The Trial

by Peter Bogdanovich
August 24, 2011 12:06 PM
12 Comments
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Toward the end of 1968, when I first met Orson Welles, he was so remarkably disarming that I had the nerve to tell him the one film of his I didn’t really like (at that time) was his 1962 adaptation of Franz Kafka’s famous, surrealistically inclined novel, THE TRIAL (available on DVD). And to please me (I would eventually find out), he pretended to agree, but within a year or so, he came closer to the truth: “It’s very personal for me...much closer to my own feelings about everything than any other picture...”

Right at the start, Welles spells out the mood of the film, which, he explains in his narration, has “the logic of a dream, a nightmare...” and, indeed, no other picture ever made has quite so pervasively or so hauntingly captured that terrifying feeling of unnamable horror. The leading character K (exceptionally played by Anthony Perkins soon after his Psycho success) is awakened at the beginning by two police detectives who proceed to ask him a series of insinuating questions, making him aware that he is not only suspected of some terrible, never-named crime, but also that he is feeling and acting inordinately guilty for a person professing innocence. Welles said he himself used to have recurring dreams of having murdered someone, waking in a sweat, wondering where it had happened.

Shot on real locations all over Europe——Prague, Munich, Paris——the film is as enthralling as it is unsettling, and was easily 40 years ahead of its time: The frightening sensation of dread it produces is far more in keeping with the dizzying, unbalanced 21st century than the early ‘60s before even the J.F.K. assassination. Welles smoothly plays the Advocate, a silky, slippery, God-like lawyer K goes to for help, and the picture’s evident distrust of the legal profession and of the easy corruptibility of the Law reminds one of Shakespeare’s famous line: “First, kill all the lawyers!”

Orson told me that he and Perkins, as well as the brilliant international supporting cast, which includes Romy Schneider, Elsa Martinelli, Akim Tamiroff, Madeleine Robinson and Suzanne Flon, had an often hilarious time shooting the movie, breaking up over the dank coldness of the inexorably ominous tale. I sat next to Welles at a black-tie screening of The Trial in Paris in the mid-70s——the only time I saw one of his films with him and an audience——and understood through his very amused reactions the kind of deeply black humor the picture contains.

But then Welles was nearing 50 when he made the movie, and I was still in my ‘20s and early ‘30s when we were talking about it: I’m afraid one’s life experiences need to pile up, in their sometimes bewildering and unfortunate ways, before the picture’s real effectiveness can be fully appreciated. It is a profoundly disturbing film, and one of the most uncompromising, relentlessly chilling looks at the awful ambiguities of life in the late 20th century.

The opening fable which Welles narrates——about an accused man and his fruitless lifelong struggle with the Law (dramatized through a unique series of pin-shadow illustrations done by a Russian couple Orson found)——is by itself among the most darkly resonant sequences ever put on film, all the more so because there has never been heard in movies a more eloquent storyteller’s voice than Orson Welles’s (remember, he first became a star on 30’s radio), nor have there been many American film artists of his complexity or depth.

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12 Comments

  • mark s. | September 1, 2011 6:04 AMReply

    More Or-Wellesian than Kafka and Perkins is still playing Norman Bates, not Joseph K. Perversely bad, but just when you're ready to give up on it, Welles pulls another rabbit out of his deep cinematic magic hat and dazzles you with some miraculous (though irrelevant) imagery.

  • Casey Maddren | August 30, 2011 9:00 AMReply

    Thanks for posting on The Trial. I'm finding that it has more defenders these days, and I hope its audience keeps growing. Thematically the film is very much in keeping with his other work, but it may be the most disturbing of all Welles' movies. I wonder if this might be in part because of the central character. Kane, Arkadin and Quinlan may be monsters, but they're also strong, confident men, and they all know what they want. K is weak and insecure. Much of the time he doesn't even seem sure of what he wants. I wonder if this is what Welles was referring to when he said that for him the film was very personal.

