Thursday, April 19, 2012

My Favorite Orson Welles Movie

Of course I considered "Citizen Kane." You can't talk about Orson Welles without talking about the 1941 landmark of American cinema that he created, the one that has been continually lauded to the point where the director and movie are practically synonymous. However, Welles went on after that early success to make films for another forty years, often in difficult circumstances, and leaving many incomplete and abandoned projects in his wake. Many of these were Shakespeare adaptations like the gorgeously staged "Othello," or scintillating film noir like "Touch of Evil," but later in his career he started making more experimental films that were a clear digression from the rest of his body of work. The turning point was his 1962 adaptation of Franz Kafka's "The Trial."

Josef K (Anthony Perkins), is a young man who lives in an unnamed state, informed one morning that he is under arrest for a crime that no one will reveal. He is taken into custody, and enters a labyrinthine world of courts and agencies and endless bureaucracy that it is impossible to fight or escape from. All attempts to navigate or circumvent the incoherent judicial process are thwarted. His accusers remain faceless and his judges remain secret. The advocate handling his case, Hastler (Orson Welles) is no help. Conspiracy and paranoia dog our hero at every turn, and his encounters with others caught in the same system imply that there's no way out for any of them, no matter what role they play. Though the struggle to find justice seems increasingly futile, Josef K. resists to the end.

I've never managed to see a very good print of "The Trial," probably because it has become public domain and was never one of Orson Welles' more popular films. However, I find the visuals arresting. It's clear immediately that the circumstances of the production were not ideal, as many settings and environments have a very rough, almost improvised quality about them while others are painstakingly composed. Apparently the money for sets ran out early, but the ones that actually got built are stunning. To portray the nightmare bureaucracy, Welles includes several shots of endless rows of desks and shelves and corridors that stretch out seemingly into infinity, toward a distant vanishing point on the horizon. Ominous buildings from all over Europe were conscripted to stand in for the courts and offices of the nameless authorities.

As Josef K descends deeper into the bowels of the system, everything becomes more abstract, but no less oppressive. The atmosphere goes beyond Kafkaesque, bringing the film noir elements to the verge of horror. After a time, the film stops following any kind of traditional narrative, but becomes a series of increasingly bizarre, disorienting episodes. Josef K is waylaid or diverted from where he wants to go multiple times, and many events unfold according to a sinister dream logic, recalling some of Ingmar Bergman's more disturbing psychological dramas.

My favorite sequence is the meeting with the artist Titorelli (William Chappell), who lives in a shoddy apartment, where a gang of menacing little girls are forever peering at him through the cracks in the walls, pestering and giggling at him. The journey to a from this little corner of hell is a twisting labyrinth of cramped passageways, full of grasping shadows that would delight any fan of German Expressionism. In Welles' other films you often find a few brief moments of down-the-rabbit-hole surrealism such as the funhouse scenes in "The Lady From Shanghai," but "The Trial" feels like the culmination of all those moments, where Welles' more experimental side was finally given free reign.

I don't want to forget the performances, as the cast is terrific and includes Jeanne Moreau, Michael Lonsdale, and Romy Schneider in minor roles. Anthony Perkins's Josef K is affable and sympathetic, but though he gets the vast majority of the screen time, he doesn't have much to do except to stand in for the audience and occasionally try to reason with those who will not be reasoned with. The actors in smaller parts, like Chappell and Welles, do a better job of asserting more personality, turning many of their appearances into darkly comic vignettes.

Others have tried to tackle Kafka's work over the years. Terry Gilliam gave us "Brazil," Steven Soderbergh made "Kafka," and Michale Haneke tried his hand at "The Castle," but Orson Welles' "The Trial" was the best of them. He may have be hailed as a genius for his work in the 40s, but as far as I'm concerned he was just as brilliant all through his long career, even after his popularity waned and his resources dwindled. He kept experimenting, kept pushing boundaries, kept testing the medium, and it was the audience that couldn't keep up. "The Trial" was not well received when it was released in the 60s, though Welles famously defended it as "the best film I have ever made."

As far as I'm concerned, he was right

What I've Seen - Orson Welles

Citizen Kane (1941)
The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)
The Stranger (1946)
The Lady from Shanghai (1947)
The Tragedy of Othello: The Moor of Venice (1952)
Touch of Evil (1958)
The Trial (1962)
Chimes at Midnight (1965)
F is for Fake (1973)

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