Errol Morris’ 1988 film, The Thin Blue Line, takes no time to establish its cinematic language through very deliberate shot selection and editing choices. In the opening shots, which last only about four and a half to five minutes, there is an immense amount of information provided to the audience that captures the imagination and quickly gets them invested in the story line of what transpired.
The very first shots offer various structural features of downtown Dallas, and an immediate sense of mood and time is provided. The shots are taken at night and the gentle pulsing of the red lights atop the buildings give us a sense of relaxation and calm. However, taken with Philip Glass’ mysterious underlying score, the pulsing lights create a feeling of unease that often exists in the unwieldy hours just before the break of dawn. Additionally, these lights are placed on the buildings as indicators to aircraft, something that we all know is meant to serve as a warning.
The opening shots mentioned above are quite eloquently composed and establish the film’s location beautifully. The first three shots are taken from a distance, but can be considered close ups. The camera moves slightly, but my guess is this is because the zoom is maxed out and no matter what tripod you have, you will register an ever-so-slight amount of movement if you’re zoomed all the way in.
Just before the fourth shot takes the frame, a voice over begins explaining a part of a journey that ended in Dallas. This is a great example of how to establish location without having to rely on title cards or any text at all. As a viewer, you immediately identify the skyline as being that of Dallas because the voiceover says, “We got into Dallas on Thursday night…”
So the audience is aware of location and what the situation is from this particular character’s viewpoint. The approach of not using titles is carried on throughout the film and I’ll touch on its meaning later.
By using a flashback sequence shot in a narrative Hollywood movie style, Mr. Morris quickly gives the audience a picture of the facts of the case and he does so in a compelling and captivating way. (Incidentally, by employing this method he managed to get himself excluded from Academy Award consideration for Best Documentary in 1989. However, he has been fully vindicated by the fact that this film is consistently rated in the top ten of best documentaries and the Academy did finally bestow him the top honor in 2003 for Fog of War.)
After the character who appears first (the audience doesn’t know exactly who this character is yet, but by allowing him to appear first, there is some underlying meaning applied) finishes his brief exposition by saying that, “it was as if I was meant to be here” there is a cut to a flashing police siren. Slowly layers are being peeled away that we’re dealing with some sort of crime or criminal activity.
Next, another character is introduced, wearing a traditional orange prison jumpsuit. His attire is unmistakably that of a convicted felon. This is an interesting juxtaposition from the first character. He also seems to be wearing some sort of uniform, but since it is white and collared, it is somewhat ambiguous about exactly what type of uniform it is. The color white is always a significant, unconscious visual cue. The new character in the orange jumpsuit explains his arrival to Dallas too, and it is for wholly different reasons. His reasons consist of criminal activities involving robbery, grand theft auto, and the stealing of a couple of firearms. When the firearms are mentioned, the audience is given a quick, slightly rotating rendering of a gun so as to remind us that this character is the one that has possession of a deadly weapon. He finishes his first little bit by saying, “…ended up coming to Dallas” which now establishes his location as being the same as the first character.
After a quick beat to allow for the man to look off towards the ceiling and for the audience to reflect on the fact that both of these men are now in Dallas, the editing leads back into another abstract look at modern edifices during the predawn hours. The music continues with a very minimalist ostinato in a minor key that really drives home the mystery and intrigue. On the third shot of the buildings, the first character’s voice enters by way of a J-cut and as expected we land back on an MCU in order for him to finish his thought about his random, fateful encounter with a stranger.
The next cut is on the last word of the phrase, “he stopped and asked me if I needed any help.” The cut is to an aerial view of the Dallas metropolitan area that holds for just a quick beat before slowly tilting down. As character two’s voice enters, the aerial shot dissolves into a map of what is assumed to be the same area. The accompanying line of dialogue is, “I’m driving down some street, somewhere in Dallas.” I think this image is placed here to emphasize the point that this is a large city and the likelihood of an event coming to pass such as this one is truly serendipitous. There may very well have been a cut used here to establish the second character’s introduction of the first as Randall Adams, but if so it’s hidden well. Regardless, the audience now understands how the two characters met, which is what sets the ball in motion.
