Blu-ray Review: The Trial – Orson Welles’ Guilty Pleasure

StudioCanal embarks on the second round of its self-styled collection with the release of a late Welles masterpiece.

John Ashbrook

Contributor

StudioCanal embarks on the second round of its self-styled StudioCanal Collection which, it says here, brings together “the very best of cinema”. Of course, since this is the second round, one might be forgiven for being a tad cynical about the ‘very best’ claim. It’s like the old ads for “The Best Album in the World Ever … Volume 2”, a triumph of marketing over logic. What we have, instead, are films that are not the obvious usual suspects, but rarer and, in some cases, more interesting films.

Take, for example, Orson Welles’ 1962 film, The Trial.  His first film, Citizen Kane, was recently deposed after its fifty year reign as (pause for fanfare) The Greatest Film Ever Made. The sad truth is that Kane isn’t even Welles’ best film, let alone everybody else’s.  At the time he made it (and the time Kane was first feted), Welles considered The Trial to be his best film, an opinion which persisted for many years. I think he may have a point. You can find out for yourself as the film’s fiftieth anniversary edition is released on Blu-Ray today.

The film includes Welles’ narrated prologue … Which I’ve never seen before. His rich, mellifluous tones tell us a fable of a personal Hell. A Hell of bureaucracy. A Hell of middle-management. A Hell which anyone who has spent hours caught in an automated call-handling system will recognise only too well. This prologue concludes by warning us that the story we are about watch has the logic of a dream. ‘Nightmare’ might be more appropriate.

There is a real sense of claustrophobia from the very beginning. Josef K wakes-up to find a official-looking man in his room. The man refuses to answer questions, he just asks questions. This immediately puts K. on the back foot, he is confused, feels vulnerable (he has to get dressed in front of the interloper) and this is all perceived as him acting suspiciously.

As he had two years before – when he played Norman Bates – Perkins is nervy and anxious and the camera is set low to make the most of his lanky height. As he did twenty years before – in Citizen Kane – Welles has had the set built with a ceiling (which, although you won’t have noticed it, is unusual in older films) to emphasise the sense of being boxed-in.

The mercilessly long takes add to the sense of panic as Perkins is put under ever-more pressure by the passionless, nameless functionaries … He can’t escape their implacable suspicions, the camera won’t look away and neither can we.

The film (and its source novel) manifest an unfocussed fear. We know ‘They’ suspect us, but we don’t know of what. We don’t even know who ‘They’ are.  We don’t know what we can do about it, nor who we can ask. K never finds what he is supposed to have done, nor quite why he feels guilty about it. Do you know that feeling? The impotent sense that we’re punished if we fail to obey the rules, but aren’t allowed to know all the rules? Yeah, we all feel that.

For an ostensibly cheap, indie film, there are some extra-ordinary crowd scenes: His vast, impersonal cavern of an office.  (in a sequence which was clearly inspired by Vidor’s The Crowd and, in-turn, inspired Gilliam’s Brazil)  Then there is the theatre. A crowd of old people in their underwear standing around an angel statue shrouded as much in metaphor as it is in sheets. The interrogation – another theatre of sorts – with hundreds of suited, unsympathetic men. Yet the streets and buildings are eerily empty.

Where this film fits in with its StudioCanal label-mate That Obscure Object of Desire is in the veneer of the surreal. Elements that simply don’t fit together are juxtaposed successfully. The stark, functional architecture of Eastern Europe in one scene, leads to the cluttered, louche elegance of French architecture in the next.He has leaped from the heart of Stalinist dictatorship to the soul of the world’s oldest Democracy in a single bound. The issues and fears this film deals with affect everyone … No-matter their geography or philosophy.

Seemingly random non-sequiturs are accepted as normal. The police officers who arrest K. are later to  be found at his office, in a cupboard, being whipped. They put tape on their own mouths lest their screams disturb anyone. Well, what else would you expect to find in a stationery cupboard?

One could almost call the film ‘trippy’ and it certainly has a late sixties feel to it. Which is quite impressive since it was released a year or two before people started using LSD recreationally and the sixties started ‘swinging’.

But, however weird and psychedelic the world in which K. lives, the one thing that runs through this film is his passive acceptance of it all. He constantly bends to the will of the fates he doesn’t understand. He protests … Then capitulates. Again and again. He is constantly distracted from his mission to understand of what he is supposedly guilty, constantly meeting new people into whose lives he accommodatingly fits.

But, in times of dictatorship or hegemonic conspiracy, this is very much what most people do: As our lives get worse, as prices rise and earnings drop and our leaders demonstrate ever more contempt of our human rights … We complain, we conspire but, more often than not, we eventually knuckle under next moral panic that heads our way or shrug our shoulders and feel righteously indignant. But we don’t actually resist. If we do, we break.  It is far easier to bend!

Watching the film this time round, I found myself not even attempting to understand its labyrinthine complexities. I just basked in the glory of the visuals. Welles’ cinematographer, Edmond Richard, has captured extraordinary images. No light is wasted, no shadow. No camera-angle is merely chosen because it’s pretty but always because it is startling. In some scenes the camera swoops and glides around in a way most surprising in a film of this age; in other scenes it stays stubbornly still, allowing us to take in the details of the vividly detailed settings.

