The word "Kafka-esque" is now a house-hold name. When people hear it, they think of a situation or a person who has, basically, a cruel prank thrust upon them (aside from the Trial, his story of a worker up against a labyrinth legal system, The Metamorphosis had his protagonist turned into a cockroach as if it was his fault). As well, in particularly with the Trial, there is a sense of (obviously) paranoia, words spoken unintentionally but taken seriously, and many situations, locations, and minor characters that are of a dream-like state. Orson Welles, with Kafka's story, does everything for effect, creating and maintaining an atmosphere that he honed after years of film-noirs. The mis-en-scene is always with a purpose to get the viewer into the tension and on-going confusion (which is with the lead, Mr. Joseph K played by Anthony Perkins), and the end result of Welles' directorial stamp on the work is that of something like a psychological horror film.
With the long takes, the usage of darkness and lights, the indoor and outdoor locations, and deep focus, the look of the film, it could be argued, tops the story in some parts. K is just a worker, an assistant of sorts in some kind of futuristic (or past or present, the time and place is left vague and it doesn't hurt the film) city. As he is under arrest, he tries to fight his case, as he's never been told why he was arrested. The people he meets, the law, aren't much help, as they act logically, but only logically in the dream-like state. As Perkins' K needs legal assistance, his uncle Max introduces him to the Advocate (Welles himself), who is a subtle, frightening presence with a control over his clients. As K wonders what he'll do, the story starts to spiral into running from children, going from one place seamlessly into another, until he is blended into this world of the abstract.
The acting is what would separate The Trial from being a weird, experimental (though to a degree the technical side of the film is a little experimental) landscape. Perkins creates a performance that gets us to believe in him, to find him as being a sympathetic (and, for at least a few of us in movie-viewing land, empathetic) persona. All of his little flubs and little moments of nervousness add to the believability. And in truth we've all been in this sort of situation K's been in, or at least known someone like this, not knowing what it is as the charge, but feeling a subliminal guilt without reason. Perkins captures all of the emotions, and finds that line where he doesn't go into nervous, black comedy, and his plight becomes more tragic as we get sucked into this nightmare society. There are also memorable side-bar performances by Jeanne Moreau, Madeline Robinson, Max Haufler, Akim Tamiroff (who also made an impression in his bit in Alphaville), and William Chappell. Welles, by the way, dubs in many of the voices, and in a sense this is like his greatest visual translation of something he might have done (though it's moot as of now) on the radio. In fact, the use of sound is practically as impressive as the visual style.
And what style there is in The Trial. This is the kind of film to be watched in its digital transfer on widescreen DVD, or projected in a theater. There is a consistently darkened tone to most scenes (especially in the last hour or so, for example in K's running in the sewer), and then light rushes in as something of a Welles' trademark. It could be said that Welles', not Perkins, is the true star of the film, by being the (almost) overwhelming presence he is in every frame. Due credit is as well to Edmund Richard (amazingly his first film, and he would go on to work on Bunuel's 70's surreal efforts), but it is arguable that Welles' was at a peak as a director. The best thing that can be said about The Trial is that for today's audiences, those who won't understand the path the story takes in the first viewing, will surely be intrigued enough by the editing style, the faces, the photography, and the ideas that do come through. Two sequences alone- the first part of K in the trial room with the audience present, and a visit to a painter surrounded by little girls- can be counted as some of Welles' finest work.
There's an underlying existential theme (K's on and off time with his sense of free will, his sense of isolation, and the Advocate's last dialog with K proves this) that works alongside with the surreal nature of the picture. By the end of the film, which ends on a note that will baffle some, anger others (perhaps by it not following the book), and bring on a catharsis that can barely be explained, it's at least clear the effect Welles' and his lead have put on is a pure, unique cross-breed of Kafka's tale of maddening persecution. And it does, as with Welles' more famous works like Touch of Evil and Citizen Kane, demands to be seen two, three, ten more times. A+
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