After another brief spot of dialogue from Mr. Adams that touches on the complexity of fate and why we are put into some people’s lives a cut is made to a new scene. The new scene is a shot of a police car that has pulled over a small sedan of some sort on a nondescript, two-lane highway. The music rises to the top here, no dialogue is included and the shots become quite artistic. This pacing of the editing hastens here as we’re reaching the climax of this sequence of events.
The next shot is an abstraction of reflection and light which enhances the natural confusion that any audience will have within the first five minutes of a film. A hand reaches into the frame from the bottom and adjusts the rearview mirror which indicates that the shot is inside the car that has been pulled over. Next it cuts back to a medium shot of the police car that is framed to allow enough space for the driver side door to open, the police officer to emerge, and for him to begin walking towards the car that has been pulled over. The sound of his footsteps continue as the camera cuts back into the car onto a CU of someone’s hand on a steering wheel. Again, there is a deliberate effort made to reveal a very small amount of information.
We cut back to a head-on medium shot of the police car, but this time focusing on the passenger side door, which again is framed to allow the officer to open the door and exit, flashlight in hand. She shuts the door, turns on her flashlight and approaches the car. The footsteps have stopped (or have been blended into the music), which can technically be viewed as a continuity error- the officer would have certainly arrived to the side of the car in real time, but the time is being drawn out to be made more dramatic and it works.
The next cut is a high angle shot of a long shadow that is being thrown on the dark, blacktop highway by the police car’s headlights and we see the officer’s legs enter the frame with the sound of his footsteps resuming. Next, there is an extreme low angle shot of a tire and the officer’s neatly pressed pants and shiny shoes. His motion is slowed down just slightly as he arrives to the car and then BANG! A quick cut on sound to a close up of the barrel of a gun followed almost instantaneously by a police diagram showing where that bullet entered the body. Then, a few more gunshots with corresponding close ups of the barrel followed by further police diagrams showing where the bullets entered and left the body. Then the gun is retracted from the CU and back into the car. The next shot is a CUof a foot stepping on the accelerator of the car and pressing it all the way to the floorboard. As expected there is a screeching sound made by the tires as it peels out, which cuts to a shot of the mortally wounded officer lying on the ground as the car speeds away.
The other officer then springs into action. Again, there is a slight continuity problem here. If the officer’s partner had continued her path that was set into motion a few seconds ago she would have been right on top of the action and would have been able to react to the events faster. But, this also lends itself well to the following scenes because I suspect the audience picks up on this subtle error in protocol and is asking themselves why wasn’t she in a better position to defend her partner.
After springing into action, she unleashes a few rounds at the fleeing vehicle to no avail. It disappears into the night and we cut back to a close up of the barrel of her gun just as she realizes her attempts at retribution are futile. More diagrams of the fatal wounds are shown as well as coroner photos of the actual officer and his uniform replete with bullet holes. There is a lovely, candid image of the officer and then the music resolves as a newspaper headline sweeps into full frame CU of the photo of the officer with the tagline, “Officer killed Sunday.” Then cut to an extreme CU of the time that hit happened (12:30am), an obvious reaction (“Oh my gosh”), a beautiful abstraction due to of the pixilated dots that are used in newspaper printing presses, another piece of information (“no description, could not be”), and finally the date of the occurrence (November 29th, 1976) that dissolves into the next noteworthy date of December 22nd of the same year, the date when Randall Adams was arrested on suspicion of murder.
All of this information is given in the first four and a half to five minutes of the film. The audience is given concrete information about the events that are going to be explored. The sneaking suspicion that something’s not quite right should be readily evident to anyone and our brains are open to the discovery process that we’re about to begin. It’s a masterful approach to opening a story.
Given this same circumstance, I can’t possibly begin to imagine a better way to cut this. I would consider using title cards. I really respect the decision to not include them. I think it makes for a much more artful presentation, but at the same time, it also makes it a little bit more of a heavy lift for first time viewers. The point of the film is to make sure that the entire world knows the facts and if any information is lost on your viewing audience, you’ve basically shot yourself in the foot.
Fortunately this film was made by one of the great masters of our time and no information is unclear. Using scripted sequences with actors to recreate the scenes was ahead of its time. It was a bold choice and it paid off. This is one of my favorite documentaries for sure. Not only is it well made with meticulous attention to detail, but the end result is that it got an innocent man freed from prison! Social change and bringing awareness to a social issue is the burning desire of the vast majority of filmmakers and if you can achieve it, you’ve really earned your stripes.