I don’t think I’m breaking new ground by declaring Orson Welles one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. And if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t like ranking artists, well, hopefully you can at least acknowledge the incredible influence the man has had over cinema and the empirical quality inherent in his body of work*. In particular, the films he directed, including ‘Citizen Kane,’ ‘The Magnificent Ambersons,’ and ‘Touch of Evil,’ continue to be remembered fondly well over half a century after they were first released, with many considering them to be among the finest films ever made. But every auteur, good or bad, has his or her black sheep; Steven Spielberg has ‘1942’ and ‘The Lost World,’ Francis Coppola had ‘Jack,’ George Lucas has his ‘Star Wars’ prequels, and Mr. Welles has ‘The Trial,’ a genuinely polarizing movie that really makes us ask ourselves what we expect out of the celluloid medium.
Before continuing, I should note that ‘The Trial,’ was based on a Franz Kafka novel, ‘Der Process,’ and that does raise the question of how much of the film is a result of the author and how much is the result of Welles himself. From what I’ve gathered on the Internet, while Kafka was responsible for the original story, there are enough changes in the plot in Welles’ film version and enough distinctions between books and cinema as a whole for me to–for the sake of this review– refer to the movie-version of ‘The Trial’ as Welles’ vision and not Kafka’s**.
‘The Trial’ opens with a bizarre parable about law, narrated by Welles, while strange illustrations appear on screen. The story presented in this parable is rather confusing; a point Welles seems to reinforce by stating that its inner logic is that of a dream or nightmare. This appears to set the pace for the rest of the movie, as, on narrative level, ‘The Trial,’ functions only, it seems, on a surreal, dream-like plane.
Ostensibly, the film deals with a man, Joseph K. (played by Anthony Perkins) being accused of an unknown crime and getting pulled into an Orwellian world of tyranny and bureaucracy. That much is easily understood, but to try to layout the plot beyond that would be assuredly tedious and wholly ineffective. Simply put, ‘The Trial,’ has no conventional narrative structure to speak of. One strange event after another happens, with no real sense of flow or ordinary storytelling; characters are introduced in seemingly significant ways only to be forgotten and replaced by other characters who are also subsequently forgotten; weirdest of all is the handling of the protagonist Joseph K. The first thing that might stand out to you as odd is the wholly unnatural way his dialogue feels (it has a weird pre-rehearsed meta-awareness to it that probably works better in writing than spoken); but more significantly, he goes through a character arc that is optimistically disjoint and pessimistically non-existent (his story has no real climax; and the ending makes very little sense, even when considering the plot it has to conclude).
This is a kind of story you can’t exactly take at face value; and it’s this aspect of ‘The Trial,’ that really separates it from other Welles films and other films in general. There’s a lot going on, layer-wise, in ‘Citizen Kane,’ for example, but if you so choose you can ignore most of that and instead just focus on the literal story being conveyed on screen: the rise and fall of one man. You can do this same sort of thing with ‘The Magnificent Ambersons,’ and ‘Touch of Evil,’ too. And of course, in general, you can do this with most films, even ones with big themes or deeper meanings: you are fully allowed to disregard all but the surface plot.
But good luck trying to do that with ‘The Trial.’ The literal story conveyed here is quite impenetrable and arguably somewhat incoherent. You can’t just focus on it and expect to really “get it”. You have no choice but to dig deeper to find something. I should note that, as much as I like the idea of having to work a little harder to get something out of a movie, I think it typically spells trouble if you can’t follow it on a basic level. And for most other films that exhibit this kind of narrative problem, I would really hold the film quite accountable for it, and it would put my ability to like the film in serious question.
But, surprisingly, under ‘The Trial’s expressed dream logic, this “problem” actually starts to make some sense. If one imagines ‘The Trial,’ as a slightly more coherent nightmare, then all of the quirks of its story suddenly become forgivable. The lack of conventional rhythm and standard pacing between moments, the introduction and loss of different characters, and the lack of normal protagonist beats for Joseph K, would all feel right at home in a genuine dream, and given that Welles more or less declared this reference point for his film at the beginning, I’ll except it on those grounds. I’ll even go as far as to say that I think this type of narrative, a cinematic stream of consciousness if you will, is a worthwhile addition to the medium as a whole, even if its use could only be occasional.
