Orson Welles famously claimed that his 1962 film, The Trial, an adaptation of Franz Kafka’s seminal novel, was the greatest film he had ever made. Whether or not this is true is certainly up for debate given the richness of Welles’ cinematic oeuvre, but The Trial is, in many ways, one of his purest visions; unlike the countless films he had produced after Citizen Kane, Welles retained control of The Trial during its conception, production, and post-production, and therefore it does not bear the fingerprint of studio tampering in the way that The Lady from Shanghai or Touch of Evil do. Furthermore, it is one of the purest statements of one of Welles' core thematic concerns: injustice.
Welles’ films repeatedly furnish portraits of individuals who abuse power through schemes and deception, from the bent lawyer in The Lady from Shanghai to the murderous Arkadin in Mr. Arkadin. But in Welles' other films, there remains some degree of counterpoint to corruption, some kind of force that challenges it. The Trial offers no such reprieve. “It has been said that the logic of this story is the logic of a dream,” Welles’ narration tells us at the opening of this film, and it is true. The Trial is a cinematic nightmare, a vision of a world where the legal system has been fractured on every level, where justice exists as an idea but not as reality.
At the center of The Trial is the nervous Joseph K. (played marvelously by Anthony Perkins), who finds himself accused of being a criminal, but is not given the slightest inkling of the nature of his crime. Despite attempts to discern his situation and plead his case, he finds himself thwarted at every turn, by uncaring neighbors, by his malevolent lawyers, by his inept prosecutors. Bereft of friends and bereft of hope, Joseph K. becomes increasingly desperate. In a world this hostile, death is the only escape.
Justice may be absent in The Trial, but the film nevertheless aches for it in its absence. Just as the lament for the death of a loved one affirms the value of life, so The Trial,, which recoils in horror at the vision of a world where corruption reigns, loves justice.
Here Welles takes the style he had developed in his previous films and takes it to greater lengths. If The Lady from Shanghai and Mr. Arkadin have an affection for the grotesque and the bizarre, then The Trial positively revels in it. Everywhere the world is disordered, dressed up in the imagery of post-World War II decay and ruin. The locations swing between extremes; the film moves from vast, overwhelming spaces to tight, claustrophobic chambers, while the cinematography highlights these uncomfortable spatial relationships. Further heightening the disorienting effect, dialogue spills out at great speed and volume, so that, like the film’s hopelessly befuddled protagonist, the viewer has to struggle to keep up.