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Laramie Movie Scope:
The Trial (Le Procès)

A surrealistic, existential nightmare

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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April 25, 2001 -- "The Trial," directed by, and starring, the legendary Orson Welles, is one of those films once almost lost in the mists of time, but it is still around. I happened to come across a VHS tape of this 1963 classic recently. I checked the net and it is available both on VHS and DVD (more on that below).

I knew nothing of the story on which the film is based, but after watching the film a few minutes it was pretty easy to guess it was based on the writings of Franz Kafka. After all, the main character's name is Joseph K. (played by Anthony Perkins), and the story is the very essence of existentialism. This dreary philosophy, which grew out of the early years of the 20th Century, made much of the hopelessness of the human condition. It was all the rage in the 1950s and 1960s. I wouldn't be surprised if it is making a comeback now with the ever-increasing speed of technological change, governments and other institutions which are increasingly insulated from and antithetical to the people they are supposed to serve and the increasing evidence of widespread environmental damage to the earth.

Orson Welles considered this his greatest film, and that's saying a lot from the director of "Citizen Kane," generally regarded as the greatest film of all time. If that wasn't it, then Welles' "Touch of Evil" was, according to some critics. The most striking thing about this film is the great set design. Art direction for the film was by Jean Mandaroux ("The Wild Child"). Most of the sets were constructed inside a huge, abandoned railway station in Paris, the Gare d'Orsay. Reportedly, Welles wanted even more elaborate sets, but couldn't afford them. The sets are wonderful, nonetheless, huge rooms which seem to shrink the individual to nothing. There are also tight, labyrinthine passageways. There is even a computer shown in the film, I bet that wasn't in Kafka's novel.

Another striking thing about this film is the acting ability of the under appreciated Anthony Perkins. He starred in this film just a few years after his landmark role as Norman Bates in "Psycho." The interesting thing about his performance is that he doesn't play a cowering victim, but a defiant, querulous man struggling against a faceless bureaucracy. He's at the center of this film, in almost every shot, and he's fascinating to watch. You never know how he's going to react to the situations he finds himself in. According to some reports, Perkins' performance was picked apart by the critics of the day, who generally panned the film. I think Perkins gives an outstanding performance in this film. He's the glue that holds it all together.

Orson Welles is equally masterful in his performance as Albert Hassler, a lawyer who is a master of manipulation and obfuscation. Akim Tamiroff of "Touch of Evil" also shines as Bloch, a client of the lawyer who is trapped inside a humiliating system of legal dead-ends, but thinks he's doing just fine. Romy Schneider of "What's New Pussycat?") plays Leni, who, along with Jeanne Moreau of "The 400 Blows" as Miss Burstner are enigmatic lusty women on the prowl for the ever-vulnerable Joseph K. Arnoldo Foà of "Barabbas" also turns in a nice performance as a police inspector.

The film's greatest achievement overall is that it pulls us into a story that is just like a nightmare. It does this better than any film I have seen. There is a nightmarish sense of frustration. Although Joseph K. seems to get close at times, he's never able to get any answers that make sense. He's never able to face his accusers or even find out what crime he is charged with. He is a hero beset on all sides by cowards. As in a nightmare, logic and reason are useless. Joseph K. only has two choices. He can buy into the game and accept blame, or he can refuse to go along with the game and be defiant. Regardless of the choice, there is no winning the game. That is the very essence of a nightmare.

Whether or not one considers this story a farce or a tragedy depends mainly on whether or not one wants to play the existentialist's game. The game can be viewed as one based on a sour attitude combined with an acceptance of the unprovable notion of determinism. Terry Gilliam has explored these same themes very skillfully in films like "Brazil" and "The Fisher King." To see how this works in the real world, see the film "Hurricane," based on a true story. In it, Reuben Carter helps free himself from prison using the force of his own will and intellect. Whether or not one wants to play the game of existentialism, there are certainly times in anyone's life when you feel like that game is being played on you, when circumstances conspire to bring you down. "The Trial" is an excellent example of how that kind of situation feels. While the film is visually impressive and it has an interesting story, it is slow-moving and not very compelling. Maybe the film is so existential, it induces ennui. It rates a B.

The videotape I watched was an old, used "Video Treasures" VHS tape. It had a bad soundtrack and did not have the wide screen format of some later video releases, some of which are reportedly taken from a pristine 35 millimenter print found in 1995. If you intend to buy a tape or DVD of this film, you should get the widescreen edition, although it will cost you more than the so-called "full screen" version I saw. DVD is best for home viewing of any video, particularly this one. Reportedly, Welles uses "deep focus" techniques similar to those he used in "Citizen Kane" and film noir techniques he used in "Touch of Evil." The film won't look the same with the edges chopped off. I couldn't even see the edges of the credits on the video I watched.

Click here for links to places to buy this movie in VHS and/or DVD format, the soundtrack, books, even used videos, games and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2001 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)