“But isn’t that giving the film a pass?” you might ask. “If you’re not going to hold a particular film accountable for a lack of sound story telling–probably its most essential trait– why should you criticize any film for not having it?”
I have a two pronged answer to that: the first and most important reason for accepting the strange plot presented in ‘The Trial,’ is a genuine confidence in Orson Welles’ skill as a filmmaker. This may come across as blind hero-worship, but I really believe that, as a rule, no aspect of the films he directed occurred as an accident. Everything was planned for, overseen, and executed on Welles’ volition, and as such I don’t view the disparate narrative in ‘The Trial,’ as some one-time failure where he tried to bring a more normally structured story to the silver screen and it blew up in his face. Rather, I view this move as quite intentional: one designed to challenge our expectations in cinema; forcing us to question whether we have gotten so used to traditional film narrative and plotting at large that we won’t accept or even understand any other type of story.
It’s certainly not as though what plot we see is horrible or inconsequential. It has no normal flow to it but at least doesn’t drag; and it is dealing with pretty significant themes–the abuse of the legal system, the tyranny made possible in a post-Industrialized world, self-sabotage and self-destruction, alienation, the confusion of sexuality in the modern age (Joseph K. has physical relationships with three different women in the film, and the movie touches on other sexual subjects, such as rape, prostitution, pornography, and homosexuality). Indeed, there are worthwhile discussion points here, the movie just doesn’t deliver any of that with traditional story beats; and I think Welles was intentionally trying to force us to consider whether or not it’s possible (and if so, under what circumstances) to glean ideas from and to appreciate a narrative even if its framework is so atypical and seemingly non-cathartic. Whether you want to argue that he was successful in this endeavor, or if more filmmakers should attempt it, is up to you, but I don’t fault Welles for trying this.
The other reason I can allow for the unusual story in ‘The Trial,’ is because there are enough other aspects outside of the plot that I appreciate such that, even if I really did hate the narrative–and I don’t–I still couldn’t declare it a truly bad film. For one, Welles did a really amazing job with the production design on this movie. He creates a world that feels consumatly nightmarish: barren landscapes; impossibly large, disturbingly rundown buildings; and a decrepit population that swings between extremes, sometimes appearing overwhelming large, sometimes amazingly sparse. It creates a genuinely melancholy vibe for the film. Concomitantly, Welles shows us this bleak reality with some of the best camera work of his career. There are a number of striking shots in the film that add quite a bit to the ambience in the story. In particular, some of the handheld camera work he employs really goes a long way of selling the disorientation and isolation that permeates the story. Even if the film’s narrative fails for some people, it’s still a real treat to watch.
Oh, and the music is pretty adequate in the film as well, although it seems to be taken from some public domain source rather than having been written specifically for the movie.
I also really liked Anthony Perkins in the leading role; his character is very weird and the dialogue is what it is, but he really sells it well, and you can absolutely feel the earnestness in his performance. It does a lot to remind us that, in terms of film roles, he was good for more than murdering psychopaths obsessed with their mothers. It’s entertaining to watch him work with the material he’s given here.
Therefore, I can’t say that the film is bad, or even that it doesn’t work, even if its narrative is, in a traditional sense, a real mess to grapple with. No, I like this movie, but I also can’t recommend it to everyone. I don’t mean that in an elitist way, I just mean that, if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t spend your days contemplating the plots of films you may be better off checking out ‘Citizen Kane,’ rather than this if you want to see an Orson Welles picture.
But if you are the type who wants to have a film truly shake your foundations of cinema, well, there are few movies that will do that quite the way this one does. And for what it’s worth, while it really was divisive at the time of its release (and still, to some extent, to this day) it is growing in admiration from people. So, clearly it is having an effect on people. Maybe it will on you too.
And if not, there’s always ‘Citizen Kane.’
*1986’s ‘The Transformers: The Movie’ doesn’t count for obvious reasons.
**Admittedly some of the film’s bleakness is probably attributable to Kafka.