Thin Line of Truth: Cinematic Critique of the Eye-Witness

In Thin Blue Line we are shown the events surrounding the murder of officer Robert Wood and the case built to convict Randall Adams of the crime through multiple interviews of persons from both sides of the prosecution, from eye witnesses to defense lawyers, visually recreating the events described from each person. With its eye witness narratives often contradicting each other, Thin Blue Line mimics the framework of the Akira Kurosawa film Rashomon which conveys multiple character perspectives through the use of recreations based upon each other the character’s stories. Both films able to handle the ambiguity of truth eloquently by showcasing the inconsistencies which exist on the record to cast doubt in the face value of any narrative given but also implement techniques which can discredit as well as reinforce the narrative being told.

In Rashomon, we are told of a robbery and rape from four different perspectives, shown to the audience in the flashbacks of four people as they recall what happened during a trial (Rashomon). Benny Swoons describes this in his article for Genius as “a psychological experiment about cinematic representations and it becomes a meta-cinematic commentary that references its own position as a film, in which the audience members will all come to their individual conclusions and nobody will be wrong, similar to the way the characters in the film all tell the same story differently, but none of them are necessarily lying (Swoons).” Similarly, Thin Blue Line takes us through the story of Randall Adams, how he found himself in Dallas, his recollection of events before taking us to other testimonies. Each rendition of that October evening is accompanied with a reenactment, showing Robert Wood walk up to a blue car before cutting to black as we hear gunshots. However, as Lucien J. Flores points out in Student Pulse, “the reenactment and the montage do not place any one person as perpetrator of the crime and it is only after these early interviews, the reenactment, and the montage that we learn that Randall Adams was charged with the crime; even then, Morris never proclaims Adams as guilty (Flores).” Like in Rashomon, Thin Blue Line's audience is framed as jurors being presented the evidence, however, where Kurosawa's thesis ends with the ambiguity of truth, Morris' goes further and uses such ambiguity to suggest Adam's innocence.

Flores points out that “while the prosecution was quick to portray Adams as a vile murderer from the beginning, Morris chose to wait, finally showing audiences that Adams was arrested for the murder six minutes into the film (Flores).” By not instantly portraying Adams as a murderer as the prosecution had done, Morris eliminates the instant associative stigma that audiences might attribute to Adams for being a slayer of an officer. This mindfulness Morris has regarding audience expectations is shown his visual portrayal of Adams, who was represented during his prosecution as a hitchhiker, a drifter up to no good, who smoked marijuana & drank beer, having long curly hair and unruly mustache. However, during the interview in Thin Blue Line, Adams is noticeably cleaned up, recently shaven and more eloquent than he appeared in his own testimony, suggesting that Morris, if not Adams himself, saw this as an opportunity to get a second trial and wanted to make a good impression.

Adams' transformation is comparable to the dual in Rashomon between the samurai husband and the bandit in which both stories concerning the confrontation show each character in two very different ways. “The first,” writes Swoons, is “when the husband is narrating, is a noble depiction of a well-choreographed, courageous battle. The second depiction shatters any illusions of grandeur gleaned from the first. It is almost slapstick in nature and a scrappier, cowardly fight. Neither the bandit nor the samurai seem to know what they’re doing, as if they’re being forced by the woman to complete this dance where the victor will “win” the rights to be with her (Swoons).” Much like Morris tries to save Adams' face, the husband too weaves a tale in which he looks good and noble. Morris is keen to mention to the audience that Adams had just gotten a job and wasn't merely hitchhiker but rather living with his brother until he got back on his feet. Morris implements similar pacing to suggest David Harris was the actual killer, having his narrative play out with a patience as cool and collected as Harris' demeanor. However, the big reveal (the Cheyenne moment) comes when, in mid sentence, Harris lift his hands up to scratch his head to reveal he is in hand cuffs. Compare this with Toshiro Mifune's character Tajōmaru, hog tied and erratic from the very beginning, leaving no doubt to the audience that he committed more than just this crime. For Morris’ position, this shows what would have otherwise been impossible to say; Harris' charisma. By making the audience trust Harris initially only to discover his natural ability to manipulate in real time, Morris compels viewers to make a judgment against Harris and further side with him.

