on 27 April 2012
If ever one could nominate a film-maker who could be characterised as being a colossus with feet of clay, it would probably be Orson Welles. With a talent for getting himself into trouble almost as great as his creative genius, he was the archetypal Nearly Man - a creator of undoubted genius, but always with a flaw somewhere in his work, or in his life; something not quite right which almost always stymied his best efforts somewhere along the line.
"The Trial", based on Kafka's novel of 1925, is a case in point. Like "Touch of Evil", made a few years earlier (in 1958 -"Trial" was made in 1962) it is almost brilliant... but not quite.
Anthony Perkins, the perfect Mr. Twitch, plays Joseph K, a lowly functionary in a faceless, unspecified bureaucracy. For no reason that neither we nor he ever learn, he is fingered for an unspecified crime. He spends the rest of the film trying to find out what the crime is, how he can put things right, and what is going to happen to him when it becomes clear that, like Winston Smith in "Nineteen Eighty-Four", he cannot put it right no matter what he does. His family, friends and acquaintances appear and disappear with perplexing evanescence, and things happen with a reasonless inexorability, as they do in dreams. In the end he is "disappeared", but his exit is accompanied by a hysterical laughter indicating that, perhaps, the victory is his after all. Or not, as the case may be... it's Kafka, after all (though there are, apparently - I haven't read the book yet - considerable differences between book and film).
As usual in a Welles film, the cinematography is breath-taking in its sheer audacity and lustrous beauty. Shot in stark black-and-white, it makes full use of the chiaoscuro afforded by the settings employed. Many of the exterior shots appear to have been done in Zagreb, and we see the cold, blocky architecture of post-war communist architecture in all its sere grandeur - usually at night, which accentuates the severity of the buildings and enhances the cold, alienating weltanschuung that the film projects throughout. Much of the interior, by contrast, is shot in a crumbling mess of rococco ruination, all rotting plaster and decayed cherubs held together by ugly steel stanchions and rusted scaffolding. In his desperate attempts to find a meaning to the nightmare into which he has slid, K is accompanied by a motley crew of erstwhile companions, betrayers and persecutors. Among these are his advocate Hastler (Welles himself), Hastler's mistress (Romy Schneider - once named as the worst actress in the world, though she acquits herself perfectly well here and, as a matter of fact, in everything else I've seen her in), a priest (Michael Lonsdale - probably best known as the French police inspector in "The Day of the Jackal") and, most memorable of all, Bloch, another hapless accusee awaiting a verdict that never comes (played by Akim Tamiroff, a Welles favourite and a cinematic master of sweaty apprehension and terrified servility).
So how is it flawed?
By two small but crucial solecisms, the peas under the mattress of an otherwise marvellous film. Perkins is great at being neurotic, but every now and then he becomes a little too assertive, a litle too 1950's loud-mouthed American, to suit the consistency of his role; for a moment we forget he is K and see something else, something which jarrs the atmosphere of the film and has no place in it.
Then there is Jazz. I am not opposed to Jazz, but here, as in "Touch of Evil", it is used in the soundtrack and, like the raucous American, is out of place, doing irreparable damage to the overall atmosphere, which would have been better served by Bartok, for instance, or even Schoenberg. No more than my opinion, of course, which you may not agree with.
This isn't to say you shouldn't watch it; au contraire, watch it and revell in its undoubted glories. It's a film which has cast a shadow down the years, a shadow which is visible every time you watch "Eraserhead" and "Brazil", or practically any other film which deals with dystopian societies and their irrational inhabitants. But for all that, much of its brilliance undoubtedly derives from happenstance. As usual, Welles was too strapped for cash to finance the film properly, which probably accounts for the night-shoots in Zagreb (and in the then-deserted railway station of Gare d'Orsay in Paris), and for the fact that he does the lip-synching for several of the characters himself, rather than pay the actors to do it. Sometimes necessity really is the mother of invention, and never more so than when you sit down to watch an Orson Welles film. And no bad thing. Try and imagine it in colour...