematic example of multiple fixed focalization since Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon.

But does The Thin Blue Line truly utilize that focalization structure? This is one way of reading the film, by arguing that the dramatized reenactments Morris has shot function as the focalization of the interview subjects. At first, the reenactments might seem to be repetitive, redundant filler employed to provide some form of visual story-showing technique while also presenting the film’s audience with a re-creation of the crime. But at least ten separate versions of the crime are spread out over the course of the documentary, some overlapping and repeating, though not redundantly. Depending on how the murder is described, remembered, retold and/or interpreted by the witnesses and others involved in the case, both during the initial investigation and now through Morris’ interviews, details within the reenactment, as well as how this re-creation is lit and shot, are altered or added to. Also, the reenactment constantly changes to fit with the privileges of information and perspectival advantage or disadvantage relative to the interviewees narrating at the time. The changes are relatively subtle, perhaps for consistency of cinematography aesthetic and mood overall, but they do exist and correlate to the separate perspectives.

The reenactments can be broken up into the following ten perspectives, and through them understood to be the focalizations of their respective individual (or, in some, multiple) points of view:

  1. Physical Evidence — Can a film present a narrative from the focalization of inanimate objects? If so, this reenactment is an example of such. Sort of. The first version of the murder is shown at least from the perspective of someone looking solely at the physical evidence taken at and from the scene of the crime, if not from the perspective of that evidence. So all that is shown are the fundamental material facts: two cars, one the police cruiser of the murder victim and his partner and the other a vehicle of some kind containing the shooter, are pulled over to the side of the highway; the murder victim walks to the perpetrator’s vehicle; a gun fires five shots; the shooter drives away; the victim’s partner fires shots at the fleeing vehicle. All of these actions are filmed in either close-up or in deep shadow to reflect the obscuration of additional details and complete clarity of the incident. They are also presented in short takes, intercut within a montage of physically evidential exhibits, including diagrams of the bullet wounds, photos of the victim, both from his autopsy and from his life, his clothing, a newspaper report of the incident displaying when it occurred and what the victim’s name is, and finally another news article reporting on the arrest of Adams.
  2. Teresa Turko’s Written Statement — Without an onscreen interview with Turko, the reenactment of events from her perspective is complicated because her written statement is related by other police detectives. So this version represents a combination of her focalization and that of someone reading her account. However, one problem with this play of the scene is that when Turko is said to have failed to recall the shooter’s license plate number, the close-up shot of the plate is well focused and provides an entirely legible look at the number. It should probably have been partially obscured, shadowed or blurred.
  3. Speculation of Turko’s Lie — This version of the reenactment changes the details to reflect the belief by detectives in the original investigation, particularly those in the internal affairs department, that Turko was sitting in the cruiser at the time of the shooting, as explained by the internal affairs detective, Holt, and supported by the physical evidence of a tossed milkshake on the side of the road, rather than in the position she claimed to have held in her written statement. Here the actress portraying Turko is not standing in front of the cruiser, as she is in previous versions. She is instead sitting in the vehicle’s passenger seat, responds only once the shots are fired, and throws her milkshake while exiting the automobile.
  4. Discovery of Turko’s Mistake — A minimal version of the reenactment including only shots, wide and close-up, of the back of the shooter’s vehicle, as Turko would see it. The film cuts back and forth between the back of a blue Chevy Vega and the back of a blue Mercury Comet to show their difference as detectives tell how Turko misremembered or misidentified the model of the car in her original statement. The shots of the Vega are part of Turko’s focalization, while the shots of the Comet are part of the detectives’.
  5. David Harris’s Story As Recalled By Randall Adams — In his interview, Adams relates Harris’s courtroom testimony, in which Harris incriminated Adams as the shooter. Meanwhile, this version of the reenactment is shown with new discrepancies in comparison with previous versions. Now there is a passenger — an actor portraying Harris — in the vehicle, in addition to the driver — an actor presumably portraying Adams — who commits the murder. This represents the focalization of Harris, yet it is complicated by its being filtered through Adams’s retelling of the testimony.
  6. Teresa Turko’s Court Testimony As Recalled By Adams — Some discrepancies between Turko’s original statement and her court testimonial are noted by Adams as this short reenactment illustrates the facts as she claimed them to be. Again, the focalization is Turko’s, though it is not part of the focalizations previously representing her perspective because she has altered the understanding of that perspective.
  7. Emily Miller’s Interview Account (and Court Testimony) — The crime is now filmed with a wider angle and from a distance, on the other side of the road, where eyewitnesses, the Millers, were driving past the scene. One close-up shot, though, shows a shadowed image of a bushy-haired, mustachioed man (an actor made to look as Adams did at the time) in the driver’s seat. This correlates with the “good look at him” Mrs. Miller claims to have had, and this reenactment would represent her focalization.
  8. Robert Miller’s Interview Account — Similar to that of his wife’s account, with which it is intercut, this reenactment version additionally features the gunshots, which are depicted in extreme close-up to reflect the fact that he only heard their sound. Also, the man in the driver’s seat of the shooter’s vehicle, filmed from the perspective of an actor portraying Robert Miller, in his own driver’s seat in the moving, passing car, is even more obscured by shadows than in Mrs. Miller’s version. This would be Mr. Miller’s focalization.
  9. Michael Randell’s Interview Account — Like the Millers’ versions, this third surprise witness account is partly filmed with a wider lens and from across the street, even though Randell’s car was closer to the crime scene, driving in the opposite direction. In this reenactment, however, in place of the usual frontal shot of the shooter’s vehicle featuring only one man in the car, now there is also someone in the front passenger seat, because Randell claims to have seen two men in the car. Both of these men are in silhouette, obscuring their faces, since Randell did not get a good look, as Mrs. Miller had. Few other details are included because Randell says he had driven well past the scene before the shooting occurred, yet audio of the gunshot is heard as this reenactment cuts to a black screen. This would be Randell’s focalization.
  10. David Harris’s Court Testimony As Recalled By Harris — One simple scene is added to the reenactment here, depicting Harris getting popcorn at the drive-in. Also, more shots display actions inside the car, such as the shooter (the actor portraying Adams) grabbing the gun from beside the driver’s seat, as Harris would have been able to describe these actions as seen from his alleged privileged perspective during the testimony. This would be Harris’s focalization.

