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Category:    Home > Reviews > Drama > Existentialism > Literature > Police State > Surrealism > The Trial (1962/Orson Welles/Criterion 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray)

The Trial (1962/Orson Welles/Criterion 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray)

4K Ultra HD Picture: B+ Picture (1080p Blu-ray): B Sound: B+ Extras: B+ Film: A

I have a bit of an obsession with directors who find their groove and tear off a sustained sequence of absolute, unimpeachable cinema art. Francis Ford Coppola is - and probably always will be - at the top of this list: The Godfather (1972), The Conversation (1974), The Godfather Part II (1974), and Apocalypse Now (1979); it's an inconceivably commanding, epic run of work. An argument could be made for Stanley Kubrick at second place: Dr. Strangelove (1964), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), A Clockwork Orange (1971). (Maybe tack on Barry Lyndon (1975)?) Martin Scorsese makes a strong case too - Raging Bull (1980), The King of Comedy (1982), After Hours (1985) - except that the latter two are still cult, not mainstream, classics. Steven Spielberg never had more than two back-to-back triumphs. Ditto Alfred Hitchcock and Billy Wilder and John Ford and David Lynch. And on it goes.

An unexpected challenger entered this conversation late in 2023. Orson Welles' career is one defined by studio interference, backbreaking budget constraints, and generally unrealized potential. But as the years go on and cinema catches up with his genius, more of his work is salvaged and reappraised. For decades, it seemed like the one-two of Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), even in its butchered form, represented Welles at something of a peak, with flashes of the old fire dotting the rest of his career: A Lady from Shanghai here, a Chimes at Midnight there.

The Trial (1962), Welles' oft-maligned adaptation of Franz Kafka's novel, was never one of those flashes; more like a gust of wind that snuffed out the light. Previously available in terrible presentations marked by muddled soundtracks and muddy visuals - when it could be seen at all - it rarely reared its head in the conversation about Welles' filmmaking. Indeed, even when Welles was alive, his most ardent champion, Peter Bogdanovich, wrote it off as something like worthless. Bogdanovich eventually came around after Welles urged him to see it again (with Welles seated next to him), and Welles himself often spoke about how the making of the film was his most joyous experience as a filmmaker.

The rest of us finally had a chance at a reawakening when a beautiful digital 4K restoration of The Trial was released theatrically and then on disc by the Criterion Collection. Suddenly here was this compelling, unnerving, baroque noir that smashed together modernism and classicism and post-war Europe and Cold War absurdity. Like Kafka, and the inane culture that has made him prophetic, the film is dark and smudgy and dangerous and hilarious and utterly contemporary.

There's Josef K (Anthony Perkins), a middle-manager in his minimalist Soviet-style apartment, believing he's destined to bigger things when he's accused by some nameless person of some nameless crime and so is forced to defend himself in some faceless system in front of a faceless mob that moves in the ruins of an old world destroyed by a long-ago war. There's the Advocate (Welles), an agent of this bonkers system, who may or may not be able to help - everything's a riddle to nowhere - and his sexy nurse/lover Leni (Romy Schneider), who steals off with K for some extracurriculars in the thoroughly ruined antechambers of the Advocate's lair. There's the court artist (which court - the legal court, or a regal one?) Titorelli (William Chappell), a Pop-inspired celebrity, based on the number of young girls vying for his attention through the slats in his walls, who meets K in his atelier and gives him nothing but more doubletalk. Everything leads K in loop-de-loops - even his execution-slash-suicide-slash-immolation. And it's all bookended by pinscreen art of giant castle walls, with Welles reading Kafka's short story ''Before the Law'' to start the film and adding some narration to close it.

It's a wonderfully esoteric, evocative film. (Pair with Scorsese's After Hours for a perfect double feature.) And it's not surprising it didn't connect in 1962. Perkins is jumpy and wiry and, coming two years after Psycho, I imagine it was hard to shake Norman Bates from his visage. It's still hard to do, 64 years after Hitchcock's masterpiece. The cinematography is so specific - from its claustrophobic set-ups to the night and interior scenes that are less black and white and more a Frank Stella black-on-black painting on celluloid - that a bad print would kill any chance of deciphering what's in front of you. The physical landscape and locations are exceedingly dour, which you'd expect from Yugoslavia and Eastern Europe at the start of the 1960s. And the audio can be a challenge, from the track itself, which can sound like it's burbling out of some water, to the dubbing of the non-English-speaking actors, which Welles himself did for many of the parts.

