Plot Synopsis by Hal Erickson
Much of Orson Welles’ latter-day reputation as an “unfathomable” genius rests upon his seeming unwillingness to tell a story in clear, precise fashion. Sometimes, as in such films as Touch of Evil, Welles’ spotty storytelling skills can be forgiven in the light of the excellent visuals. In other cases, as in his 1962 adaptation of Kafka’s The Trial, Welles’style comes across as empty virtuosity, precious and petulant when it should be profound. Anthony Perkins plays Joseph K, a man condemned for an unnamed crime in an unnamed country. Seeking justice, Joseph K is sucked into a labyrinth of bureaucracy (Welles once described the character as being a “little bureaucrat” himself, who deserves to be punished. This is never clearly expressed in the finished film). Along the way, he becomes involved with three women — Jeanne Moreau, Romy Schneider, Elsa Martinelli — who in their own individual ways are functions of the System that persecutes him.
While Welles considered The Trial one of his finest films, this enthusiasm is not universally shared; even his most fervent admirers have been known to emerge from a screening of the film with quizzical, disappointed expressions on their faces. On the plus side, Welles and his cinematographer Edmond Richard perform miracles in transforming an abandoned French railway station into the headquarters of a totalitarian, red tape-ridden society. It’s also fun to hear Welles’ voice emanating from several of the supporting characters (his post-dubbing budget was nil). All in all, however, The Trial never truly works; it is unfair, however, to lay the blame for this entirely on Welles, inasmuch as the 1948 and 1994 attempts to cinematize the original Kafka novel likewise came a cropper.