Posted by: ckckred | July 25, 2014

The Trial


…Say what you like, but The Trial is the best film I have ever made.

-Orson Welles

It’s well known that Orson Welles was exiled from Hollywood for a majority of his career, with much of his post-Citizen Kane work tampered and cut by studio heads. The Trial was an exception to this reckless studio intervention: backed by a group of European investors and filmed there in cities like Rome and Paris, The Trial has Welles purest vision since Kane. Based on Franz Kaftka’s novel, The Trial is less direct and domineering than Welles’ other pictures, instead taking a surreal and bleak journey, a theme among Kaftka’s work, questioning the meanings of justice.

Indeed, justice seems mangled at the start of The Trial, when Joseph K. (Anthony Perkins) wakes up to find a group of policemen in his room as well as three of his coworkers. They inform Joseph that he is under arrest but don’t supply him with his evident crime or even take him into custody. Bewildered by this cryptic situation, Joseph attempts to find a means to escape this wrongful accusation, including trying to find loopholes in the law, debating with family members, and working with Albert Hastler (Welles), a menacing lawyer who specializes in delaying trials.

The episodic nature of The Trial adds to the disorientation to the picture, further underscoring the nightmarish qualities. Though it is a rather faithful adaptation to Kaftka’s novel, Welles switched around the chapter listing of The Trial as well as slightly changing the ending. Welles’ change in subtext is done to put The Trial in a contemporary age to place Kaftka’s haunted story in a post-World War II era, thus becoming a metaphor for the Holocaust itself. The evocative locations of massive but desolate buildings certainly evoke the aura of 1930s Eastern Europe. Welles takes great use of the scenery to an even greater than what Carol Reed did in The Third Man; Joseph K. is often lost in an empty labyrinth or trapped in a faceless crowd, the latter particularly emphasized in a scene where Joseph witnesses thousands of his coworkers madly typing at their desk. Even Citizen Kane wasn’t as madly ambitious or large as The Trial.

The Trial is also symbolic of Orson Welles’ career and struggles. Much like in Touch of Evil where Welles’ corrupt cop reflects on his past failures, the filmmaker compares the dire situation of Joseph to that of himself. Like Joseph K., Welles faced exile but from Hollywood for reasons about as clear as for Joseph’s arrest. In a moment where one of Albert’s clients begs to him on his knees to keep him out of prison, Welles clearly puts his misery on screen.

The casting of Anthony Perkins is perhaps the film’s greatest strength. In fact, Joseph K. is a great counterpart to Norman Bates, the deranged motel clerk Perkins played in Psycho. Whereas Bates’ “mother” kills his sexual desires and fantasies Joseph K. is cold and distant to the women characters in The Trial. Joseph’s real pursuit his for his own freedom; everything else just seems to conflict with him. The gravitas and willing nature of Perkins’ performance, exemplified in a monologue he delivers in court, makes Joseph K. a role that perhaps even outshines Norman.

While Citizen Kane is, in my opinion, Welles’ magnum opus, The Trial may as well be the most personal picture the filmmaker has made. The Trial is an unfairly neglected masterpiece that deserves greater observation.


  1. Sounds like a fantastic movie. I hope I get to see it one day.

    • I highly recommend it. The Trial’s available on public domain so you can see it online.

  2. You are so right! Why isn’t ‘The Trial’ discussed more often? Very underrated film and certainly a top OW film. Anthony Perkins with his black eyes and hair and expressive face–a perfect pick. Awesome post.

    • Thanks! It is a great movie, one I hope to watch again. Perkins was really great, I can’t imagine someone else doing as well.

  3. A forgotten gem this one. What an ending too. Great review.

    • Thanks! The ending is really haunting, a bit different from the book but perfectly fits the film’s time.

  4. I need to revisit this movie…. I remember thinking it was pretty good but a bit too surreal and unfocused. There are a lot of haunting images though, I just can’t really remember how they connect! Nice review.

    • Thanks! I’d recommend watching it again, I felt the surreal nature helped add to the mysterious feel to the picture.

  5. Have to check this one out. When studying law one of the professors always said something was a Kafka like situation and never had an idea what he was taking about.

    • Can’t go wrong with some Kaftka. It’s available on public domain so you can watch it online.

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