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The Trial


‘…deliberately uncomfortable by design…leans far closer to a unheralded masterpiece than a commercial disaster…’

The magic that Orson Welles created with his robust 1958 thriller Touch of Evil suggested that all he needed was a bit of freedom and funding and the classics would just roll out of him; 1962’s The Trial proved that theory wrong. Adapting Franz Kafka’s novel was a bold, headstrong movie from the auteur, but critics were divided while audiences stayed away. The film subsequently fell into disrepute and disrepair, but this welcome new blu-ray from Studio Canal gives audiences another chance to assess the considerable merits of Welles’ highly idiosyncratic take on Kafka.

For a start, The Trial looks very modern; Welles used real locations in Zagreb and Paris, including the Gare d’Orsay in Paris, and the evocation of Josef K’s world of cramped corridors and acres of office-space is remarkable in HD. Welles also nails his casting; we need to feel that Josef K may or may not be hiding something and Anthony Perkins, red hot from Psycho, was an ideal choice, not just because he’s a twitchy, nervous type, but because Perkins was not living at a time when he felt he could declare his sexuality publicly, and Welles played on that here. Much like the casting of Rock Hudson in John Frankenheimer’s Seconds, it’s a deliberate crossing of wires between public and private lives that makes The Trial feel deliberately uncomfortable by design.

The story, correctly for Kafka’s deconstructive prurposes, isn’t much of a story; Josef K is accused of something, but no-one will tell him exactly what. He’s to be put on trial, or maybe he’s already on trial; no-one seems able to explain. Josef goes from denial to defiance, to anxiety, to panic, to acceptance, then back to rebellion, but we never get a grip on what his crime might be. If all this sounds dry or downbeat, a trio of amazing actresses sweeten the sour, nightmarish proceedings; Elsa Martinelli, Jeanne Moreau and Romy Scheider are a hard-to-beat combo of sirens, and their air of exotic desirability is only accentuated by Perkins’ surreal lack of chemistry with each of them.

Welles also has some other fish to fry, not least an extended cameo as a sinister judge in a role intended for Jackie Gleason, but also some fresh reflection of them new fangled computers, a new element in 1962. ‘Computers can get you the answer to everything’ one character explains, but the advent of these electronic brains only add to Josef’s discomfort. ‘To be in chains is sometimes safer than being free’ is another sample of sage, practically-minded advice, but if ‘guilt is assumed to be proved’ by the state, then we’re in an era of historically craven McCarthyism, whether Joe or Kevin, where ‘lying turns into a universal principle’ for political expediency.

The Trial was an early production for Superman producer Alexander Salkind, and its easy to see why he was attracted to more commercial projects after this bleak entry, which leaves you feeling, much like the characters, ‘bandy legged…smashed like a cockroach.’ Meanwhile the urchins in the street don’t offer much resistance; a character nastily threatens these ‘“dirty-minded little pussies” with an ice–pick. You can’t blame audiences circa 1962 for finding all this a bit confusing, but that raw, unpleasant, confounding feel is very much Welles’ intention, and subsequent opinion on the film is that it leans far closer to a unheralded masterpiece than a commercial disaster.


THE TRIAL is released on 4K UHD, Blu-ray, DVD and Digital from 21st November 2022 and is available HERE

The restoration was completed by STUDIOCANAL and la Cinémathèque française and made possible thanks to the support of CHANEL.



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  1. I saw this at some point, probably a Welles retrospective though not at the wonderful Everyman. I thought it worked pretty well. Kafka does all the work, you’ve just got to follow the guidelines and my impression was Welles didn’t try to be too flashy and pretty much nailed it.

    • Yes, adaptation was something Welles was remarkably good at, and as you say, Kafka does the heavy lifting here.

      • Not sure he ever gave a bad performance. Self-indulgent maybe but never boring. And if he had gone onto the heights his talent suggested think of all the cameos in lesser films that we would have missed out on.

        • The Muppet Movie and the Transformers cartoon. His name still meant something. But Necromancy was never my jam.

  2. I remember seeing this in the early 1970s, at the Everyman in Hampstead I think (when it was a great repertory cinema). I watched it again in 2014 because Richard Ayoade had given a copy to Jesse Eisenberg to prepare for The Double (I was working on a schools screening of The Double). As a young person I really took to Kafka and I enjoyed The Trial as a film. It’s essentially a European film with a largely French crew, a couple of whom also worked with Welles on Chimes at Midnight. Given the stunning photography, it’s interesting that it was Edmond Richard’s first credit. He would go on to shoot three of the last films for Luis Bunuel in France. The cast were also mostly European for what was a French-Italian-West German production. It’s a great film and I’m glad to see a Blu-ray of the restored version has been released.

    • Edmond Richard has an illuminating twenty minute spot on the blu-ray, recorded about 2006, I think. I managed to read Kafka as a teen, and felt I got it, but I did find this film hard going at the time I saw it, BBC 2 Sunday night in the 80’s. The photography is absolutely amazing when seen in blu-ray, and there’s also an hour long doc about Welles, which I enjoyed enough to write a seperate review of, I’ll post that later in the week. While I’ll never love this film, I can see why Welles feels that its his best; it does what it’s intended to do with great success.

  3. I read both this and the Metamorphosis and high school and dug them. But I would’ve thought them both unfilmable – sounds like this had mixed results.

    I’ll save this one for my next existential crisis….

  4. Kafka has a limited appeal as a writer, so why did Wells think his stuff would do any better on the screen?
    I guess this is why I’m not a famous movie director 😉

  5. As usual, a work of genius banging up against the limits of the form. Didn’t think Welles was right in the part he played though. Gleason might have been interesting. I think a longer scene about computers was cut. Not for everyone, but neither is Kafka.

    Zagreb. Publicly.

    • Welles was better as Optimus Prime in Transformers, so when he got his hands on a real classic, he showed he could do it when he tried.

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