“In these matters there are so many conflicting opinions that the confusion is impenetrable,” the Advocate reminds Josef K. Although said late in the picture, Anthony Perkins plays K as if this remark were a lodestar. Orson Welles’ film version of The Trial lacks the recognition of Citizen Kane and Touch of Evil but it’s his loosest and zaniest picture, the one most worth revisiting on his centenary.
As much a riff on the definition of Kafkaesque as an adaptation of the novel, The Trial has a perverse streak that’s all Welles. And the movie wastes no time, paced like a Hecht-MacArthur comedy. The conceit is that K doesn’t know why cops in trench coats awaken him and search his apartment, and it doesn’t matter. Offering explanations when none are needed, acting guilty when the authorities have presented no evidence, K is the boy with perpetual nervousness. Both novel and film depict how in trying to understand his dilemma he ensnares himself further; his end is inevitable. Welles’ script includes riffs not in the novel. “That’s my pornograph — uh,” K stammers during the search; or: “I deny that there’s an ovular-shaped drawing under this rug!” The conclusion — I won’t spoil it, for it’s Welles’ idea of a grand joke — is an explosive departure, to which I’ll return.
Shot in Dubrovnik and Zagreb, among other cities, The Trial posits a universe askew and pitiless, ready to swallow K up. Welles and cinematographer Edmond Richard photograph K against shadow-drenched village squares as if he were trapped in a De Chirico painting, or, worse, a black ant scurrying beside the base of a dining room table. The emphasis on phantasmagoria isn’t as relentless as in Touch of Evil; Welles is smart enough to know the material is weird enough. The Trial has his best use of reflected light since The Magnificent Ambersons. While K is in custody chatting with a jailor (Welles dubbed his voice), Welles cuts to the euphoric faces of children ogling K behind bars. Consolidating his knack for devising novel solutions to budget shortfalls, Welles includes a sequence in which K plays against what looks like a woodcut background, as if he were a puppet. It isn’t all darkness and gargoyle faces, though. The Trial is Welles’ most sensual film. Romy Scheider can’t keep her hands off Perkins; she bites his chin as they lie on a bed of books. Jeanne Moreau and her insolent mouth glower in the first third. At the time Perkins’ casting, so soon after Psycho, seemed rather on the nose. What we know now gives his performance extra pathos; he’s the screen’s best fumbler, able to find exquisite variations on the fidget. Welles himself stars as the Advocate. His first appearance is grand: supine on a bed, mumbling through a hot towel wrapped around his face. The rest of the performance is distracted though.
Relentless in momentum, indifferent to provoking viewer sympathy, The Trial is not a pleasant experience. It’s a buggy movie that can get under your skin. Under no circumstances would it have been a hit in 1962 or 1972, perhaps even 1982. The Trial is an example of independent film before the taxonomy and sensibility existed (with its distancing techniques it wouldn’t surprise me to learn the Coens are fans). Welles told a baffled Peter Bogdanovich in the early seventies that The Trial was his happiest filming experience (“It’s my own picture, unspoiled in the cutting or in anything else”). It shows. However, because no copyright was filed on its behalf, The Trial has floated around in terrible prints for years. I saw a reel to reel transfer to VHS in 1994. The print I streamed on Netflix was not without problems, and we’re likely never to get a pristine one.
But I don’t watch Welles for pristine surfaces. A sense in which fate has trapped men into being nothing other than they are runs through all of his major films. Think of Charles Foster Kane and George Minafer, Macbeth and Othello. In Chime at Midnight, made (or assembled) not long after The Trial, the unfairness of it all breaks the heart of foolish, old, loving Falstaff. The Trial sees the hilarity. Its conclusion, that grand departure from Kafka mentioned earlier, looks better nearly fifty years after the rise and fall of totalitarianism and the creation of the national security state; we’re all potential suspects. Welles understood what he was doing with that ending. “I don’t think Kafka could have stood for that after the deaths of the six million Jews,” he told Bogdanovich. “That terrible fact occurred after the writing of The Trial and I think made Kafka’s ending impossible if you conceive of K as a Jew, as I did. I don’t mean as a Jewish Jew, but as a non-Christian.”
Even when K thinks he’s won he’s lost. The Trial‘s expression of glee — its nihilism has a sheen — is closer to a death’s head than a grin; it’s as if Jed Leland got script approval.