Since his first days in Hollywood, working with Gregg Toland, Welles loved dark, contrasty images. He often employed deep focus to create a real depth to his vast sets – the sort of thing lesser film-makers think you need 3D for. Well, he does so here too. Given that the film was shot mostly in found locations rather than on specifically-built sets, it is achingly beautiful. The middle act, where K. goes ‘behind-the-scenes’ of the legal profession, is set entirely in the negative spaces, the attics, crawl-spaces, derelict buildings and store-rooms of the world … All of them visually sumptuous, all of them lit in glorious chiaroscuro. This really is a text-book in how to use black-and-white photography and particularly in how to shoot architecture. Lessons which contemporary directors like Michael Mann and Christopher Nolan clearly still learn.

As with so-many things Welles did, he was ahead of the times with this film. His visual effects pre-empt those used by directors like Ridley Scott and Russell Mulcahy in the 1980s … Indeed, I would say that the middle ‘behind-the-scenes’ act had a palpable effect on Scott when he was designing and lighting Blade Runner.

So, there is both a visual and a thematic darkness here. There is a philosophical and artistic complexity far beyond my paltry skills to unravel … But that doesn’t matter because there is so much energy and jaw-dropping visual beauty, one is simply swept along to the story’s inevitable conclusion.

By setting his film in an other-worldly dream reality, The Trial remains timeless. Its politics and its humanity remain relevant. Its influence is considerable. It may just be Welles’ best film!

Picture:

Picture is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 High Definition black and white in the original theatrical ratio of 1.66:1.

The picture has great contrast, with a beautiful level of detail (I found myself looking at the detail in the pebble-dashing outside his apartment, for example … Mundane, I know … But quite extra-ordinary in a fifty-year-old film). The contrasty blacks and whites and the range of smooth greys between is very impressive for a film of this age.  Pops and scratches have been dealt-with very carefully so, if there are any, I didn’t notice them.  They seem to have used Digital Noise Reduction (DNR) here, which can smooth out a lot of these bumps, but can also give important details – like faces – a fake, waxy appearance. On the rare occasions I noticed this, I really didn’t mind because, in a film like this, where reality is a shifting and confusing thing, the additional artificiality just adds to the sense of something going wrong!

Sound

Similarly, the remastered English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track is very clear and clean. Only the opening music seems distorted and aged. Indeed, the sound is now so clear that limitations in the re-dubbed dialogue (Welles cast actors from all over Europe, with a wide range of accents, and had them re-voiced, even re-dubbed some of them himself) is all-too apparent. But, once again, for me that just adds to the dreamy, other-worldliness of the film.

Extras:

Welles, Kafka and The Trial (30 mins)

In French with English subs. Although it begins in a very generic Welles 101 style, once it gets into the interviews, this takes a typically Gallic approach to studying the film – exploring as much the personality of the director at work as it does the end-result film. But then those French cineastes, they do worship their ‘auteurs’. The interviewees do also seem to take considerable pride in the fact that this film was largely shot in Paris.

 Welles, Architect of Light (23 mins)

In French with English subs. This is an interview with the delightfully enthusiastic Edmond Richard, who was Welles’ Director of Photography all those years ago. Richard appears in the first documentary too, so some of these anecdotes are repeated, but he is still fascinating to listen to and watch and both documentaries combine to reveal a great deal about the ideas and techniques underlying Welles’ vision of Kafka’s world.

Tempo Profile: Orson Welles (30 mins)

A British TV documentary. This profile takes, as its centre-piece, a specially-conducted interview with Welles. He discusses the reality of his working life, as one of the world’s first truly independent film-makers (a condition in which pretty-much all film-makers find themselves today) and the bitter irony that he could only make money acting in other people’s films, and never profited from his own directorial efforts.

The simple fact is, if you get the chance to listen to Welles orate, you take that chance. A serious artist and a consummate entertainer, there are unfathomable depths of wisdom in his self-effacing delivery of the endless adventures of his extraordinary life.  “I’m only sorry there are so many of me and so few of you.”

For further viewing – Here he is on fine form on Parkinson:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VVlukLi32vs&feature=player_embedded

But the interview you really want to watch is the 1982 two-part Arena interview. It’ll save you several years of film school!  It surfaces on BBC Four fairly regularly. Here’s a taster:

Interview with Steven Berkoff (13 mins)

Berkoff is, in many ways, a similar character to Welles. The work he is most involved with is his directorial work – mostly on stage – Yet what he is best known for is his career-long parade of bad-guys in 80s Hollywood movies (such as Beverly Hills Cop, and Rambo II).  He also knows a lot about Kafka, and explains how the writer’s fears and paranoias led to his fiction and are represented in The Trial.

It’s wonderful here to see Berkoff as himself, rather than as some eye-rolling caricature. He even manages to get a few digs in there at the Hollywood movies that have (occasionally) paid his mortgage: “Some directors have the genius of putting their fingers right on the pulse of mediocrity.  Welles was not one of them.” Neither is Berkoff!

Deleted Scene (6 mins 40).

Presented in High Def.  Sadly, no audio exists for this scene which Welles cut at the last minute – So the dialogue is presented as subtitles taken from Welles’ script. It shows Perkins in the vast, cavernous office – running atop the desks (an extraordinary image in itself) and meeting a computer programmer who explains how her computer has everything within and makes unemotional judgments on him. Although this sequence deviates from the original novel (hence, probably, why it was cut) it certainly has resonance for us today in a world where we all recognise “Computer says no”.

Trailer in High Def.

This one:

There is also a booklet which was not included in my review copy – But it contains an essay by Welles scholar Jonathan Rosenbaum. If you feel thusly inclined, you can read more of Rosenbaum’s thoughtful journalism on his website here.

The Trial is available on Blu-ray now.