Film focuses on possible mishandling of criminal case

Late on a cold November evening in 1976, two Dallas police officers stopped a car that was traveling with its headlights out. Approaching the vehicle, officer Robert Wood was hit by five shots fired at point-blank range. The case stayed unsolved for several weeks, partly because the other officer failed to note the make or license number of the killer's automobile. Then investigators learned that a 16-year-old named David Harris had boasted to friends about killing a policeman.

Mr. Harris was arrested, but shifted blame for the crime to Randall Adams, a hitchhiker he had met by chance on the day of the murder. Harris, who had a substantial criminal record, was cleared of guilt. Mr. Adams, who had no record, was convicted and sentenced to death. He is still in prison, his sentence converted to life imprisonment.

A filmmaker named Errol Morris believes Adams is innocent, however. Hoping to convince the world - or at least the Texas criminal-justice system - that he's right, he has made ``The Thin Blue Line,'' a new movie about the Adams case. Part documentary and part reenacted drama, it's an unconventional film with a clear message: that justice has gone astray, and it's not too late to set things right.

``On one level,'' says Mr. Morris about his movie, ``it's the story of a miscarriage of justice. On another level - at least I like to think of it as such - it's a story about self-delusion and fantasy.''

As a person and as a filmmaker, Morris is not addicted to causes. Discussing his new picture with me at the Cannes Film Festival this spring, he spoke with mild distaste of what he calls ``public-affairs documentaries,'' and indicated that he wants his own movies to deal with philosophical ideas as well as facts and events.

``I've been asked whether I believe in the subjectivity of truth,'' Morris says, ``and of course I don't at all.... Robert Wood is dead. There's nothing subjective about that. And he was shot by somebody. There's nothing subjective about that.''

The way to reach an understanding of such a situation, Morris continues, is to examine every aspect of it with careful, thoroughgoing attention.

Morris's filmmaking career has followed an unusual course. A thoughtful man with degrees in history and philosophy, he became a director 10 years ago with ``Gates of Heaven,'' a documentary about two California pet cemeteries. Three years later he completed ``Vernon, Florida,'' a study of a rural Southern town. Both consist primarily of interviews with ordinary people whom Morris met during the filmmaking process.

``The Thin Blue Line'' is a project that took Morris by surprise. Working temporarily as a private investigator in New York, where he lives with his wife and young son, he obtained funding to make a film on a subject that had long interested him: the career of James Grigson, a Texas psychiatrist whose frequent testimony in capital-punishment cases has earned him the nickname ``Doctor Death'' in law-enforcement circles.

Morris traveled to Texas and began interviewing prisoners whose sentences had been influenced by Dr. Grigson's courtroom testimony. He felt uneasy about the enterprise, though, because it didn't mesh with his philosophy of filmmaking.

``I have a motto,'' he says: ``Whatever film is, it's not social science. In my mind, all this had the aura - worse than that, the taint - of social science. And at that point, I was not interested at all in miscarriages of justice. I wasn't looking for innocent people in the Texas prisons.''

Morris then met Adams, who was serving his sentence for the Woods murder. ``I didn't believe he was innocent,'' Morris recalls. ``I was simply looking for four or five people to put on film in the context of this interview I had done with Dr. Grigson.... But I started finding out more and more stuff about the Randall Adams case [and] learning an unending number of things about the 1977 trial that - in my opinion - made that trial a caricature of justice.''

Two things fascinated Morris about the Adams case. One was his growing conviction that Adams was innocent. The other was his curiosity about why he'd been convicted. What mistakes and misunderstandings, the filmmaker wondered, led to such an unfortunate result?

The interviews in ``The Thin Blue Line'' represent Morris's attempt to answer this question by interrogating people who played key roles in the case: witnesses to the crime, criminal-justice officials, and the men who were accused of the murder. Morris believes many of them were influenced at key moments - in their thoughts, their actions, or both - by misperceptions rooted in their social and personal backgrounds. An interest in such matters is a thread that runs through all of Morris's films.

``I think all my films have been ... solipsistic films, on one level,'' Morris says. ``They're films about people lost in strange, private worlds of self-delusion and fantasy. ... They're about characters who are suspicious and desperate about what's `out there' in the world.''

Another thread running through Morris's films is an unconventional visual style. Many documentary filmmakers like to give the appearance of working on the run, using grainy film and shaky camera movements. Morris takes an opposite approach, seating his interviewees right in front of the camera and inviting them to say anything they want. The interviewer's role, Morris believes, is to keep the subject talking - and nothing more. Of all the interviews he has conducted, the one he speaks of most proudly is a three-hour tape on which his own voice is never heard.

Morris uses his unconventional methods because they serve his purpose as an investigator, and also because he considers them an antidote to the showy techniques of some documentary filmmakers, who flaunt the rough-hewn qualities of their footage.

``We associate that [rough-looking] style with truth-telling or with the documentary form,'' he says critically. ``But it's a mere convention.... The zooming of an image in and out, a shaky camera, people's nervousness on film - none of this means it's more truth-laden than anything else.

``I like to think I've taken the conventions of cin'ema v'erit'e and stood them on their heads,'' Morris adds. ``The camera, rather than being unobtrusive, is overwhelmingly intrusive in a definite sense. The people in these films are performing for the camera. They know the camera's there; they're looking right at it!''

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