trial of a soapbox romantic

The problem with the prodigy, the adult prodigy, is the fact of dealing with once being great, and living perpetually in eclipse. Orson Welles was a romantic since birth, a romantic always outside, outside adapting to the narrow and canny realism of what was the “cool” generation. …

Orson Welles created his best stage productions back in the 1930′s and he made his best picture in 1940. The Magnificent Ambersons, which followed Kane, seems curiously implausible and uncertain today, but Welles claimed that the point was edited out of it in his absence, and he broke with RKO over its release in truncated form. His other Hollywood pictures are superior Hollywood products; indeed, they often look like Hollywood outdoing itself. Macbeth and Othello, both filmed abroad, contain gimmicks designed to make Shakespeare work on the screen.

---Orson Welles plays Harry Lime in The Third Man, a 1949 flick about the new world order of moral ambiguity.---Read More:

The gimmicks in Macbeth are the removal of the scene to the barbaric era of the original legend and the portrayal of Lady Macbeth as a priestess of blood and lust. The results are striking, but the poetry does not transport as readily as the setting and the Elizabethan preoccupations come oddly from half-savage lips. The gimmicks in Othello, in addition to the aforementioned architectural dazzle, were to choreograph the action like a ballet and to suppose that Iago is motivated by impotence. The effect is a sadly diminished tragedy. There was a lot of Welles in these films; it is a question whether there was enough Shakespeare.

… ( see link at end) …There is a heartbreaking bargain you have to make with Orson Welles. Much of his work—more than that of any other major director—comes to us in damaged shape. When you consider that he was making difficult films to begin with, the full picture begins to emerge….

---Orson Welles directs Anthony Perkins on the set of The Trial (1962) Photo by Nicolas Tikhomiroff (via) Q. A critic who admires your work very much said that, in The Trial, you were repeating yourself… Welles: Exactly, I repeated myself. I believe we do it all the time. We always take up certain elements again. How can it be avoided? An actor’s voice always has the same timbre and, consequently, he repeats himself. It is the same for a singer, a painter…There are always certain things that come back, for they are part of one’s personality, of one’s style. If these things didn’t come into play, a personality would be so complex that it would become impossible to identify it. It is not my intention to repeat myself, but in my work there should certainly be references to what I have done in the past. Say what you will, but The Trial is the best film I ever made…I have never been so happy as when I made this film.”---Read More:

…Orson Welles was either too much of an artist or too much of an egomaniac—perhaps both—to ever fully commit to genre, even for the duration of a single film. He liked genre but viewed it as a beginning, a jumping off place. This was no less true for a thriller than for a Shakespeare adaptation. His instinct was to be, as he once angrily wrote Harry Cohn, “original, or at the least somewhat oblique.” Win or lose—and he lost often—his films were stamped with the conviction that cinema was an instrument of experimentation and poetry, not formula….Read More:

Welles was always able to play any part that is slightly bigger than life. He was the famous Harry Lime in The Third Man; an ageing Southern gentleman in that curious transmogrification of Faulkner, The Long Hot Summer; a fictional version of Clarence Darrow in Compulsion; Benjamin Franklin in A Royal Affair at Versailles. He directed and took the title role in Mr. Arkadin-from his only novel- , even though it can be said to be pretentious, obscure and unamusing.

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Which brings us back to Welles’s adaptation of Kafka’s The Trial. The opportunities it afforded Welles to behave like a prodigy were obvious and legion. Kafka’s nightmare world is a magic box for camera trickery and visual surprises, for baroque decor and bizarre characterizations. The complaints were that Welles overvisualizes a book which was visually almost barren. However, the scenes evoked by Welles seem to enhance rather thando violence to Kafka’s intent, since the book posits a visual world just beneath the topsoil, a symphony of visual aura under he dust, scratches and skips of an old 45 rpm.

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The picture goes astray because Welles is a romantic, and it seems, an optimist. He cast Anthony Perkins, a yearning juvenile, in the lead, as though he thought K were a romantic hero. And he got from Perkins a remarkably solid performance. Nevertheless, Kafka’s story of a man who is the law’s victim because he is  the utterly lawful man becomes the tale of a student rebel, the sort of young man who looks as though he couldn’t care less about the law and its institutions. In the book the law devours its most ardent disciple; in the picture the totalitarian police pick up a potential dissident ( and quite properly, given the viewpoint).

That is an idea for a picture, but it is not Kafka’s idea. Nor did Kafka have it in mind to warn his public against the imminence of atomic war- he was dealing with a horror of the soul. The mushroom cloud at the end of the film is another example of the boy scout in Welles; he was never able to pass a soapbox without jumping up for a brief exhortation.

Nevertheless, the failure of The Trial comes much more from a gulf between the temperaments of author and director than it did from a prodigy’s self-bemusement with the dexterity of his technique….


Peter Bogdanovich:And to please me (I would eventually find out), he pretended to agree, but within a year or so, he came closer to the truth: “It’s very personal for me…much closer to my own feelings about everything than any other picture…”

Right at the start, Welles spells out the mood of the film, which, he explains in his narration, has “the logic of a dream, a nightmare…” and, indeed, no other picture ever made has quite so pervasively or so hauntingly captured that terrifying feeling of unnamable horror. The leading character K (exceptionally played by Anthony Perkins soon after his Psycho success) is awakened at the beginning by two police detectives who proceed to ask him a series of insinuating questions, making him aware that he is not only suspected of some terrible, never-named crime, but also that he is feeling and acting inordinately guilty for a person professing innocence. Welles said he himself used to have recurring dreams of having murdered someone, waking in a sweat, wondering where it had happened.

Shot on real locations all over Europe——Prague, Munich, Paris——the film is as enthralling as it is unsettling, and was easily 40 years ahead of its time: The frightening sensation of dread it produces is far more in keeping with the dizzying, unbalanced 21st century than the early ‘60s before even the J.F.K. assassination. Welles smoothly plays the Advocate, a silky, slippery, God-like lawyer K goes to for help, and the picture’s evident distrust of the legal profession and of the easy corruptibility of the Law reminds one of Shakespeare’s famous line: “First, kill all the lawyers!”

Orson told me that he and Perkins, as well as the brilliant international supporting cast, which includes Romy Schneider, Elsa Martinelli, Akim Tamiroff, Madeleine Robinson and Suzanne Flon, had an often hilarious time shooting the movie, breaking up over the dank coldness of the inexorably ominous tale. I sat next to Welles at a black-tie screening of The Trial in Paris in the mid-70s——the only time I saw one of his films with him and an audience——and understood through his very amused reactions the kind of deeply black humor the picture contains.

But then Welles was nearing 50 when he made the movie, and I was still in my ‘20s and early ‘30s when we were talking about it: I’m afraid one’s life experiences need to pile up, in their sometimes bewildering and unfortunate ways, before the picture’s real effectiveness can be fully appreciated. It is a profoundly disturbing film, and one of the most uncompromising, relentlessly chilling looks at the awful ambiguities of life in the late 20th century….Read More:

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