While watching this film recently, I had the distinct impression that certain moments had been part of an earlier existence. Perhaps it was Randall Adams’s sidelong look, a look of unswerving doubt; perhaps it was the gruff humbug muttered by one local official after another. Logic would dictate that I must have seen The Thin Blue Line on cable some dark and stormy night many years ago, but logic also megaphones that the universe created itself out of absolutely nothing. Some more perspicacious minds might suggest that it is the film’s seminal value that renders it familiar, although there have been many documentaries about true crime before and since. What then sets it apart? Perhaps that Adams is now a free man, and according to the data presented, he should never have been anything else.
Thanksgiving, 1976: a drifter by the name of Randall Adams moves to Dallas from some other part of Texas and gets hired in a workman job not fully described until later on. He reminds the viewer that these were hard times and getting employed that easily had to be considered nothing less than a good omen. Adams is staying with his brother, who will provide the police with an unheeded alibi, but is otherwise alone in the world. For that reason – no other implication is made although we may guess what that implication might be – he decides Sunday morning of that fateful holiday weekend to hitch a ride with a sixteen-year-old runaway called David Harris. Even if we are occasionally shown still pictures of both men from that year, there is little in the way of suspicion; that is to say, we cannot look at younger versions of Adams and Harris and foretell their actions, much less their fates. It is the older Adams – gone is the bushy hair and beard, as well as the naïve layer humidifying his features – we behold, a middle-aged man who, while not particularly well-educated, has a special talent for conveying a very blunt point. But the key to the film lies in the contemporary Harris, the Harris rotting still shy of his thirtieth birthday on death row in a Texas federal prison (Harris was executed in 2004 for an unrelated murder). The old adage about book covers should not impede observation: one cannot escape the impression that Harris, a man who cannot make eye contact, who smiles at small, cruel details of his past, who in his words has no respect for anyone including his own person, is of a certain bent that does not cater to societal structure. We can also assume that he has always made that impression, and that no prosecutor in his right mind would dare use David Harris’s testimony as the basis of a murder charge. Yet in the case of Randall Adams that is precisely what took place.
And not just murder. The impetuous slaying of Robert Wood, a police officer who was approaching a blue Mercury Comet at midnight on Sunday, November 28, 1976 with the sole intention of informing its passengers that the car’s lights were not on. In what we have come to call a reenactment or dramatization (also made famous on this eighties program), the murder is shown maybe forty times throughout the film from at least a dozen different angles. At the time the officer’s partner, “one of the first women to serve on the Dallas police force,” was rumored to be sitting in the car sipping a milkshake instead of doing what was procedure (“in a two-person unit, when one person approaches the car, the other comes up the right rear so that they can watch everything that's going on in the car”). The female officer is ultimately exculpated of any wrongdoing by internal affairs, yet not before her story has changed. Originally she had stated that there had been “only one person in the car,” with “longer hair,” a “fur-lined collar” – an almost uncanny detailing of one of the photographs extant of a teenaged David Harris. By the time she made it to Adams’s murder trial, however, some other person “with bushy hair” had gotten behind the wheel. Such obvious perjuries are interspersed with incomplete vertical blurbs from the papers: “Robert Wood, officer killed Sunday”; "Wood .... 12:30 am .... stopped for"; "driver's window .... 'Oh my gosh' .... firing"; "with the .... no description .... could not be .... assailant was”; "November 29, 1976” – a coy modern poem. We meet a host of Dallas law enforcement officials, all of whom seem to believe that Randall Adams, a man with no priors, no history of violence, and the very plausible alibi of having spent the night at his brother’s, was a cold-blooded murderer who “sensed no remorse for what he had done.” We also listen to three “witnesses”: a salesman who that night had been out cheating on his wife, driven by the two parked cars, and not seen anything out of ordinary; and a mixed-race couple who turned out to be unemployed drug abusers with checkered pasts embroiled in a domestic dispute and willing to say anything to make a fast buck. This includes, of course, pointing at Randall Adams in the dock and stating without a shred of hesitation that they saw him pull the trigger.
The title of our film is the invention of Douglas Mulder, the Dallas prosecutor, as a twist on a line from this poem and “the only thing between us and anarchy.” The same prosecutor, mind you, who prided himself on getting death sentence convictions not because fewer scumbags roamed the streets of Dallas, but because such justice was his path to becoming a demiurge of his own realm (Mulder does not appear on camera, perhaps because he quickly understood that the director was not planning a biopic). But the most telling statement in The Thin Blue Line comes from one of the Dallas policemen. He recalls the Thanksgiving Sunday murder with the following observation: “It was getting awfully close to Christmas. We had never really gone that long in Dallas without clearing the murder of a police officer. We'd had several killed, but we'd cleared them pretty quick.” You may also have heard of Mulder’s pet psychiatrist in death penalty trials who invariably swore that, if released, the accused would continue to kill and destroy. His methods – laughable even for the puerile circus that is psychiatry – include the copying of shapes and explanation of idioms such as “a rolling stone gathers no moss,” and “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” Yet he forgets the most important catchphrase of all, as uttered by Harris with one of his sinister, lazy-eyed grins, “criminals always lie.” I suppose that lying is always easier than facing a demon or ten.