Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Director Spotlight #14.10: Orson Welles' The Trial

Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. This edition’s director is the great cinematic magician Orson Welles.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.

Grade: 90/A-

Quick, what’s Orson Welles’ best film? Chances are that unless you’re a huge contrarian, you answered Citizen Kane. But Welles, for his part, didn’t select Kane as his finest achievement. When asked, Welles insisted that his 1962 adaptation of Franz Kafka’s The Trial was his greatest achievement (alongside Chimes at Midnight). As with many Welles projects, the film saw production problems after producer Alexander Salkind had trouble coming up with the funds he promised Welles. Unlike many other Welles films, however, The Trial was released as the director intended, although it proved polarizing among cinephiles and Kafka fans. The film is not, as Welles claimed, his finest work, but it is one of his greatest, and one of the most revealing films about its creator.

Office worker Josef K. (Anthony Perkins) is awakened one morning by a pair of police officers, who inform him that he is under arrest but refuse to tell him the charge. K. argues with the officers and, later, with the court, but he finds no answers and no sympathizers. K.’s uncle advises him to hire Hastler (Welles), a law advocate, but the man is no more helpful than anyone else, and an old client (Akim Tamiroff) suggests that K. may wait for a very long time before finding justice.

Let’s get this out of the way: the only real flaw the film has, not inconsiderable, is the poor sound, which often makes the dialogue difficult to hear and softens the impact of certain scenes. But Welles more than makes up for it with the imagery on display: when Salkind couldn’t find the cash to construct sets in the studio, Welles shot most of the film in the Gare D’Orsay in Paris, then abandoned. The setting brings a creepy feeling of a crumbling society that’s nonetheless still towering over the people, present but unable to help them. The setting also gives Welles the chance to indulge for his taste in the baroque- low or skewed angles, long takes, and eerie high-contrast lighting all build to give a feeling of a world where something is amiss.

It’s the perfect feeling for the film, at once one of Welles’ most darkly funny and easily his most nightmarish. An early shot that recalls King Vidor’s The Crowd in its portrayal of corporate drudgery and hopelessness, but there’s also something hilarious about ta scene where K. tries in vain to assist a woman with a heavy trunk (“if you’ll just take the cake!”). A violent beating of K.’s co-workers is deeply disturbing at one moment (the light swings back and forth as a whip comes down) and darkly funny in the next (one co-worker puts tape over his mouth and promises to keep quiet). And it’s hard not to laugh at the comic hopelessness of K. butting heads with the police officers in the opening scene, as the officers twist or misunderstand K.’s words to the point of confusing K. and making him say strange things, such as calling a record player a “pornographic player”.

Anthony Perkins’ casting is controversial in some quarters, as some found his performance inconsistent with their conception of Josef K., but he’s absolutely perfect here. His lanky form makes him both vulnerable and slightly off, and as he proved in Psycho, Perkins has a great ability to veer back and forth between affability and bitchiness. Welles may have had something else in mind when casting Perkins as well- though he eventually married, Perkins was noted as being extremely shy around women (he turned down Jane Fonda and Brigitte Bardot, for Christ’s sake), and was more famous for his relationships with men (he eventually died from complications of AIDS). According to Henry Jaglom and Roger Ebert, Welles knew Perkins was gay, and he uses that to great effect in the film. K. meets several women throughout the film, and while he shows great sympathy for most of them, he resists their advances. An excellent Romy Schneider as Hastler’s nurse has trouble with a  clearly nervous K., and even when K. kisses Jeanne Moreau’s Marika, it seems more out of compassion than romance. This is not to suggest that K.’s possible homosexuality is the reason for persecution, which is purposefully ambiguous, but it adds a layer of realistic tension to the proceedings.

Welles himself likely related to the feelings of persecution- Hollywood never quite forgave him for making strange, idiosyncratic films, and his being labeled as “Crazy Welles” in some circles no doubt stung. A kangaroo court session shows K. standing before a jeering, laughing crowd eager to clap for his misfortune.  Welles had to put up with men cheering for his failure. If K. wants defense, he must beg the likes of Hastler and other odious men for advocacy. Welles had to beg for funding, and often didn’t find it even when he did. K. is an exasperated man in the face of a cruel world, as was Welles, and no amount of protection, be it legal or religious, can help him. This is not to say that Welles or K. are purely victims- the fact that Welles and Perkins are willing to make K. look like a prick half of the time speaks volumes to their clearheadedness- but no doubt Welles related to a man who didn’t understand just why so much of society hated him.

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