Can you smell a dream? Can you smell a movie? Can you smell fear?
Figurative and literal dank and cordite fume the geometric passages of Orson Welles’ “The Trial”—Josef K. (Anthony Perkins) is an office man, an ambitious junior bureaucrat, long and thin as a blade in knife-sharp suits; sent scurrying down corridors too tall or too small, eaves antic, the plumb of walls and door facings uncertain; fragments of a corporate civilization working around him in sketches of sets in the high-roofed insides of abandoned Paris train station Gare d’Orsay. (The station’s name is never mentioned, but one fetish-tanged definition of “Orsay” is “a shoe having an upper part that is cut away at the instep to reveal the arch of the foot.”)
The decrepitude of these abject premises of ill-defined dreams suits Welles’ pocket-money budget (plans for clever, intricate sets were discarded at the first of many shortfalls; Welles even dubbed eleven character voices). A Paris train station, Rome, brutalist building blocks in Zagreb: sets of ruin, of uncommon squalor, half-rotted walls of slats and planks and picture frames and wallpaper. It’s like a mind’s memories spattered across tapestries of New Orleans rot: a room is ranked with printed paper, drifts and bales of half-rotted journals and periodicals, sullenly returning to rag.
As sardonic as it is sinister, “The Trial” is quite the nightmare, and not only in its premise of finding oneself accused of crimes that not only has one not committed, but the premises of which one could not fathom even if they could be spoken aloud.
Dead center is Anthony Perkins: handsome and agile, haunted yet antic. Look up “man,” man as Welles has created him: exacting haircut, encased in timeless tailoring, a trim suit, natty five-button vest, slim pants with pleats crisp as glass. In the hours of the film, among his superhero garments, only his perfect white shirt shows stress. The costume offers no distraction from the study of Tony Perkins in motion (and commotion). K. is a time traveler: he does not look out of place in these threads containing this commotion in 1915 (when Kafka’s book was written), 1925 (publication date), 1962 (film release), or even 2001, 2023. (The wicked costume design is by Helen Thibault.)
K. encounters a succession of women who cannot resist his apparition; he’s not resistant, but seemingly unaware: these advances bounce off his carapace. (Stanley Kubrick saw this one many years before “Eyes Wide Shut.”) “She finds all accused men attractive, it’s a peculiarity,” it’s said of one of them.
Take the first of the brunette Euro-inamoratas of that cinematic moment, each with hair lightly longer than K’s, tousled in sweeps and curls, perky, piquant: boardinghouse neighbor Jeanne Moreau swept off her feet after a long night’s journey at the club, “getting myself putrefied,” her high heels in clear rain rubbers from which she is liberated by Josef, tugging the wet translucence, as she’s pushed up against a wallpaper with a pattern that ranges from verdant to splotch. What grubby filth! For 1962, yes, and for the increasingly censorious 2023, yes, yes, yes. (See also: Romy Schneider, and Elsa Martinelli, mingling va-va with voom in kittenish fashion more appalling than appealing.) There is a whiff of the Olympia Press series of “Traveller’s Companion” volumes of that time, nearly a hundred of which circulated, making muck of fuck in groansome fashion.
Welles himself embodies squalor: at first sight, emerging from a moldering schooner of Morpheus, a metaphorical caravanserai of a lifetime’s bedding, steam (or sweat) visibly rising from the just-going-to-pudge gourmand as a lawyer and beacon of filth, figurative and otherwise. From this private court, he chastises and accuses his clients (including majestic worm Akim Tamiroff). Welles prizes a shot in this environment of K. turned away from the camera, shamelessly ogling the pronounced butt-sculpt performed by Thibault’s perfected trousers.
A computer fills a backroom, meters upon meters long: It’s “one of those electronic gimmicks that can tell you anything.” The computer, this dull machine of the future, only makes a low whir or two, but the characters in their tableaux share low shouts and sobs, woos and wows, little exclamations fly, coos and moans. (How many are giddy Welles late at night, alone with a microphone?) Contrast with the worker-bee hive, typewriter song like a thousand, thousand crickets, from 800 typists in a single room with a ceiling that could contain low clouds. Or is it bird chatter of a thousand typewriters in flight? Welles’ dislocating sound design is distressing: from emphatic to satiric, it’s never still.
Spare exteriors match the squalid interiors for expressionist fervor: an extended, unbroken take at magic hour, just past dusk, across a vacant lot in front of a rank of housing projects, with a woman dragging a trunk through wreckage litter and litter hectoring K. (who happens to be carrying a tidy Kraft-paper package neatly tied with twine, containing a birthday cake), suggest the Samuel Beckett Welles would have known (as Beckett himself drew from the contours of Kafka), as well as a very similar scene in Mike Leigh’s “Naked”: in broken worlds, mouths still move.
This magnificent slab was keenly misunderstood in its moment, even as Welles then himself considered it his best work. Bonehead Bosley Crowther, lead film critic of the New York Times at that time, was left seated a mass of ick: Welles, wrote Crowther, “has not reduced the weird proceedings to a clear dramatic line or arrived at an intellectual conclusion that is readily understood. The strange geometric arrangements of rooms and people at work, of overstressed filing cabinets and the faces and forms of characters make pungent visual stimulation, but they only bewilder the mind. They do not fall into patterns that convey congealing ideas…” (Or as Moreau’s club girl says to K., “You’re sorry, you’re sorry, you’re sorry, you keep saying that, nobody gives a damn!”)
By the end, the ministrations and eructations out of the myriad mouths bantering and battling K. come down to reducing “the entire universe to lunacy” where any commerce of men “turns lying into a universal principle.” And Welles: hardly contained hysteria sustains, even when K.’s life is all used up.
(Gary Graver filmed Welles talking about “The Trial” at the University of South California in 1981 for a never-completed documentary; ninety minutes of raw footage is here.) “The Trial” opens at the Music Box, Friday, March 10.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His multimedia history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” will be published soon. Previews of the project are on Twitter and on Instagram as Ghost Signs Chicago. More photography on Instagram.