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Kafka with laughter: Orson Welles’ The Trial (1962) – Blu-ray review

September 4, 2012 by Simon Kinnear in At Home, Retro with 0 Comments

Welles flees the Kafka-esque ordeal of Hollywood to prove that, left to his own devices, he can still soar.

The Trial
(Orson Welles, 1962)

By the 1960s, the first generation to acclaim Citizen Kane as the bedrock of all cinema was making its own films in Paris and beyond.  Little did Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut know that they about to be joined by their hero and godfather of iconoclasm, as Orson Welles (once again an exile from Hollywood) came to town to make his film of Kafka’s novel.

This isn’t an idle comparison: for the first time since Kane, Welles had final cut… but this time he had a vastly curtailed budget, forcing him to make The Trial in a style not dissimilar from that of the Nouvelle Vague, on-the-hoof in whatever locations he could find.  You can almost see Godard taking notes from Welles’ use of the Gare D’Orsay train station for his own re-imagining of Parisian landmarks, Alphaville.  Meanwhile, Welles returned the favour by giving a juicy cameo to that New Wave icon, Jeanne Moreau.

A sense of unfettered ambition and pure love of cinema ripples through The Trial, almost as if Welles was stung by Hollywood’s disinterest even in a blatant masterpiece like Touch Of Evil and was determined to show the studios what they were missing. So he created a stunning office set (in Zagreb) to rival those in The Crowd and The Apartment, around which his camera could track and swoop – and then, when the money ran out, he felt liberated enough to find solid locations where he could do the same.  The opening sequence in Josef K’s apartment benefits hugely from its labyrinth-like quality, allowing Welles to map out space by moving freely between rooms, and even outside.  Ditto the cavernous space of the Gare D’Orsay, which becomes an eloquent symbol of stasis simply by allowing the camera to uncover endless dirty, dilapidated spaces where dusty books are piled high and hangdog faces look around, the hope drained from their features by decades of inattention.

The choice of Kafka is cheeky and inspired; few directors knew the passive-aggressive double-talk of bureaucracy like Welles. Kafka is ripe with symbolism, but Welles cuts through it all to make a film you feel, his style uniting the disparate chapters of the novel into an organic piece of claustrophobia.  As narrative, it is loose but lucid, each new scene shooting off on a new tangent but always governed by the central thread of dread and paranoia.  That’s why it’s so apt that Welles begins the film with a striking animated prologue from pin screen pioneer Alexandre Alexeieff, its elaborate, evocative portraits built from hundreds of pins.  That’s what the film is like: an accumulation of sharp jabs.

Oh, and by the way, it’s a comedy.  Ever the naughty schoolboy of cinema, Welles wants you to laugh – and then feel uncomfortable for doing so. Accordingly, the darker K’s plight gets, the funnier the film is.  The best, bleakest gag in the film sees the hero parroting away while the inadvertent victims of his loose tongue have their mouths covered in tape to stifle their screams.

Even the casting is a gag – jittery Anthony Perkins might look like he wouldn’t hurt a fly, but he’s Norman Bates. Of course he’s guilty!  This is arguably the actor’s best performance outside of Psycho, not least because he understands that he’s playing the straight man in a sick and twisted variety show.  So if he’s not being threatened by a noir-esque posse of shadowy, fedora-wearing hoodlums, he’s being smothered by a cavalcade of ripe, OTT guest performances from the likes of Moreau, Romy Schneider, Welles regular Akim Tamiroff and the director himself.  According to legend, Welles dubbed many of the other actors’ voices, even Perkins’ himself – not only a brilliant device to highlight the stifling conformity of Kafka’s world but a subliminal reminder that Josef K is always being “directed” by a higher power.  Welles might have had no say in Hollywood, but in The Trial he is God.

Orson Welles’ The Trial is released on Blu-ray on Monday 10th September.  It’s part of the StudioCanal Collection, so the extras are basically French – lots of lovely, in-depth context on the making and meaning of the film.

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