Another similar tactic shared in Rashomon in which Kurosawa uses a similar tactic when it is discovered Kikori stole the dagger from the murder scene, thus rendering his story as untrustworthy to the monk and as all the others (Rashomon). This mirrors Morris’ tactics in how he edits and splices the interviews together, particularly in regards to the eye witness accounts of the murder. Take Michael Randell’s interview for example, when we are first introduced to Randall we hear him recalling that he was driving a 1977 Cadillac yet that detail is immediately followed by him failing to remember the model of the car which was pulled over, repeating only that it was blue (Thin Blue Line). This hesitation, which could’ve been easily cut or shorten by Morris during the editing, is left in and, by doing so as soon as Randall is introduced to the audience it skews the view of Randell, giving the impression that he doesn’t recall anything or, if he does, it’s minimal and not of much substance.

What’s more, Morris decides to place Emily Miller’s interview immediately after Jackie Johnson explains how Miller is the reason Adams is convicted thus spoiling and biasing the audience instantaneously. Morris then continues to discredit Miller by introducing her as she tells us how she always wanted to be a detective and use to watch detective stories on television, her voice playing over stereotypical yet over-the-top footage from “Boston Blackie.” As this footage plays we see a shootout take place and, after everything has ended, an unnamed woman character walks into the room, glances around at the dead bodies and then walks into another room to pet a dog. This scene plays out as Miller admits to watching “Boston Blackie” and how she “always had a woman with him (Thin Blue Line).” She continues her reflections by saying how she keeps her eye out, looking for any opportunity in which she can help [the police]. This whole sequence gives the general impression that, like the unnamed lady in the film, Miller is not only out of place but holds juvenile and unrealistic ideas of the criminal justice system. With such a mindset, one might think, Miller could blindly volunteer as a surprise witness without realizing the consequences of her overeager actions. So even when Miller explains her eyewitness account minutes after this sequence Morris has shaped the audience’s skepticism of her and, by extension, her story, thus making all her uncreditable to those who listen.

Interesting, as Flores notes, there was one interview Morris omitted entirely; “District Attorney Doug Mulder who was highly influential in the conviction of Adams. In an interview with Cineaste, Morris claims to have left out the interview because it was ‘boring’; Mulder was ‘non-responsive,’ refusing ‘to speak of the details of the case’ (Flores).” While a minor footnote, it is interesting given Morris’ ability to discredit the Randall and Miller and makes one ponder whether he indeed found Mulder “boring” or, in actuality, he couldn’t tweak and edit the interview in a way which assisted in Adams’ favor.

At Rashomon’s conclusion, the Commoner, played by Takashi Shimura, convinces the Priest that he’ll take care of abandoned baby they had discovered during the rain storm, saying that he has five children at home and one more won’t make a difference. As we witness him walking away we are left with ambiguity; Does the Commoner really have five children? Is he actually going to raise it or sell it as the Priest suggests? If he did steal the murder knife, what did he do with it? We are kept guessing as whatever definition of truth the audience possessed prior have been shattered in the smoke of contradictions. In Thin Blue Line Morris grants us firm ground, a tape record playing his final interview with David Harris in which Harris essentially admits to murdering Wood by saying Randall Adams is innocent. In doing so Morris eliminates all ambiguity and allows for closure, something he hopes to also grant Randall Adams in exonerating him. However, much like the Commoner, Adams’ fate lies off screen and in the hands of the audience.


Works Cited
Flores, Lucien J. “‘The Thin Blue Line’ and the Ambiguous Truth.” Inquiries Journal, 2012
Rashomon. Dir. Akira Kurosawa. Daiei Film, 1950. DVD.
Swoons, Benny. "Rashomon Analysis.", 11 Jan. 2015.
Thin Blue Line. Dir. Errol Morris. Miramax Films/Umbrella Entertainment, 1988.