From The Thin Blue Line to The Jinx: Errol Morris’s True Crime Prototype

By  · Published on March 20th, 2015

The Criterion Collection

In November 1976, in Dallas, Texas, officer Robert W. Wood pulled over a car that had been reported stolen and, as he approached the vehicle, was met by a revolver that shot him dead in the street. A drifter in his late 20s named Randall Adams was sentenced to death for the crime, in part based on testimony by teenager David Harris, with whom he spent the better part of the evening before the murder.

The following decade, Errol Morris, while preparing for a documentary about a corrupt for-hire prosecution psychologist, encountered the Adams case and found that the facts didn’t add up. After completing a documentary that questioned Adams’s role in the crime and made a convincing case that Harris most likely killed the police officer, Adams’s conviction was overturned and he was released after 12 years in prison, a change in course that occurred as a direct result of Morris’s documentary illuminating what was otherwise a largely forgotten murder case.

When The Thin Blue Line was released in 1988, few mainstream documentaries had so openly melded art and activism, utilizing nonfiction filmmaking as a mode by which a filmmaker sought to actively participate in, rather than merely “observe,” a subject and its course of events. As Charles Musser explains in an essay written for The Criterion Collection’s new release of The Thin Blue Line, it’s difficult to appreciate the wide breadth of the film’s influence because of how extensively that influence has shaped nonfiction filmmaking since “the challenge is to recognize the many levels on which it was a radically disruptive force that defied numerous assumptions about documentary as a mode of expression and ultimately reconfigured our understanding of what constitutes nonfiction audiovisual practices.”

The enormous influence of The Thin Blue Line is available in both the broad and the particular, from the means by which filmmakers today embrace without question documentary as a platform for advocacy to the now-established generic characteristics of true-crime nonfiction. This past weekend, the arrest of millionaire and murder suspect Robert Durst on the eve of the final episode of Andrew Jarecki’s serialized television documentary The Jinx carried the torch of The Thin Blue Line, signaling the apex of a renewed interest in a years-old murder case that otherwise risked falling away to the obscurity of history, thereby transforming said case into a (perhaps fleeting) cause célèbre motivated by a shared desire for justice and a collective immersion in slick nonfiction storytelling.


Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.