Photo by Tom Taylor

Reassessing The Trial

This above clip is the introduction to Orson Welles’ film adaptation of Franz Kafka’s The Trial, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. That's Welles' unmistakable voice doing the narration, of course, and the images were created by Alexandre Alexeieff and Claire Parker using the pinscreen animation process.

In the past week or so, my opinion on this film has turned around pretty radically. I never understood the praise some heaped upon it, finding it not only muddled and disjointed, but also hampered by the budgetary constraints that seem to plague most of Welles’ post-Hollywood projects. I always found it something of a chore to watch. One of my main problems with Welles' films of this era is the sound. He almost always dubbed in dialogue later, and often when editing the films months and sometimes years after he shot them, he was unable to bring many of the actors back to do their own voices. As a result, smaller roles would be voiced by Welles himself, who had among his many talents, a remarkable ability to mimic and create many different voices. (I was able to identify his voice in at least a half dozen speaking parts in this particular film; I've read that he did even more than that.) The end result was almost always that Welles' European films played like badly dubbed foreign film, even though they were shot in English. The Trial is no different.

Yet after recently reading a glowing essay about the film, I decided to give it another chance. And for reasons I can’t explain myself, the whole thing suddenly clicked for me. In fact, I ended up watching it twice in a matter of days. I actually now find it to be a pretty remarkable achievement and it is currently my favorite Welles’ film after Citizen Kane and Touch of Evil.

Why? Well, what once seemed disjointed and convoluted to me now seems complex and richly textured. The low budget aspect, which I once saw as a detriment, I now see as something of an asset. Faced with inadequate funding, Welles was quite ingenius at using found locations and lighting them in dramatic fashion to create arresting compositions. Welles shot the film in various locations throughout Europe and Ssome of the vast and decaying spaces he choose to shoot in only underscore the film’s themes of alienation and disorientation. There's a stylistic consistency that belies the film's gypsy-lie production. (Something Welles experienced on an even greater scale a decade earlier when he made Othello.) The introduction talks about the story’s similarity to a dream or a nightmare and the locations and camera work only reinforce this. The constantly moving camera and at times dizzying cutting style also feel ahead of their time and work to keep the viewer disoriented. It’s as disturbingly surreal as anything David Lynch has done.

Yet in spite of this, there’s a wonderful sense of humor running through what may seem to be on the surface a very dark and grim film. Coming off of his career-defining role in Hitchcock’s Psycho only a couple of years later, Anthony Perkins is perfectly cast as a jittery Joseph K, the protagonist of the story. The cast in general is wonderful and Welles’ even seems to have paid great care and attention to even the extras who have no speaking parts. There are odd and unusual faces in many scenes that are somewhat reminiscent of the kind of people Eisenstein would cast in his films, not for how they could act but for how they looked on camera. Many of these visual and narrative elements are in evidence in this wonderful, extended clip from about midway through the film.

I really cannot stop thinking about this film lately.

Unfortunately, Welles’ The Trial slipped into public domain some time ago, meaning just about anyone with the ability to do so can release the film on DVD. And, as you might expect, the quality of the version you might buy is something of a crapshoot, though just about all of them tend to be crappy. Studio Canal has just released a high quality remastered version of the film on Blu ray. Canal may be only second to the Criterion Collection in terms of the care and attention it brings to their DVD releases. Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, it only seems to be available in Europe and the UK with no announced plans for a U.S. release. But you can read the details about this edition here. Needless to say, I'd love to own this.

posted by Jim Chadwick @ 11:23 PM,


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Jim Chadwick is a native New Yorker who has been living in southern California for the past 20 years. Jim has worked in comic books, publishing, toys and video games for way longer than he'd care to admit. That's because he is way older than he would like to be.

Jim is an editor for DC Comics, working out of the company's west coast office in Burbank, California. But if you came here looking for industry dirt, forget it. I like my job and I'd like to keep it. While I may sometimes talk about comics, this is mostly dedicated to my other interests.

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The title of the blog comes from an old Elvis Costello song that originally appeared on the album (and I can say "album" because I originally bought it on vinyl) called Blood and Chocolate. It's not my favorite Elvis song (though I like it a lot), but I chose it because in the lyrics, the subjective speaker is telling someone that they are now going to have to essentially shut up and listen to what he has to say. Which seemed kind of appropriate to the nature of blogging.

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