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MOVIE REVIEW : ‘Thin Blue Line’ a Chilling Documentary

Times Staff Writer

In his taxing, fascinating “The Thin Blue Line” (selected theaters) film maker Errol Morris builds a powerful case against Texas-style justice while attempting to bring to the documentary form an ultra-cool neo- film noir look.

The result is an experiment in nonfiction screen narrative that yields Morris’ darkly amusing observation of bizarre Americana--the same air that characterized “Gates of Heaven” (his study of California pet cemeteries) and “Vernon, Florida” (his account of an eccentric small town).

Morris pulls off a genuine shocker to cap his film, but his method exacts its price. It takes fully a third of the film’s 109 minutes to become involved in it, thanks to Morris’ deadpan tone and the initially jarring effect of his intercutting between straightforward talking heads and his B-movie reenactment of the crime. Morris identifies none of his interviewees, a tactic that may ultimately give his film the overall feel of a “real” movie but can be frustrating. Fortunately the director, who has been a private detective, has done such a thorough, tenacious and committed job of attempting to right what he persuades us is a wrong that his advocacy transcends his offbeat approach with its witty appreciation of the absurd.

In November, 1976, a Dallas policeman was shot to death when he pulled over a car with its headlights off. Eventually, David Harris, a 16-year-old youth with a substantial criminal record, was arrested in his hometown, Vidor, Tex., after bragging to friends he’d killed a cop. All the evidence pointed to him, but he persuaded the Dallas police that the killer was Randall Davis, a newcomer to the city to whom he had given a ride and had befriended.

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Morris’ investigation reveals staggering irregularities, and it’s hard to disagree with Edith James, Davis’ intrepid and canny co-counsel, when she says she believes that the forces of law and justice, faced with a police killing, went after Davis because as an adult he could be sent to the electric chair while Harris, as a minor, could not. (Since 1973, Texas juries determine whether an individual convicted of a capital crime will be likely to commit such crimes in the future.)

No mystery novelist could come up with richer characters or a more convoluted plot. Along with Davis and Harris the most important figure is the trial’s key surprise witness, Emily Miller. Davis, whose death sentence was commuted to life, apparently to avoid a retrial, comes across as intelligent though naive, an ordinary guy, but Harris and Miller, a woman discredited by many, are real chillers. Miller reveals an obscene fascination with playing detective regardless of the consequences to other people’s lives. Harris, subsequently convicted of another murder, is calmly articulate but seems utterly vacant, totally without a sense of right and wrong. With its ominous, insistent Philip Glass score, “The Thin Blue Line” (Times-rated Mature for complex adult themes) epitomizes philosopher Hannah Arendt’s famous phrase, “the banality of evil.”

‘THE THIN BLUE LINE’

A Miramax Films release of an American Playhouse theatrical presentation. Executive producer Lindsay Law. Producer Mark Lipson. Director Errol Morris. Camera Stefan Czapsky, Robert Chappell. Music Philip Glass. Production designer Ted Bafaloukos. Film editor Paul Barnes. Associate producer Brad Fuller. Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes.

Times-rated: Mature.


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