The Trial (1962, Orson Welles)

!!! A+ FILM !!!

Orson Welles directed Citizen Kane, until recently the average cinephile’s de facto choice for Greatest American Film, and F for Fake, this particular cinephile’s choice for the most invigoratingly cinematic of all feature-length films he’s seen, but Welles considered this sparse, terrifying, hilarious Kafka adaptation his finest filmic achievement — and not without reason. Dismiss with your conception of what Kafkaesque storytelling is for just a moment, just long enough to consider how this story might live in your mind: a man is awakened and finds himself accused. Of what, he never learns. There are only questions, interrogations; he is not imprisoned, yet he can’t escape. It might well be easy to treat this creature as a pawn, a tool to illustrate some didactic fable — but no. Welles, with the help of the cinematographer Edmond Richard and a brilliant, arresting performance by the great Anthony Perkins, has made a human and a vessel of this creature. He’s done this by quietly assuring us (and, in private, outright acknowledging) that he’s guilty, even if he doesn’t know of what. Because aren’t we all? It’s a psychologically looping, tormenting concept, but it makes a poetic, visually staggering film that is neither simplistic nor pretentious; if anything, it’s all the more wondrously tortuous in its directness.

All of Welles’ features were inventive, but this may have been his most restless and uncompromised narrative film; it exists on what is plainly a level above our general conception of cinema, American and otherwise. It was, of course, financed privately overseas, an arrangement that afforded Welles the opportunity he’d long yearned for, to again create and execute a movie the way he wanted to. The result is pure Welles, and pure frenetic joy — unstoppable, breathless, full of life, but with the walls perpetually preparing to close in. We wonder what the mouse trapped in this surreal maze, this illogical nightmare, will do next, yet not in a detached manner; the mouse is us. We glare over Perkins’ shoulder into the vast sets and bizarre obstacles with which Welles surrounds him, eventually including the director himself as a purportedly kind-hearted but clearly nefarious lawyer known menacingly as the Advocate.

Perkins’ Josef K alternates between terrified and smugly exasperated; we’re on board either way. In the meantime, Welles the filmmaker is showing us images that burn inescapably onto our retinas, so vividly do they capture this arch, massive nightmare world, a world so much more harrowing and strange and dreamlike than the dreamscape Salvador Dali created for Hitchcock’s Spellbound, certainly a world that renders all the more laughable the dead-eyed Die Hard-lite “subconscious” Christopher Nolan would visualize decades hence in Inception. Welles’ visuals are informed by wartime propaganda, by German Expressionism and surrealism, and by the tall otherworldliness of low-budget sci-fi films of the period, but also by classic Hollywood: the oversized weirdness of the sets in MGM’s ’30s musicals, the endless painterly conformity of desks lined up in the enormous office building in The Crowd (echoed two years before this in The Apartment). As ever, every technical aspect of Welles’ production is somehow lively and heartfelt; the lighting seems to speak to his adept storytelling mastery as much as the photography, the acting, all of it. I seldom feel comfortable regarding artists as geniuses, but Welles comes just about as close as anyone I can think of.

All this implies, however, that The Trial is strictly a technical achievement, something to admire rather than to love, which is so easy to do with Welles’ films because they tend to be so aesthetically perfect. But no; concentrate on the bravura images and you miss just how lonely Josef is, and how much and how eloquently Kafka and Welles have captured that loneliness, which is as much a function of universal human spirit as the guilt that lies clearly at the core of the film’s thesis. Welles’ script stacks witty dialogue atop witty dialogue, all of it amusing and teasing and scary, and he uses sound and dialogue to further the constant firepower of the visuals, all of it — even when it’s obliquely funny and frivolous, perhaps especially then, as when Josef visits the home of an artist named Titorelli, generally tasked with painting portraits of judges, and is confronted with a cage of girls and ghosts and is face to face with some inscrutable horror — serving entirely to sink us deeper into the individual rationalizations and madness of the central character. He is crucified, made heroic, even bears witness to a line of victims just like him who’ve now grown old, their faces worn with the chilly resignation of the executioners in The Passion of Joan of Arc. It’s a constant sinking feeling, but it’s also an expression of human feeling as personal as anything the movies can provide.

Perkins is a magnificent actor capable of matching Welles’ magnificent direction, until he’s able to tell the story through the movement of his eyes, the quiver and sharpness of his voice, the lines of his face. He never reported any resentment for spending the latter part of his career typecast as Norman Bates, but one couldn’t blame him; it’s a revelation to see him here, wrapping himself around such a complex, weary character as Josef K. He seems so much a part of us that he sells us on the idea of his death as a heroic act, a kick back against oppression. That speaks to the power as well of Welles’ filmmaking, which is somewhat disturbing.

The humor here is ample and endearing as well, dramatizing the juggling act of the bleak and the joyous that mark the narrative; there’s no mistaking the symbolic intensity of a world in which women want to come to Josef’s aid and help him along on his journey while all men are attempting to hinder him and trap him, but then again, isn’t Josef finally in a trap he’s made himself? What was it a great philosopher said once? “We’re all in our private trap”? Or was that a great philosopher at all? I can’t quite remember.

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