Like the famously unfinished Franz Kafka novel on which it’s based, Orson Welles’ The Trial (1963) is less a straightforward narrative than a series of vignettes woven around a common theme. Though Kafka’s story has a definite beginning and end, it lacks a proper middle, offering instead obviously truncated chapters and digressive fragments which, since the author’s death in 1924, have been rearranged by scholars more than once. And though Welles, who wrote his own adaptation, has tinkered with the original text, an impressive amount of Kafka’s oblique and nightmarish vision has made it to the screen.
Despite the fact that Kafka wrote a wide range of short stories and parables, The Trial is usually what people have in mind when they use the adjective "Kafkaesque." It tells the story of Josef K., a young banker of promise if no particular distinction, who wakes up in his apartment one day to find two strange men there who have come to inform him that he is under arrest. No reason is given for the arrest – he is never held in custody and there is no actual trial. Instead he finds himself entangled in a mysterious legal process where everything is preliminary and nothing progresses. The story is both farcical, in its depiction of a vast bureaucracy whose existence depends on it not getting anything done, and tragic, as Josef K.’s original courage and rebellion are whittled down to resignation and despair.
Welles’ Josef K. (anglicized to Joseph) is Anthony Perkins, perfectly furtive even when he’s trying to be assertive – he’s obviously done something wrong, but then who hasn’t? – and boyishly passive during a series of encounters with sinisterly seductive women. Welles himself plays Perkins’ lawyer, too much a part of the game to be helpful, and the great Akim Tamiroff (so memorable in 1958 as Joe Grandi in Welles’ Touch of Evil) is the wretched Block, enthralled by his own pretrial agonies.
For years The Trial has only been available in an edited, pan-and-scan version and its present restoration should help enhance its somewhat tattered reputation. It’s still choppy, but then so is the novel. Visually, Welles introduces spaciousness into Kafka’s claustrophobic world, but it’s ominous space, a gregarious person’s vision of alienation. The expected arabesque touches are both self-indulgent and effective, and there are passages here as fine as anything Welles ever put on film. Like Touch of Evil, it’s a bit of a mess, but a beautiful one.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].