Toward the end of 1968, when I first met Orson Welles, he was so remarkably disarming that I had the nerve to tell him the one film of his I didn’t really like (at that time) was his 1962 adaptation of Franz Kafka’s famous, surrealistically inclined novel, THE TRIAL (available on DVD). And to please me (I would eventually find out), he pretended to agree, but within a year or so, he came closer to the truth: “It’s very personal for me…much closer to my own feelings about everything than any other picture…”
Right at the start, Welles spells out the mood of the film, which, he explains in his narration, has “the logic of a dream, a nightmare…” and, indeed, no other picture ever made has quite so pervasively or so hauntingly captured that terrifying feeling of unnamable horror. The leading character K (exceptionally played by Anthony Perkins soon after his Psycho success) is awakened at the beginning by two police detectives who proceed to ask him a series of insinuating questions, making him aware that he is not only suspected of some terrible, never-named crime, but also that he is feeling and acting inordinately guilty for a person professing innocence. Welles said he himself used to have recurring dreams of having murdered someone, waking in a sweat, wondering where it had happened.
Shot on real locations all over Europe——Prague, Munich, Paris——the film is as enthralling as it is unsettling, and was easily 40 years ahead of its time: The frightening sensation of dread it produces is far more in keeping with the dizzying, unbalanced 21st century than the early ‘60s before even the J.F.K. assassination. Welles smoothly plays the Advocate, a silky, slippery, God-like lawyer K goes to for help, and the picture’s evident distrust of the legal profession and of the easy corruptibility of the Law reminds one of Shakespeare’s famous line: “First, kill all the lawyers!”
Orson told me that he and Perkins, as well as the brilliant international supporting cast, which includes Romy Schneider, Elsa Martinelli, Akim Tamiroff, Madeleine Robinson and Suzanne Flon, had an often hilarious time shooting the movie, breaking up over the dank coldness of the inexorably ominous tale. I sat next to Welles at a black-tie screening of The Trial in Paris in the mid-70s——the only time I saw one of his films with him and an audience——and understood through his very amused reactions the kind of deeply black humor the picture contains.
But then Welles was nearing 50 when he made the movie, and I was still in my ‘20s and early ‘30s when we were talking about it: I’m afraid one’s life experiences need to pile up, in their sometimes bewildering and unfortunate ways, before the picture’s real effectiveness can be fully appreciated. It is a profoundly disturbing film, and one of the most uncompromising, relentlessly chilling looks at the awful ambiguities of life in the late 20th century.
The opening fable which Welles narrates——about an accused man and his fruitless lifelong struggle with the Law (dramatized through a unique series of pin-shadow illustrations done by a Russian couple Orson found)——is by itself among the most darkly resonant sequences ever put on film, all the more so because there has never been heard in movies a more eloquent storyteller’s voice than Orson Welles’s (remember, he first became a star on 30’s radio), nor have there been many American film artists of his complexity or depth.