The Trial (1962, Orson Welles)

Given how much writer, director, and special guest star Welles cares about performances—not only does he dub over one of the other actors, he steals a juicy monologue from Michael Lonsdale—one would think he’d have seen the problem with star Anthony Perkins. Because everyone’s looping their dialogue in The Trial, Perkins gave this performance at least twice. But probably more. And it never works.

There are contexts where Perkins’s performance could work. Had Welles turned the film into a Fox melodrama, a la Peyton Place, with aw-shucks Perkins discovering the realities of the American legal system, it might’ve worked. Not sure how all the ladies throwing themselves at Perkins would work then, though. It might’ve just been easier to get a different lead.

Perkins plays the part like he’s Jimmy Stewart gone to Washington; only Welles’s adaptation of the source novel doesn’t let time progress or characters develop. I had to check and see if the end’s the same as in the novel (it’s not, Welles made a very, very bad choice), and it also turns out the novel takes place exactly over a year. The movie takes place over a… week? Two? There’s some suggestion of time passing late in the second act. Still, since Perkins is an erratic, obnoxious American in some vaguely Eastern European city, he could also just be an entitled, impatient asshole.

Welles breaks out the film as a series of vignettes, which is nice because it helps compartmentalize the more and less successful scenes. Even with Perkins Mayberrying his way through the film, Welles is fully committed to the adaptation and busts ass. In addition to Perkins, Welles also has to contend with wanting cinematography from Edmond Richard. Richard’s lighting is so universally flat and bland, so ignorant of shadow, it gives the impression there wasn’t time or money for anything better. They’ve got the nifty sets—Jean Mandaroux doing the art direction—and Welles has all sorts of neat shots, but there’s no personality.

It’s so flat it’d be better in color. At least there’d be some insight into what the characters are experiencing in their nightmare world. We see them, but we never see how they see one another. It might also explain why every woman in the movie throws herself at Anthony Perkins, ranging from his widowed landlady (Madeleine Robinson) to a couple dozen tweenage girls. In between, he romances Jeanne Moreau and Romy Schneider the most seriously.

Actually, wait, there’s also Elsa Martinelli. I lost count.

Perkins isn’t surprised at being irresistible, either. It’s apparently the norm for him, which suggests a far more lurid prequel, which Welles might’ve enjoyed directing. He tries his damndest to make Perkins and Schneider’s romantic interlude play like an exaggeratedly overt Hollywood melodrama. It’s never sexy because the women all have ulterior motives, and Perkins knows it and plans on bedding and abandoning them.

While Perkins disappoints, the rest of the cast is mostly excellent. Moreau, Schneider, and Akim Tamiroff are the standouts. Welles’s extended cameo is just okay. He under-directs himself.

The Trial’s fascinating. It’s long, it’s repetitive, it’s confounding, but it is fascinating as well. The use of music is outstanding; Jean Ledrut composed. The editing’s okay—better than the cinematography—but the cutting sometimes overcompensates for Welles not being able to do something because of budget.

Then there’s the ending. Of course, Welles had his reasons for changing the novel’s ending, but if he was going to do something so silly, why didn’t he end it at Stonehenge (where the demons dwell)?

But then, thanks to Welles being Welles, the film pulls up just a bit through the end credits—narrated by Welles—for a better landing. He just needed to remind everyone he’s Orson Welles, and he made this picture.


3 Comments

  1. amycondit

    Thanks for your post! I’ve never seen The Trial, and am interested in watching it finally to see what Welles does with it. He’s a favorite of mine, and I’m going to read the references to the film in Bogdanovich’s “This is Orson Welles” before viewing. Appreciate your thoughts on it!

  2. Brian Schuck

    Welles labored in the wilderness for so long, always scrambling for financing and never quite having the resources to fulfill his visions, but always persisting nonetheless. Your review is spot-on. Tony Perkins is an odd choice in an odd little film, and in spots the photography looks like it was shot by freshmen film students for a class project. The choice of Kafka is self-defeating in the first place — his works are exceedingly hard to translate to film.

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