To read Franz Kafka one must imagine a world where logic and reason have no hold. To see such a place envisioned by one of cinema's greatest auteurs is a rare treat. Orson Welles’ 1962 adaptation of The Trial is by no means a conventional edge of your seat thriller. Looming beneath the shadows of his classics Citizen Kane and Touch of Evil, Welles’ The Trial is an underappreciated masterpiece of avant-garde cinema and surrealist art. Some call it hyper-stylized, over-the-top, nonsensical and entirely unwatchable. From the latter perspective, it is all these things, yes, outside of being unwatchable. But with The Trial, Welles has created an audacious film that demands to be remembered; something truly unlike any film that has come before or after it.
Welles' deep, God-like voice presides over the film as it opens with this quote: “It has been said, that the logic of this story is the logic of a dream and a nightmare.” From the very beginning, there is something peculiar about everyone and everything in The Trial. One can see similarities and inspirations for David Lynch’s Erasherhead at work here. But where Eraserhead purposefully calls attention to its excessive industrial gloom, The Trial works in a subtler fashion. Take the opening scene of the movie where K (Anthony Perkins) is awoken and hastily arrested on unknown charges. The unnaturalness of the situation and events is exasperated in the minute details of his bedroom. When K gets up, Perkins’ tall, lanky figure seems much too large for the room. Or is it just that the ceiling is too low? The walls are starkly white and bare while the doors appear almost wide enough to drive a car through.
More unreal than real, or vice versa- it is hard to say. This uneasiness and delicate oddities continue with every scene and every place K goes in his efforts to clear up the clouded mystery of his arrest. K's advocate (a looming, booming Orson Welles) lives in what looks like a huge warehouse. Papers are hoarded and strewn about everywhere. Hundreds of small wax candles emit the house's only light. More bizarre is K's visit to a portraitist who lives in a wooden shack of an attic. To get there K heads up a set of metal stairs as if in a boiler room or factory. To leave, he must outrun the multitude of young girls that fester and plague the artist's life, peering into his room from holes in his shabby walls. (By the way, where do they live?)
At another point, K stumbles upon a woman doing laundry in a dark and desolate hallway. When she opens the door behind her, we do not find a laundry room closet as one might expect, but the entrance to a courtroom holding hundreds of people awaiting K’s trial. There is madness everywhere, none which can be explained. The strangest part of it is that the only person that seems affected is K.
Joseph K is played by Anthony Perkins, an actor known almost exclusively as the lonely and anxious innkeeper Norman Bates from Psycho. Throughout his career, Perkins could never escape this role, reprising the character directly in a few Psycho sequels and at times indirectly (and maybe unconsciously) through other characters. Two years after the release of Psycho, Perkins reprises much of Norman’s nervous tweaks, gulps and conceivably boyish innocence as the office clerk Joseph K. “Surely you didn’t come to see me?” he says guilelessly to his arrestors in The Trial's opening scene. His unassuming tone recalls the words shared between Bates and Detective Arbogast, and in The Trial, it works wonderfully.
Perkins is also known for being a closet homosexual in his day. And there is some belief that Welles, fully aware of this, cast Perkins to employ this trait in his character. At various points in The Trial, beautiful yet seemingly depraved women try to seduce K. As the women reel in on him in uncompromising and tight two-shots, staring deeply into his eyes K always jeers back a bit, gulping, only able to say a few uneasy remarks before pulling away and gasping for air. The scenes are awkward, if not mostly for Perkins. Is this a cruel use of someone’s inner-self, or a touch of bona-fide brilliance by the ruthless master Welles.
Not enough praise can be bestowed on Welles for his artistic genius. In particular, his use of highly unnatural stage lighting enhances the unsettling mood abound in The Trial. Shooting in huge spaces, like the advocate’s home, Welles could immediately shrink the set down by lighting some areas while leaving others black to tighten the frame. In one instant, the advocate could be yelling at K in an immense capacity. The next shot could show K listening on, helpless as if locked in a closet or jail cell.
The Trial is one of the few features Welles managed to have complete directorial control over. He was constantly hampered by studio execs for funding, despite being a bravado and genius behind the camera (not to mention having made what many deem to greatest film of all time). Beyond Kane and some of his other great works, The Trial shows Welles at his most daring and best. Those two traits seem to go hand in hand with Welles. Faithful readers of the novel might detest certain parts of the script, especially its bombarding ending. But by sacrificing a little, the audience receives so much more. The Trial undoubtedly stands on its own as a bold, striking piece of visual artistry and art house cinema.