The restoration fixes most of the technical deficiencies - the audio is still a challenge, but its uncanniness adds an exceptional dimension to the film's overall sense of dislocation. And what we're presented with is unquestionably one of Welles' great achievements. And it comes in a sequence that should make us reconsider this period of his career: Touch of Evil (1958), The Trial (1962), Chimes at Midnight (1965). Remarkable films, all, and the kind of daring, boundary-pushing, paradigm-shifting work that, for a long time, we were told Welles was incapable of after Kane, or at least Ambersons.

There has never been a question of Welles' importance to cinema, and while each rediscovery confirms his place in the pantheon it also complicates the easy narrative that has surrounded his career. Here is an artist who didn't live hand-to-mouth, aborting film after film and making bad commercials because he lost his muse. Instead, here is a genius who was so far ahead of his time that the times didn't know what to do with him, who was forced to scrounge for financing and materials to capture as best he could (which was often not good enough) the ideas and visions knocking around in his head.

This is no great revelation in 2024. Only a stubborn fool would try to discount Orson Welles as an overhyped wunderkind who never achieved his potential. But what this revived The Trial does is decisively knock the legs out from under that argument. Here is a great film made by a great filmmaker at the height of his powers, in the midst of a creative burst nearly unparalleled by his contemporaries or inheritors (in America at least). And in this triptych of films, of which The Trial is the center panel, Welles gave us a view of the future of cinema. It's only now that we're ready for what he had to show us.

Criterion's 4K edition of The Trial is an across-the-board upgrade from the film's previous home video incarnations. Extras include a trailer; a wonderful and insightful new commentary from historian/author Joseph McBride; and archival interviews with Welles, Jeanne Moreau, who appears in a kind of glorified cameo as K's sultry and mysterious neighbor, and cinematographer Edmond Richard. There is also Filming The Trial, a 90-minute documentary consisting of Welles speaking with USC students in 1981 after a screening of the film. In grand Wellesian tradition, he originally intended to make a different documentary about the making of the movie, with the Q&A as one part, but it was never realized and the USC footage became the film. That's not to undercut the discussion. It's great viewing, not only for Welles' memories but because Welles was never better than in front of a live audience. And here he's really in his element.

Technically, the film looks and sounds as good as it likely ever will. But there are a few caveats.

Regarding the soundtrack, as mentioned above many of Welles' films - particularly those shot in Europe - suffer from lackluster audio, for all sorts of reasons. Here, is is presented in a PCM 1.0 Mono (48kHz, 24-bit) lossless mix. Those issues are mitigated as best as possible here, but there are still many moments where it sounds like actors are physically in one space and speaking from another. It can be distracting, though never so problematic that it ruins the experience. (If memory serves, Chimes at Midnight has similar issues that really make parts of watching the film a challenge.)

On the visual side, there are similar moments of distraction. The first comes at the start of the film, with K on his apartment balcony speaking with the police. There's this strange static-like effect that occurs on the ceiling of the balcony. It occurs on both the 4K (2160p HEVC/H.265, 1.66 X 1, Ultra High Definition image with no HDR of any kind) and Blu-ray discs, so it's clearly a result of the restoration process. Is it fixable? Doubtful. But it's worth noting. The other thing that can pull attention away is just how deep the blacks can be. Characters in shadow can on occasion feel like black cutouts on the screen (like the digital inserts Warners added to Eyes Wide Shut). Again, this won't ruin the experience, just give you a sense of the uncanny.

But everything else is so gorgeous and fine that it's easy to forgive these lapses - especially when you consider the state The Trial had been in. I'll take some weird static and way-too-black missteps if it means being able to, you know, accurately decipher the last shot of the film - which you absolutely couldn't before.

- Dante A. Ciampaglia


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