Other reenactment material presented in the film relates to information provided in those interviews conducted for the film. Pieces of Adams’s experience upon his arrest, all shot in close-up and in shadows, including his eventual signing of a voluntary statement, illustrate the narrative he speaks. Another dramatization depicts Adams and Harris’s trip to the drive-in and some of the return trip to Adams’s motel, as per his interview testimony. Both of these could represent Adams’s focalization.

I would argue, however, that the entire film is the focalization of the detective, whether he is represented by Morris, the camera, or even the audience, which, in watching the film, can also function as the or an investigator. Because part of the mystery, that of who really killed the police officer, is left ambiguously open-ended, as an external investigator the audience is allowed to make an educated deduction of its own. This is certainly what happens for the many viewers who come away sure that Harris is the true killer. The only thing complicating this is the fact that Morris himself conducted the interviews and his voice is even heard diegetically as the investigating character in the last scene with the tape-recorded interview of Harris. Also, the 18 interviewees all clearly speak to an off-screen person — Morris — who is, depending on the interview conducted, to the right or left of the camera. So the camera is not positioned as a stand-in for the character, and the subjects do not speak directly into it or, through it, to the audience, as in the case of a first-person point-of-view setup.[8]

In reading the whole film as the fixed internal focalization of the detective, as represented by the off-screen Morris, it could potentially also be argued that because it is the filmmaker’s focalization that The Thin Blue Line does not actually contain a focalized narrative and is instead an example of omniscient narration. Yet this would not do the film’s narration complexity justice. Besides, those multiple and variable reenactments are clearly the focalizations of someone. I would argue that they are the focalization of the detective/Morris as visualized (imagined) upon hearing or seeing the evidence, statements, descriptions, testimonies, speculative theories and direct interview accounts to which they respectively represent. They may be filtered through layers so that some reenactments are focalized through hearsay and indirect telling of other people’s statements, which might also be hearsay and indirect tellings of even other people’s accounts. But in the end, they are the singular focalization of the primary character, the detective/Morris, as he works out the crime scene in his head, at least ten different times via the ten different versions, each hinged upon the narrow privileges of information he acquires only from their respective, second-hand perspectives.

Returning to the genre consideration of The Thin Blue Line, the fixed internal focalization of the detective here correlates syntactically to that of many detective films and works involving a journalistic investigation, such as Citizen Kane, which can be similarly read foremost as being the fixed internal focalization of the reporter yet is also similarly complicated by the seemed focalizations of other characters through their respective flashbacks, which can be argued are only to be viewed, like Morris’s reenactments, as focalized through the reporter in his hearing or reading of the accounts.

Meanwhile, the documentary, in concentrating on a primary investigation concerning the reasonable doubt of a prisoner’s guilt and the search for the truth in this case, contains a social function as per the “reflectionist” approach to genre.[9] It semantically addresses and serves as commentary for social issues like capital punishment, which the film may be viewed as an argument against, and the general problem of innocent men being convicted of crimes they didn’t commit. But these social themes are not necessarily traditionally associated with the detective genre. However, occasional dramas, particularly those based on true stories, as well as other investigatory documentaries with the intent on exoneration, may be comparable. But that is another essay.

[1] Bordwell and Thompson, 95.

[2] Neale, 65–77.

[3] Ponder, as cited by Neale, 157.

[4] Altman, 552–563.

[5] Schaltz, 569.

[6] Neale, 68.

[7] Cited by Neale, 68–69.

[8] Interestingly enough, a few years after making The Thin Blue Line, Morris invented a technique and device called the “interrotron,” which positions the documenting camera between himself and the interviewee in a way that does cause/allow the subject to look directly into the camera and seem to be looking at and speaking to the audience. Had he developed this earlier, The Thin Blue Line might have had a more first-person-styled focalization, somewhat appropriately akin to that of Robert Montgomery’s experimental detective/noir film Lady in the Lake.

[9] As understood and described by Bordwell and Thompson, 100.

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.