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  • Jeff Beck

The Trial: An Intriguing Road to Nowhere (Criterion Blu-ray)

The Film:

Whenever the career of the great Orson Welles is brought up for discussion, it almost always inevitably turns towards his most famous works, like "Citizen Kane" (still considered by many to be the greatest film ever made), "Touch of Evil," and "The Magnificent Ambersons." After these, the talk may even stray into his affinity for Shakespearean adaptations, including "Macbeth," "Othello," and the magnificent "Chimes at Midnight" (which, in this critic's humble opinion, stands as one of the very best). One that's not talked of nearly as much is a little film he made in 1962 called "The Trial," based on the novel by Franz Kafka. With it joining the illustrious Criterion Collection this week, now's the perfect time to dig into it to see if there's a reason for its relative obscurity among the filmography of the acclaimed director, or if its merely a lesser-known work of greatness.

The plot is a little hard to explain, but it basically revolves around Josef K. (Anthony Perkins), your basic everyman who works in an office and lives in a boarding house with a few other tenants. One morning he is awoken early by two policemen who inform him that he is being charged with a crime and arrested. However, they refuse to tell him what the crime is, and after a very off-the-cuff interrogation of sorts, they allow him to remain free. Josef is somewhat bewildered and talks it over a bit with his landlady, Mrs. Grubach (Madeleine Robinson), and another tenant, Ms. Burstner (Jeanne Moreau), before going off to work. From here, his life and his case become entangled with a variety of eclectic characters, including his advocate (Orson Welles), his advocate's mistress, his uncle, his cousin, and a painter. We follow along as Josef desperately searches for answers to his bizarre situation.

Obviously there are debates to be had as to the film's accuracy to its source material, which is itself considered a very strange novel, but those should be more so left to people who are much more familiar with the book and its themes. However, as far as the film goes, it can easily be said that it's one of the strangest projects that Welles ever delivered. It's a kind of frenzied nightmare where you never know what (or who) is waiting around the next corner. If it leads you into a panicky, paranoid confusion, then it's probably having the exact effect that Welles intended it to. But how does it hold up as a film from a narrative point of view?

Well, it kicks off with a kind of bang as Josef is thrust into this bizarre, surreal situation, one where there appears to be no forthcoming answers and little to do to help alleviate the predicament he finds himself in. In fact, the first section of the film feels rather play-like as Josef goes about the boarding house with the police, colleagues, and landlady, while trying to answer questions and get a grasp on what's happening. Early on, he is even given a chance to speak his mind at a hearing of sorts in which he shows quite a bit of bravado and defiance, letting us know that he intends to fight whatever the still-unannounced charge may be.

Indeed, in this first third of the film, it certainly seems to be setting us up for a compelling journey and/or confrontation as Josef tries to find help & answers from various sources. However, this is where the film takes a rather curious turn. Instead of developing the plot further, the remainder of the film mostly becomes a peculiar precession of oddball characters that Josef encounters, some of which seem to want to help, while others don't seem to care at all (hardly a wonder that comparisons have been made to Lewis Carroll's "Alice in Wonderland"). Because of this, it feels as though the film hits a wall that it's never able to get past. That is to say, once the plot stops developing, there's not much to get engaged with outside of the film's sheer oddity and unpredictability of what or who will pop up next.

That said, there are other elements of the film to admire that still help make it a fascinating experience. First, you get a remarkable performance from Anthony Perkins, who goes through an impressive range of character states throughout the film, giving Josef an unpredictability all his own to match that of the wandering narrative. One could also practically put down the film's production design as a star of the film, with its huge, cavernous, maze-like sets very much coming off as characters themselves.

These positive elements do certainly help the film as it proceeds through its lengthy two-hour runtime, but sadly they just don't do quite enough to help its lackluster tale. Spectacle, oddity, and a parade of eccentric characters can really only get you so far. Eventually you need a little more to grasp on to. What we basically end up with is an intriguing road to nowhere, one that has some interesting sights to see along the way, but which needed a little more substance to help make the journey worth it. All things considered, it becomes easier to see why it's not mentioned all that often among Welles' other, more beloved works. It's certainly well-crafted, as one expects with his films, but it ultimately leaves too much to be desired from its unusual, wandering fable.


"The Trial" comes to Criterion Blu-ray in a gorgeous 4K digital restoration, presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.66:1. The film has been cleaned up remarkably, making each frame look the best they ever have. Likewise, the new uncompressed monaural soundtrack is outstanding, giving you all of the dialogue and music in excellent quality. Overall, as is to be expected, Criterion has done a wonderful job sprucing up this lesser-known Welles work.

Special Features:

Audio Commentary: An informative track featuring film historian Joseph McBride, author of "What Ever Happened to Orson Wells? A Portrait of an Independent Career."

Filming The Trial (84 Minutes): A fascinating Q&A with Orson Welles, filmed in 1981, in which he discusses the making of the film.

Vive Le Cinema (29 Minutes): An episode of a French program in which Orson Welles and Jeanne Moreau discuss their careers.

Orson Welles, Architect of Light (23 Minutes): A program that has cinematographer Edmond Richard reminiscing about working on the film.


Orson Welles' adaptation of Franz Kafka's "The Trial" features a fascinating set-up, a remarkable performance from Anthony Perkins, and impressive production design, but unfortunately the film falls a little short when it comes to its wandering narrative, a detrimental element that ultimately turns the film into an intriguing road to nowhere.

Score: 3/5

Available on Criterion Blu-ray starting tomorrow.

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