Release Date: 1962
Director: Orson Welles
Short synopsis: Just after six o'clock in the morning, in an unidentified city in an unidentified country, Josef K (Anthony Perkins) wakes up to find two men in his boarding home bedroom. From them he learns he is being arrested, but can remain free while the investigation continues. He is never told the charges.
So begins a descent into the nightmare of a legal system gone mad. The levels of the law are like an endless bureaucracy, and as K struggles to find answers about what crime he is supposed to have committed, he only gets sucked deeper into the maelstrom, leading to either of two possible endings: eternal subjection to a crooked lawyer, or death.

My Review:

This underrated film by Welles of Franz Kafka's "The Trial" (1925) may easily be overlooked by the first-time viewer, as two hours of blatant nihilism and hopelessness will leave even the most avid filmgoer completely dejected. Yet I thoroughly enjoy watching this movie, and with each viewing I become more enamored by the story and performances, and now recognize that the hopelessness depicted exists onscreen only and, in fact, the movie serves as a warning--a shot across the bow--not to let ourselves as informed citizens become complacent with the false idea that our leaders and legal structure will work for our best interests. Anyone with experience in dealing with a governmental agency such as the DMV will surely appreciate K's plight; he has to jump through repeated hoops only to find more hoops on the other side. If, as a viewer, you try to situate yourself into the film and identify with K, you will achieve only despair; the key to the film is to mentally revisit your own worst travails at hammering away at some bureaucratic bungling (if only a company's telephone touchtone system), and then you will see this film as a black comedy, which is what I believe Welles was trying to present, although he perhaps pushes too far and gives us the blackest--and bleakest--of comedies. In so doing he remains fairly true to the source material although, amazingly, Welles actually manages to soften the book's message a bit.
Easier to take than the book, I find this film highly recommendable, albeit with the following caveat: if you're looking for light-hearted family fare, put this film on hold; after you have an experience trying to discover how the power company overcharged you, or how your bank "lost" money in your savings account, throw this film in the DVD player. After watching Tony Perkins suffer you'll feel so much better about yourself.

Academic Analysis:

"The Trial" occupies that odd space in the Orson Welles canon: critics either loved it with a passion or hated it with equal gusto. In this reviewer's opinion it deserves a place as one of Welles' best, and must be considered a minor classic. Cinematically Welles captures the dark vision of Kafka perfectly in this black and white film. Whatever the reasons for shooting in B & W, it hardly seems possible that the effect of despair depicted by Kafka and represented so well by Welles could have been achieved in a color production. Filmed at various locations in Europe Welles makes tremendous use of an abandoned Paris railroad station, and seeing this great old cathedral of architectural obsolescence put to such dramatic use is alone worth the viewing.
Dark corners and expressionist lighting appear throughout the film, giving it the feel of a traditional Film Noir, and in fact many aspects of Noir are part and parcel of the film. There is the accused man, possibly wrongfully accused, but we are never told either way. There is a femme fatale in Leni, the mistress of K's lawyer, who hurts K's case by making love with him. And there is the cinematography. It has been said by Jeffrey Adams that Film Noir began with "The Maltese Falcon" (1941), and ended with Welles' "Touch of Evil" (1958), but if "The Trial" had been made in America I believe that end date would surely have been pushed to 1962.

Additionally, every scene has Welles' vision and touch; tricks of perspective and lighting tell the story as much as the dialogue and the film could perhaps play just as well as a silent with only a few intertitles to aid the storyline.

The only flaws are a few moments of awkward dubbing of voices, and at some points the budgetary problems become apparent. Reportedly some Kafka purists felt slighted by the film, but in actuality it is a faithful telling of the nightmare presented by the author, and this dark, bleak noir film deserves another look as a forgotten classic.


Cowie, Peter. The Cinema of Orson Welles. New York: Da Capo Press, 1983. This book covers all of Orson Welles directorial efforts, and contains an in-depth chapter regarding The Trial, including a positive review of the film.

Kafka, Franz. The Trial. 1925. Trans. Breon Mitchell. New York: Schocken Books. 1998

Naremore, James. The Magic World of Orson Welles. Dallas: SMU Press. 1978. Another compilation of films directed by Orson Welles, this book's chapter gives a psychoanalytic view of The Trial, replete with terminology such as "father figure" and "sexual repression". Perhaps a too-clinical look at the film, but valuable analysis none-the-less by Naremore.

Academic Journals

Adam, Jeffrey. "Orson Welles' The Trial: Film Noir and the Kafkaesque". College
Literature 29-3 (2002): 140-157. Excellent article describing Welles' The Trial as pure Film Noir.

Callenbach, Ernest. Rev of The Trial by Orson Welles. Film Quarterly 16-4 (1963):

Scholz, Anne-Marie. "Orson Welles' ‘Americanized’ Version of The Trial and the changing functions of the Kafkaesque in Postwar West Germany"
European Journal of American Studies. Electronic. 2009.


"The Trial" Culture Vulture. Ed. Michael Wade Simpson. 2008. 8 Nov 2009

WellesNet. The Orson Welles Web Resource. Ed. Laurence French. 2009. 10 Nov 2009
http://www.wellesnet.com/ A vast storehouse of Wellesian information that covers all aspects of Welles' life and work.

"The Trial" Fortune City 2009. 11 Nov 2009. http://victorian.fortunecity.com/vermeer/287/trial1963.htm In-depth review
of the film, with extensive samples of dialogue from the film.