Earlier this week, we featured the Internet Archive’s audio of conversations between Orson Welles and Peter Bogdanovich. According to the Archive’s description, Welles’ “defense of his controversial adaptation of Kafka’s The Trial is so fascinating that listeners might want to rush out and rent the film.” But hang on — you need neither rush out nor rent it, since Welles’ The Trial has fallen into the public domain, or rather, it never had a copyright filed in the first place. The full movie, a visually inventive tale of unspecified crime, extreme punishment, and the procedural vortex in between, appears above for you to watch and judge, as it were, for yourself. You’ll have to, since the picture has long divided critics, including some of Welles’ strongest adherents. Even Welles biographer Charles Higham considers it “a dead thing, like some tablet found among the dust of forgotten men.”
“Say what you like,” Welles himself would tell the BBC in the year of the film’s premiere, “but The Trial is the best film I have ever made.” When Bogdanovich went to interview Anthony Perkins (best known, surely, for Hitchcock’s Psycho), who stars as the beleaguered Josef K., the actor spoke of the pride he felt performing for Welles. Perkins also mentioned Welles’ stated intent to make his adaptation a black comedy, a tricky sensibility to pull off for filmmakers in any league. Just as Welles wanted to “set the record straight” by recording his interviews with Bogdanovich, so he must have wanted to do with the 1981 footage just above, in which he speaks about the process of filming The Trial to an audience at the University of Southern California. He’d meant to shoot a whole documentary on the subject, which ultimately wound up on his heap of unfinished projects. Still, we should feel lucky that we have The Trial itself (which, in its prolonged creation, even missed its own Venice Film Festival premiere) to watch, debate, and either convict or exonerate of its alleged cinematic crimes.
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, Asia, film, literature, and aesthetics. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on his brand new Facebook page.