  • Jesse L | August 30, 2011 3:04 AMReply

    Just watched the film today. I went out an bought the Alpha Video print. It's a terrible print with muddy sound but somehow I muddled (sorry) through it. As someone who has made a couple of surrealist short films, I found it fascinating. I watched it for the sets, the lighting, the camera angles and the editing. It is exceedingly well done. Good acting too by all concerned. Disturbing, yes, but worth it. Thanks for reminding me about this one, Peter. My shorts can be seen on You Tube. Type jlopen in the Search box.

  • Joel Shapiro | August 27, 2011 8:44 AMReply

    I have never seen sexual perversity portrayed like it was between Romy Schneider and Akim Tamiroff. As a young man I thought I understood the scenes but now, as a not quite old man, the moments have a profound and chilling meaning.

  • David Ehrenstein | August 26, 2011 11:23 AMReply

    I've always loved "The Trial" and have never understood why its mentioned so infrequently wqhen speakig of Welles. "Touch of Evil" is today regarded as the major work that it is, and more people are getting hip to "F For Fake" than ever. But "The Trial" still hasn't quite caught on. I sincerely hope it will.

  • James Keepnews | August 26, 2011 3:16 AMReply

    Sacre bleu, what about Jeanne Moreau -- what's she, foie gras?

    THE TRIAL remains probably my favorite Welles, for many reasons Mr. Bogdanovich and others detail above, though CHIMES for me, for all its flaws, has moments that transcend all of his previous cinematic work, and not just the justly famed, savagely beautiful battle sequence -- most of the scenes featuring Gielgud's Henry IV are on some kind of straight up mytho-iconic Edwardian Eisenstein shit. Yes.

  • DR | August 25, 2011 12:20 PMReply

    It IS a great film. Studio Canal's transfer is the best on DVD. Second best (still very good) is Milestone. Any other version - well, it's like going back to the blurry days of VHS. Still - as Welles told, I believe, Cocteau - bad projection (or in this case a lesser transfer) can't really ruin a movie, because a movie's soul is its rhythm, which contains its beating heart. As long as its rhythm is still intact, the movie is there.

    Thank you, Mr. Bogdanovich, for your friendship with Mr. Welles. And thank you for BLOGDANOVICH.

  • Michael | August 25, 2011 10:28 AMReply

    I think this is Welles greatest and profoundest film. It makes me sad when people paint this picture of Welles as just being a shadow after Citizen Kane. I much prefer this, 'F for Fake' and his other later films. Thank you for everything you did and are still doing for Mr Welles.

  • Arch | August 25, 2011 8:39 AMReply

    I keep imagining K as an Anthony Perkons-like figure whenever I read Kafka's books thanks to this movie. I appreciated when I read your book "This is Orson Welles" that he was more interested in doing "The Castle", which is also my favourite, and would have loved to have seen how Welles would have handled it.But "The Trial" still remains my most frequented Welles movie, it is absolutely stunning, and dense, and will probably keep haunting me as I grow older.

    I loved the little additions, like the super-computer, or the impressively long tracking shot with the old lady carrying the heavy suitcase.

  • Dazed | August 25, 2011 8:24 AMReply

    You had me at Romy Schneider! Too bad the best US version of this film on DVD sells for $121.00 on Amazon. Ouch. I really wish we had more studio's willing to release classic Blurays of some of these titles. The UK seems to get so many more.

    Thanks for another amazingly informative article.

  • Chris | August 25, 2011 4:15 AMReply

    At first glance, one is blown away by the sheer size and magnitude of Welles' direction; the sets, the lighting, the seas of extras. It's easy to glaze over how carefully detailed and nuanced he was with this film. Look at the way he places K in such a precarious position during his hearing. He is forced to stand on a 5-foot high platform squeezed against the edge by a large table full of judges there to hear his case. Even though this entire room full of people there specifically for him, he is out of place. This room was meant for him and him alone, but he was never able to utilize it.

  • Jason Gilmore | August 25, 2011 3:32 AMReply

    I haven't seen this film since film school (late 90s). Like Mr. Bogdanovich, I wasn't able to fully appreciate it at the time - though I do remember being impressed with Perkins' performance. I guess it's time to screen it again.

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