Josef K. (Anthony Perkins, two years removed from his Star-Making Role in Psycho) is a white-collar worker in some nameless, vaguely European location. He awakes one day to find two ominous police officers—or at least they might be police officers, though they never show ID—in his room. The men, without introducing themselves or explaining why they're present in Josef's apartment, immediately begin interrogating him. Eventually they reveal that he is under arrest, although they do not tell him on what charge. Nor do they take him to any police station, instead allowing him to roam about freely, until one evening they take him from the audience at an opera and drag him to a tribunal.
The hearing ends inconclusively, with Josef unable to even get the judges to explain what is the charge against him. Josef engages the services of Hastler, a lawyer (played by Welles), but Hastler doesn't seem too motivated to do anything on Josef's behalf. Josef's frustration continues to grow as he is unable to do anything to help himself or find out why he has been charged.
The Trial was produced by Alexander Salkind who would later find success with Superman. Most of the film was shot in the real life train station Gare d'Orsay in Paris, which fit the mood well.note Other sequences, especially the exteriors, were shot in Yugoslavia and Croatia. The film was shot by cinematographer Edmond Richard who also worked on Chimes at Midnight (he would later work with Luis Buñuel), and the film is highly regarded for its black-and-white imagery. It was Welles's favorite of his own works and is commonly considered the best ever film adaptation of a Franz Kafka work.
Jeanne Moreau plays Miss Burstner, Josef's attractive neighbor.
- Absurdism: It's a Kafka work after all.
- Ambiguously Bi: Hastler's odd little speech in which he says accused men are "attractive" strongly hints at this. He also has a gorgeous woman for a mistress.
- Animated Credits Opening: The opening parable of the man before the gate to the Law is presented as a series of "pin-screen" pictures in which pins are stuck through a screen and lit. It was done by the master Alexandre Alexieff and his wife Claire Parker. Technically it isn't animation as there's no illusion of motion, with the sequence being a series of stills, but the effect is the same.
- Bewildering Punishment: Josef never does learn what he's being tried for.
- The Anti-Nihilist: Josef becomes this in the end, realising that there's no true reason for his arrest or court he decides that he doesn't care in a way that is quite similar to Camus' idea of revolt):Hustler: You think you can persuade the court that you're not responsible by reason of lunacy?Josef: I think that's what the court wants me to believe. Yes, that's the conspiracy: to persuade us all that the whole world is crazy, formless, meaningless, absurd. That's the dirty game. So I've lost my case! What of it? You, you're losing too. It's all lost, lost. So what? Does that sentence the entire universe to lunacy?
- Big Brother Is Watching You: The state oppresses everyone. A denouncement from his coworkers gets Josef arrested and tried. His neighbor Miss Burstner, formerly friendly and flirty, tells him to get the hell out after she finds out he's been arrested. The police track Josef and watch him at his work.
- Bizarrchitecture: Many odd-looking buildings that don't fit together well. Josef K's office is in an oddly huge, cavernous building (in Real Life the Gare d'Orsay train station in Paris, which had been closed down). Most dramatic is the scene in which Josef opens a door in Titorelli the artist's dilapidated wooden shack, only to find that it opens directly to the file room of the law court, the shack apparently butting up right against the law court's wall.
- Call-Back: Late in the film, Hastler turns on a projector and shows Josef K. the same parable of the gate before the Law that opens the film, with the same pictures. Josef dismisses it as a story everyone's heard before.
- Chiaroscuro: Lots of moody shadowy lighting in the cavernous depths of the law courts or Josef's office.
- Coming-Out Story: According to Welles, The Trial was about a young gay man discovering his sexuality.
- Creative Closing Credits: Creative lack of closing credits. Instead, the film ends with a freeze frame, whereupon Welles's narration states that The Trial was an adaptation of a Kafka novel, then lists all the actors in order of appearance. Welles ends his narration by identifying himself as the actor who played the advocate, as well as the writer and director of the picture. (The technical credits are then presented in the ordinary way.)
- Downer Ending: Josef K. is chucked into a hole and blown up with a stick of dynamite.
- Dramatic Thunder: This is used a lot for the creepy scene in which Josef has his interview with Hastler, who is supposed to be his advocate, but in reality is just as creepy and intimidating as the law court.
- Dutch Angle: Used on occasion to emphasize Josef's fear and paranoia, like in the opening scene when he first sees the policeman in his room.
- Dystopia: A terrible, terrible place ruled by a totalitarian government. Notice that Josef K. isn't even all that surprised to find strange men in his room at the crack of dawn, interrogating him.
- For the Evulz: Is there any other possible reason why the guard made the man wait before the gate to the Law, a gate that was made only for him, until the man died?
- Gate of Truth: The opening story of the door to the Law is a subversion, in that the man trying to enter the gate that leads to the law itself never gets to enter despite spending an entire lifetime trying to learn the required price.
- Hitler Cam: Orson Welles' Signature Shot, found in most of his films and used more than once in this one, starting with the scene where Josef is being interrogated by the police.
- Kafka Komedy: Yup. According to Welles, this is a literal example. He found it to be extremely funny, and considered it one of his best works. Certainly Josef K.'s ineffectual blundering, as he continually tries and fails to salvage his situation, can be seen as darkly comic. In many ways this was close to Kafka's original intentions who likewise considered his stories and books comedies and would often narrate it to his friends with a great deal of Corpsing.
- Kangaroo Court: The court that tries Josef, which clearly isn't interested in anything he has to say.
- Kubrick Stare: Hastler, who likes to lounge in bed while talking to people, gets off some of these when addressing Josef.
- Law Procedural: Sort of, although there doesn't seem to be any real law or justice, and the verdict of the court is capricious. In one scene Josef opens up a law book and finds pictures of naked ladies inside.
- Lens Flare: Seen when Hastler is using a projector to show the drawings from the parable of the gate to the Law that previously opened the film.
- Obstructive Bureaucrat: All of them, as no one will help Josef or even explain why he's in trouble.
- Oh, Crap!: Josef gets a pretty good one when he is led into his interrogation room and finds out that it's an auditorium filled with hundreds of people.
- One-Letter Name: For protagonist Josef K.
- The Oner: The first appearance of the policeman in Josef's room and the subsequent interrogation is done in a single four-minute take.
- Rule of Three: Three different women flirt with and/or try to seduce Josef—his neighbor Miss Burstner, Hilda the cleaning lady at the law court, and Leni, Hastler's nurse/mistress.
- Shoot the Shaggy Dog: The story of a man shuffling endlessly through a bureaucracy to try to stave off his execution for a crime that is never explained to him.
- Skeleton Government: The Court can be seen as this. It is a powerful institution perceived to be unreachable, but nothing is actually known about it. It could be a democracy and executing the legitimate will of the people. It's not even known if the highest levels of the Court are actually unreachable, because no one in the novel even tries. Heck, we don't have definite proof that it exists, leading to:
- There Is No Higher Court: A very plausible theory.
- A Taste of the Lash: Josef reports the detectives who arrested him for ransacking his stuff and demanding bribes. Later he finds them being whipped with a rubber hose as punishment—for some reason, in a broom closet of the office where Josef works.
- Those Two Guys: Those three guys, in the case of the three men from Josef's office who informed on him, who show up at his apartment together, and are still standing together and watching him when Josef returns to work.
- Word of Gay: Orson Welles stated that he hired Anthony Perkins became everyone in the industry knew he was gay, and wanted a gay man to play Josef K.
- Your Cheating Heart: Hilda the cleaning lady at the law court is married to the guard, but is having an affair with another man, and tries to seduce Josef.