THE TRIAL Blu-ray Review: Criterion Takes on Orson Welles' Masterpiece

Editor, Canada; Montréal, Canada (@bonnequin)
THE TRIAL Blu-ray Review: Criterion Takes on Orson Welles' Masterpiece

Long awaited by cinephiles and Orson Welles fans, it took longer than it should for The Trial to be restored. At last, Welles' favourite of his own films has been given the Criterion treatment. It's often neglected in discussions on Welles' work (likely because for years it was hard to see), and deserves this new attention and care, not only because of its importance in the filmmaker's history, but in how it is both of its time and yet still understandable to a contemporary audience.

Based on the novel by Franz Kafka - a novel that was published posthumously, arguably not completed, and at first compiled by his publisher as opposed to the author himself - it's Kafka's arguably strangest work (which is saying something), or perhaps the least easily admitable. A man, Josef K, is suddenly pressed by the authorities about a crime - one that they won't disclose, but they claim he has committed, and which he must defend against with few resources and no additional information.

'The bureaucracy is expanding, to meet the needs of the expanding bureaucracy' - Oscar Wilde once wrote, and The Trial is an extension of this. Starting off the film with a kind of parable of a man waiting at the door of the law, we see K constantly blocked as he tries to figure out how to navigate this bureaucracy. Or at least sort of - he still, for a time, goes to his middle management job; he has flirtations with several women; he has to deal with imposing relatives. All the while, he is constantly blamed for the mistakes made by others, such as the police and other bureaucrats, while he's being penned in by a system that cares little for what happens to him, as long as the red tape is filled out to its satisfaction.

Welles always straddled several worlds: America and Europe; radio, theatre, and cinema; and what made him such a unique artists is how he managed to combine the devices and techniques from these different forms together, especially in his cinema. He understood that for a story like The Trial, which walks a very fine line between realism and surrealism, between the relatable and the absurd, the only way to portray it, is with the locations, the props, the shots, all feeling just slightly out of balance, off-kilter just enough to understand the world in which K is existing.

There are frequently close and mesium shots from slightly unnatural low and high angles, with a lens that ever so slightly exagerrates faces. The use of low-key lighting to emphasis the shadows that are constantly about to overtake K, while balanced by a strange spotlight that is constantly hovering. But it's the use of locations that makes The Trial stand out: a large exhibition halls, filled with over 300 people sitting at desks typing away (no AI could ever make the same feeling that some from seeing real bodies in a space like this); the apartment block of K's residence, set in a lonely field, which still feels stifling; the demented corridors filled from floor to ceiling with filing cabinets and boxes and papers that containt the stories of lives ruined that no one will bother to check.

Just two years fresh from the role of which people still most associate him, Perkins gives an equally layered performance as the man caught in the middle of a teapot-tempest, though one for which he will pay dearly. Trying to keep some semblence of order, he finds he can cling only to his integrity in the face of continuing madness. There is much that can be interepreted from his many encounters with women, and it's wonderful to see him share the screen with the likes of Jeanne Moreau, Romy Schneider, and Elsa Martinelli, each of whom balances between their own character's place within this system and their desire to escape. Welles himself plays the advocate (a role he originally wanted for Jackie Gleeson), which seems fitting considering his role as director, someone who seems to have all the power but still must bend to others' will. In fact, who exactly is in charge in this world is never known.

It's refereshing to return to this film, restored as much to its original glory as possible; and to find that the film still is fresh, exciting, intimidating, deeply intelligent, and as necessary today as it was sixty years ago.

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Special Features

When one is doing a restoration of an Orson Welles film, one goes big or one goes home. Luckily, there are few whose restorations are as good as Criterion's, and the digital restoration on this 4K, for Blu-ray and UHD, makes it look as marvelous and disturbing as it did when it was first projected (though some of that is assumption on my part). Suffice to say, the shadows and labyrinths that K must traverse are terrible frightening, fully realized and spectacular.

Audio commentary by Joseph McBride, a film historian whose has written several books on great American filmmakers, including two on Welles, provides fascinating historical and biographical context to the film, its creator, and its creation. Author Jonathan Letham's essay 'Crime of the Century' details how the film is often ignored in Welles' oeuvre, though Welles often called it is best film. The essay looks at how Welles' approach to the material was unique and perhaps going against expectation, hence its rather odd reception by the critics upon its release. This came especially from both Welles' and Perkins' understanding of much of the homoeroticism and homosexual subtext (too often deliberately ignored by Kafka scholars).

The 'Architect of Light' short documentary features Edmond Richard, the director of photography. He shares both his and Welles' methods for lighting the set, a key component of The Trial, given the surrealoist nature and tone of the story. An interesting fact he shares is that in the opening scene, which features K's bedroom, they built the ceiling so it was a mere 20 centimetres taller than Perkins, to give the effect of the room being small and almost stiflingly close. He talks about the scenes of a neighbour dragging a trunk across the field, how they set up the camera to capture it in one shot, with weights to help create the weight of the trunk.

The television show 'Vivre le cinéma' featured an episode with Welles and Moreau having dinner together. Of course they knew they were being filmed, but there is still a casual atmosphere at this evening at the Ritz Hotel. It's mainly Welles talking (perhaps Moreau was sadly left more on the cutting room floor), telling stories of his theatre days in Ireland, trying to kill himself as a child (though more of a prank to threaten his parents), his work on The Other Side of the Wind, working on Othello. He only mentions The Trial at the end, but it's a worthwhile conversation since Welles was such a magnificent storyteller (who often stretched the truth).

The highlight of the supplements is what is essentially a very long q&a given by Welles, after a screening of The Trial at University of Southern California, in 1981. It was meant to be the basis for a documentary about the filming of Welles' feature, but sadly the doc was never completed. But we still have this masterclass, and if you're someone who normally dislikes q&a's, you will like this. Perhaps because the audience is filled with cinephiles who likely had not seen the film (nor had Welles since he made it, as it turns out), the questions are astute and produce terrific answers from Welles. He gives details not only to why he made certain decisions within the film itself, but about difficulties with the producers, some of the locations, the joys of working with Perkins and his own dismay at how Perkins' performance was villified by critics at the time. Contrary to how Welles is often perceived, he is magnanimous and generous with his audience - if you've seen the film before, it would be worth watching this first and then returning to The Trial for a fresh perspective.

The Trial

  • Orson Welles
  • Pierre Cholot
  • Franz Kafka
  • Orson Welles
  • Anthony Perkins
  • Arnoldo Foà
  • Jess Hahn
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Orson WellesPierre CholotFranz KafkaAnthony PerkinsArnoldo FoàJess HahnDramaMysteryThriller

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