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By Phil Hall | July 27, 2007

BOOTLEG FILES 191: “The Trial” (Orson Welles’ 1962 adaptation of the Franz Kafka novel).

LAST SEEN: We cannot confirm the last public screening of this title.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: Only on public domain dupes.


CHANCES OF SEEING A DVD RELEASE: There is one classy DVD release that deserves to be purchased (see below for details).

I first encountered Orson Welles’ 1962 film “The Trial” back in 1985, when I purchased my first VCR and obtained membership in a neighborhood video store. I had read a great deal about “The Trial,” but for whatever reason the film never popped up on my local TV channels and I was infinitely curious to see it.

Well, I watched it – and despite having read a great deal about the movie, I had absolutely no idea what I was viewing. The film was completely incomprehensible to me, and the cruddy quality of the videotape (a dark picture and hissy sound) didn’t help (I later realized this was my first encounter with bootlegged video dupes).

However, I went back to my Orson Welles books, re-read the chapters on “The Trial,” and quickly watched the film again. The plotline made a bit more sense, but I was still baffled and bothered by what I perceived as the weirdness of the production.

Over the years, I revisited “The Trial” several times and came to appreciate it more. Though, in honesty, I never truly loved the film in the way that I loved Welles’ other flicks. Even today, I can smile over the film’s audacity and eccentricity – but I can’t join the swelling ranks of critics and film scholars who proclaim “The Trial” to be genius.

“The Trial” is a testament to all of Welles’ virtues and vices as a filmmaker. The virtues: endlessly inventive camerawork, extraordinary editing, wonderfully bizarre music effects, a brilliant use of locations (in this case, the abandoned Gare d’Orsay railroad station in Paris doubled as a myriad of settings, including a cathedral) and a richly cynical personality that leaves a wonderfully disturbing residue on the viewer’s mind.

Ah, but then there are the vices: strangely unsatisfactory sound recording (this is typical of his European-based films), overstated acting (especially by Welles himself), difficulties in keeping up the frenetic tempo of the production and an overwhelming sense of self-indulgence that mistakes artsy for art.

The story behind “The Trial” is actually more entertaining than the film itself. Welles was approached in 1960 by producer Alexander Salkind with an offer to make a film. There was a rich catch to this: Welles would not face any interference from Salkind, making this the first time since “Citizen Kane” he could direct a film and maintain the director’s cut. Salkind’s only request was that the film come from a public domain literary source. Franz Kafka’s “The Trial” was chosen, but Salkind and Welles later discovered it was not a public domain novel – thus requiring them to pay a good chunk of change to secure the screen rights.

Salkind continually ran into problems with financing for “The Trial.” At one point, the Yugoslavian government offered to fund the production, but the money was never delivered. Welles was forced to shoot guerrilla-style across Yugoslavia and Italy before returning to Paris. The Gare d’Orsay became available to him, and Welles personally went into set decorator mode to spruce up the shuttered train station to fit his needs.

Anthony Perkins, who was seeking an escape from Norman Bates-style typecasting in Hollywood, accepted the starring role of Joseph K, a minor clerk in a vast bureaucracy who is accused of an unspecified crime and is unable to clear his name. Welles, oddly, wanted Jackie Gleason to play the role of the malevolent Advocate, a shadowy figure with vast influence in judicial circles. But Gleason turned down the project and Welles was unable to consider a suitable replacement – so he took the role himself. Welles also cast himself vocally in other parts, dubbing in dialogue for 11 different actors (he reportedly dubbed a bit of Perkins’ dialogue, which Perkins was unable to identify).

To help sell the film in European markets, Salkind had Welles cast some choice Continental cheesecake in the flick: Jeanne Moreau, Romy Schneider and Elsa Martinelli enjoyed showy supporting parts. Welles cast his old Hollywood pals Akim Tamiroff and Katina Paxinou as well (Paxinou’s role, as a computer scientist, was cut from the film a day before its 1962 Parisian premiere).

The resulting film was something that only Orson Welles could conceive – in lesser hands, it would’ve been condemned as a mess. The Kafka text was sliced and diced, with chapters rearranged and characters reinvented (Jeanne Moreau’s role of a nightclub entertainer was not in the book – it was added to explain her excess glamour).

Most controversially, Welles changed the ending of “The Trial.” Whereas Kafka envisioned Joseph K being stabbed to death by police officers, Welles had him blown up with a stick of dynamite that resulted in a great mushroom shaped cloud. Many critics wondered if that was a commentary on the nuclear arms race, but Welles blithely explained that dynamite explosions result in mushroom shaped clouds.

“The Trial” initially opened to mixed reviews and middling commercial returns. But over the years, Welles’ star power has ascended and everything he created is now viewed as a work of genius. Yet I can’t assign the “genius” designation to “The Trial.” It is a noisy, often wacky and utterly strange work. However, I can never get emotionally or intellectually hooked into its freneticism. After a while, the surplus of titled angles and deep shadows becomes tiresome and predictable. Kafka’s labyrinthine plotline was ruptured by Welles’ tinkering, leaving much of the story to be painfully unclear.

There’s also another big problem: much of the soundtrack is not in sync. This was a strange problem for most of Welles’ European-based films, and in “The Trial” is often quite pronounced. Again, with another filmmaker it would’ve been denounced – but Welles somehow escapes criticism that plagues other artists.

“The Trial,” for no clear reason, was never registered for an American copyright (the closing credits were spoken by Welles, so there was no copyright notice on the screen). This doomed the film to public domain status. For years, crappy bootlegged dupes from 16mm prints proliferated for home video release (that’s where I came into the picture).

In 2000, Milestone Film & Video released a restored version of “The Trial” that was taken from the long-lost 35mm negative (it somehow wound up in a closet in New Jersey – don’t ask). The film’s visual quality is superior to any other version on the market. If you must see “The Trial,” seek out the Milestone copy.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at
Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.

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  1. Arel says:

    “The Trial” is available on Kanopy, a streaming service used by libraries. If you are attending or working at a college or university or have a library card in a public library you may be able to use this service. I don’t know how much a subscription is otherwise. Their version of the film is very clean, with good sound quality. I am reviewing the film for, where it is currently just ending 1962, when the film was first released. I pretend that I have access to a bootlegged copy, drawing on my experience of having seen a copy of “Star Wars” in 1977 before its release, obtained by a friend. After my study for the review, I do wish to make a couple of comments. First, according to my engineer husband, who has been playing with explosives since he was a little boy, it would take a whole box of dynamite to make a mushroom cloud, not just the small bundle pictured in the film. Second, the conflation of the characters Elsa and Miss Burstner from the book makes the Miss Burstner of the film.

  2. Jan says:

    Actually, if you want to see the film in the best quality (a great anamorphic transfer with a deleted scene) you need to get French 2-DVD “Edition Digipack” published by StudioCanal.