Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Anthony Perkins, Jeanne Moreau, Romy Schneider, Orson Welles
Director:  Orson Welles
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Widescreen 1.66:1
Studio:  Image Entertainment
Features:  Theatrical Trailer, Desilu Television Introduction         
Length:  119 Minutes
Release Date:  March 7, 2000

Film ***1/2

It seems like a match made in heaven between two of the twentieth century’s most prolific artists.  Franz Kafka, whose morbid, pessimistic visions seemed to predate and foresee the terrible rises of Hitler and Stalin, and Orson Welles, who created some of the most striking visual imagery ever captured on film.  In The Trial, maybe both men found an outlet to express their bitterness and anger…Kafka for the degenerating world around him, and Welles for the society that cheerfully proclaimed his Citizen Kane as the greatest film ever made, while shutting every door of opportunity in his face.

Joseph K. (Perkins) awakens one morning to find strange men in his room…supposedly the police.  They begin a maddening word play with him, that becomes the backbone of the entire script for the duration.  Every little thing he says seems to be twisted around, made into something more, and scribbled in note pads to be brought back against him at a later date.  He is under arrest, but is never told what for.  “Who accuses me?” he asks.  There is no answer.

It’s a strange kind of arrest.  They don’t take him anywhere.  He goes about his life, his job (an incredible sea of endless desks and typewriters and faceless humanity—an image that must have inspired Terry Gilliam).  Occasionally, people show up to talk about how badly his trial is going.  In one really bizarre sequence, Joseph goes to the utility closet and finds the two cops that “arrested” him undergoing a brutal flogging, supposedly because he accused them of suggesting a bribe.

As far as the actual trial goes, we only see one glimpse of it, and it, like the rest of the film, seems to radiate from the deepest part of a nightmare.  He is taken away from a night at the theatre, walks through back alleys and run down settings to find himself in a giant room, packed with a large audience wearing badges and headed by a table of magistrates on a stage so high, he has to struggle to climb up to it.  “Are you a house painter?” they ask.  “No,” he replies.  The audience bursts into uncontrollable laughter.  Nobody asks him any other questions.  He rails angrily, at the judges and at those seated, at the mockery of justice the system is.  He still doesn’t know why he’s there.  He suspects he’s not the first to have to endure such a travesty.

That’s the last we see of him in trial, although we hear throughout the rest of the film that it’s still going on…seemingly without his participation.  His uncle takes him to see The Advocate (Welles), a large, bedridden individual in a big, creepy house where bodies almost seem to be swallowed up by mountains of paperwork.  The Advocate is supposed to be his best hope, and it’s fitting in this story that we never see the man do anything.  His lair seems to house others he’s supposedly helping, and one fellow in particular makes an appearance just to abase himself before The Advocate, weeping and kissing his hand.

Welles has created a nightmarish world that David Lynch would have been proud of.  Everything seems to exist in an exaggerated state of reality, like a real dream.  Eyes stare and penetrate from every direction.  When Joseph runs, he runs through tunnels and halls that are broken up with shards of light and grossly disfigured shadows.  He’s the only truly normal soul in the film, and he’s trapped in a world of insanity where he’s looked upon as the one out of sorts.

Orson Welles was perhaps the premier filmmaker in terms of visuals.  Here, unlike with Kane, he doesn’t rely on the editing as much as he does lingering camera work that weaves in and out of scenes uncut.  But most of his trademarks are here in droves, including the masterfully orchestrated play between light and shadows, the extreme camera angles, the depth of focus in his photography, and the use of distance and spatial relations to convey exposition.  All of his techniques create the right kind of atmosphere for Kafka’s paranoid tale to exist in.  From the most nightmarish images, to the exaggeration of the sets and lighting schemes, even to the simple touches of the beautiful women that constantly throw themselves at Joseph during his crisis—it all keeps the film in a hazy kind of dream like state that never quite touches the ground.  Indeed, in the end, we can’t help but wonder if it was all a nightmare…or has the nightmare itself become reality?

It’s not a film to please all tastes.  I believe Welles achieved the effect he was striving for in this picture, but that effect tends to be a bit confusing and frustrating from time to time.  It serves the narrative, but it keeps this from being as enjoyable a film watching experience as Kane or The Magnificent Ambersons.

It is, however, one of the few films apart from Kane that Welles was able to fully realize his vision, without studio interference or pressing budget or time constraints.  Some twenty years after his groundbreaking masterpiece, The Trial exhibits that incomparable Welles genius—maybe for the last time in his career.

Video **1/2

I rented a VHS copy of The Trial some ten years back, and only got about fifteen minutes into the film before I had to turn it off.  It was a badly transferred public domain copy on an EP video tape, and was pretty much unwatchable.  Considering that, and considering that the original negative for this film was though lost for many years, this DVD is a revelation, but far from perfect.  Though imaging is never a problem, and the black and white photography looks quite good, the film shows a lack of proper preservation in the form of plenty of nicks and spots.  There is also a bit of grain noticeable from time to time, but not enough to be a real distraction.  Overall, this is better than the picture has ever looked for home video…and in widescreen…but not exactly a reference quality disc.

Audio *1/2

The mono soundtrack was a bit of a disappointment…a bit of noise is evident throughout, and in a few places, I found the dialogue a bit difficult to discern.  A little cleaning up in this department would have gone a long way.

Features **

The disc contains the trailer, and the Desilu television intro, which essentially tells you the entire story in about 3 minutes…don’t watch it before you’ve seen the movie.


The Trial is a darkly conceived nightmare, peppered with a few moments of black comedy, but ultimately a pessimistic view of a world where our conception of justice has no meaning, and where a simple man can wake up to find his life coming apart for crimes he never even knows about.  It is a fitting picture from one of cinema’s greatest visionaries, and a man who had found himself and his career still entrenched against his own accusers after twenty years.