Orson Welles’ adaptation of Franz Kafka’s literary classic was first released by StudioCanal onto DVD in 2004. On that occasion Mike Sutton reviewed the film for the Digital Fix (or DVD Times, as the site was known then) and I refer you to that review for discussion of The Trial itself. This particular piece will instead focus on StudioCanal’s new Blu-ray, its presentation and its wealth of additional features.
Taken on its own terms the picture quality is something of a disappointment, although this new release does currently represent the best The Trial has looked on any home video format. To begin with the positives we find the film in its original aspect ratio of 1.66:1, almost completely free of any signs of wear and tear (I spotted some tramlining on two occasions, but otherwise that is pretty much it), and demonstrating excellent contrast levels. However, we also find somewhat heavy-handed use of digital noise reduction that has, unfortunately, gone beyond its job of reducing the grain. Thus Anthony Perkins looks far pastier than he should, to the point where his skin, at times, looks plastic in appearance. There is a slight improvement with close-ups, naturally, though oftentimes these too lack the requisite detail. Frustratingly textures do occasionally come through - there’s a scene in which we can make out every one of Elsa Martinelli’s hairs, for example, or the stitch in Akim Tamiroff’s waistcoat - but these are rare and also instantly ruined whenever any slight movement is involved, at which point they descend to little more than a sluggishly pixelated blur. To counteract the problems some artificial sharpening has also been applied resulting in prominent edge enhancement during the more chiaroscuro sequences.
How you react to these issues will depend on where your priorities lie. For some the combination of a clean image, original aspect ratio and an improvement over previous DVDs will prove more than satisfactory. For others the digital tinkering may prove too much of a distraction. Personally, I’m more inclined towards the latter, though mileages will vary.
As for the soundtrack, here the age - and the production methods of the time - do make themselves known. On the plus side the clarity is superb; as a result the post-production work is immediately apparent. There are plenty of instances of ‘loose synch’ as a result of actors re-recording their lines in the studio once filming had finished, plus certain scenes sound a touch more artificial than others. Of course, such instances are inherent in The Trial’s making and as such StudioCanal should not be held accountable. Do be aware of the issues, however. Also present on the disc are French and German dub tracks, plus optional subtitles for the hard-of-hearing in both of these languages plus English.
The extras (all presented in 1080i) are plentiful on this release and so deserve individual mentions…
Welles, Kafka and The Trial
Following a brisk tour through Welles’ career up until The Trial (the War of the Worlds controversy, Citizen Kane, the globetrotting director, the actor for hire), this 30-minute French featurette settles down into a discussion of the main feature. Professor of literature Jean-Pierre Morel and filmmaker Andre S. Labarthe (a producer and director on the Cinéma, de notre temps series) offer up their own takes on its place and importance within the Welles oeuvre, whilst collaborators Edmond Richard (cinematographer) and Sophie Becker (assistant director) provide the anecdotes.
Welles, Architect of Light
Richard returns for a 24-minute interview which offers up a much more in-depth account of The Trial’s filming. He discusses ceilings, long takes, the problems of shooting in Yugoslavia and plenty besides.
Tempo: Profile - Orson Welles
Tempo was ITV’s dedicated arts programme during the sixties; The South Bank Show before The South Bank Show, if you will. This particular profile (we’re getting the entire show uncut) first aired in November 1965 and sees Welles hold forth on all manner of subjects. Essentially this is just a string of great anecdotes: on acting, on Hollywood, on financing independent productions, on his childhood, on his education, and so forth - needless to say, it’s all terrifically entertaining.
Interview with Steven Berkoff
Thirteen minutes in the company of the British actor in which he answers questions about Kafka’s novel and Welles’ film. Berkoff has adapted several Kafka novels for the stage, turning his attentions to The Trial in the early seventies.
No sound for this near-seven-minute sequence in which Perkins sits among row upon row of empty desks before encountering Katina Paxinou. Their dialogue - about conscience, innocence and guilt - is presented as subtitles, drawn from Welles’ shooting script.
The original French promo, almost four minutes in length.
The press release states that The Trial also comes with a booklet written by critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, although this wasn’t provided for review purposes.