With his latest motion picture, Orson Welles resumes his old position as one of the finest filmmakers at work anywhere in the world. The Trial is not a great movie, but it is a very, very good movie, but it is a very, very good one. It suffers by comparison with the classic Citizen Kane, Welles' best picture and possibly the greatest feature-length movie ever made. But that comparison, though inevitable, is not completely fair. Certainly The Trial can stand with any one of the other "quality" films of recent years.
The overwhelming fact about The Trial is that it is magnificently directed, and the quality of Welles' direction is high enough to offset many of the weaknesses of the film. Had the casting, the writing, and the acting been as good, The Trial might have been a great movie; as it is, it is one which should not be missed.
Welles has chosen to treat Kafka's novel quite differently from the way Kafka himself might have adapted it for the screen. Kafka wrote about the individual: his private despair, and his search for himself and a place in the world. Welles' version contains much more social criticism. For Kafka the impenetrable bureaucracy of the Lay Court and the unnamable guilt of the main character, Joseph K., are symbols of the helplessness of the individual soul. For Welles they are social references meant to be interpreted almost literally. In the book, Joseph K. dies stabbed through the heart, with the faces of his executioners fatly pressing close to his; in the film, he is dymamited to death, and the mushroom cloud which rises from the blast clearly symbolizes not the pain of the soul, but the collective end of mankind.
To make his point, and incidentally to make a motion picture which will hold the attention of his audience, Welles departs somewhat from the imagery of the book. Kafka created an atmosphere of horror by contrasting the strangeness of what happens to Joseph K. with the ordinariness of his surroundings, the matter-of-fact way all the characters, even K. himself, accept the fact that K. has been arrested but not charged. Welles creates an eerie world by changing the world itself, instead of relying solely on manipulating people and events. He uses the tools of his medium--sets, lighting, the motion of the camera--in his attempt to convey concretey, visually, more or less what Kafka conveyed on the printed page.
The film is carried along by Welles' directing and Roger Corbeau's sets. The Trial manages to capture the bleak coloressness of Kafka's world: there is not a single tree in the movie; all the windows are frosted or look out on nothing; one gets the impression that even if the film had been shot in color, everything would still be gray and white. The camera seems to go beyond seeing: it touches, it breathes the dark air. Welles creates drama and visual beauty with the camera by moving it expertly. The sets are superb, from the defense lawyers cluttered, echoing house to K.'s office, a thousand identical typists under a high roof, with darkness showing through the open walls. There is thoroughly appropriate, unobtrusive music by Jean Ledhut.
It is astounding the Welles had the lack of judgement to cast Anthony Perkins as Joseph K. Perkins is too boyish and nervous for the role. As the film progresses, he gets more and more hysterical, instead of becoming more and more deeply involved in his case. Jeanne Moreau handles the tiny role of Mile. Burstner very well; her part could have been expanded to the film's advantage. Welles himself plays Joseph K.'s lawyer; he is not outstanding. The best performances in the picture are turned in by Romy Schneider and especially Akim Tamiroff. Miss Schneider portrays Leni, the lawyer's nurse who is attracted to accused men, with the right mixture of naivete and depravity. Tamiroff, as Antonius Bloch, an accused tradesman, is letter-perfect; he seems to be the only member of the cast who has fully comprehended his role.
The Trial has weakness, but they are far outweighed by the film's strengths. It is a memorable visual and intellectual experience.