Orson Welles' The Trial (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

For me, The Trial is hands down Orson Welles' greatest film. Citizen Kane is certainly his best known, and Touch of Evil seems to be a bigger crowd pleaser; but for my money, The Trial is his greatest work. To be certain, a lot of the reason for that is simply because it's built on the writing of Franz Kafka. But Welles vibrant style is a perfect match for the material. One only has to watch the 1993 remake, starring Kyle MacLachlan, Anthony Hopkins, Jason Robards and Alfred Molina, which was rather good itself, to see how much Welles brought to the material and elevated it. Hell, just Welles' introductory monologue, which has been cut from several DVD editions of this film, works on a level higher than the remake manages to reach.

Update 3/18/17: Added Alpha's DVD edition to the mix, which really shows the range of quality this film's been shown in.
Anthony Perkins is perfect as the multifaceted everyman who's woken up in his bedroom by mysterious, gruff officers who interrogate him and tell him he's under arrest but allowed to continue going to work. Perkins remains relatable without even being perfectly likeable as he continually grasps out for some sliver of control or stability as the world around him transforms into a paranoid, bureaucratic nightmare. This film is evocatively photographed, with tone, atmosphere, lighting and space changing mid-shot, shot in huge and claustrophobic locations in both Paris and Yugoslavia. Kafka's writing is the kind that stays with you forever, and Welles marries that with images that stick with you just as long.

The Trial has had a bit of a storied past with its DVD releases. As I mentioned, some versions have been cut. And a few different but not terribly impressive stabs were taken at the transfer. For the most part, you weren't going to do much better than Image's non-anamorphic 1.66:1 DVD from 2000, except it's long out of print and has wound up getting pretty costly. The French import seemed to be slightly better, but for most fans, it was a matter of dealing with even worse fullscreen junkers, like the 2003 DVD from Alpha, while waiting for the eventual blu-ray. And finally, that happened in 2012, when Studio Canal (who'd also released that French DVD I Just mentioned in 2003), released it as a special edition in France, Germany and the UK. I've got the UK blu as well as the original Image DVD, so let's have a look at them both now.
Image DVD on top; Alpha DVD middle; Studio Canal blu-ray on bottom.
The Image and Studio Canal framings are practically identical here (the blu-ray is a micro-smidgen zoomed in), both at the OAR of 1.66:1, with the blu slightly pillarboxed and the DVD windowboxed, as it's unfortunately non-anamorphic. But the Alpha is fullscreen, and evenly overly skinny at 1.28:1, cutting off the sides something fierce. It's also got a serious interlacing problem that the Image disc doesn't have.  There's no question that the blu is overall superior, looking cleaner and more defined. The blu is definitely more contrasty, a bit brighter with decidedly whiter whites, whereas the Image DVD looks muddier, although you might at first say that the lower contrast is more subtle or natural.  Of course, the Alpha is the muddiest of all, with very little dynamic range.  Here, let's get that crap out of the way and let you look at the Image and Studio Canal against each other.
Image DVD on top; Studio Canal blu-ray on bottom.
But as you can see above, even with the lower contrast, it's still the DVD that loses more detail to black crush. Look at Perkins in the lower right side of the second image above. He's a floating torso on the DVD, but you can easily make out his legs and the wall over his right shoulder (his right, our left) behind him. In motion, the blu looks even more vivid, and also doesn't have those patches of purple and green color distortion visible throughout the Image disc. And the blu includes lossless audio, so it's clearly a big all-around upgrade.
Almost all of the extras appear on this blu-ray disc two or three times over. In other words, if you choose to watch, say, the the first documentary after having chosen the United Kingdom's English language menu (Studio Canal provides full language options for England, France and Germany), you'll see one version of the documentary with the English title card. If you choose it from France's menu, you'll get an entirely separate encode even though the documentary is entirely the same, except for the language of the opening title card. That's true of all the extras on here, even the cheesy Studio Canal "sizzle" commercial that plays as soon as you load the disc. There's actually three encodes of that commercial on here. Not that I imagine the film is hurting for space; it is a dual-layer disc.

And just what are all these extras? Yes, let's dig in, because Studio Canal has a great selection that would be worth buying even if the film itself wasn't part of the package. We can start with the 'making of' documentary, which is 30 minutes long and features interviews with the film's DoP Edmond Richard and Welles' assistant director Sophie Becker, who are full of first-hand memories of making the film and traveling with Welles. It's rounded out by a literature professor to address the Kafka side of things, and filmmaker Andre S. Labarthe (admittedly the first time I've heard of him) to talk about the film's style.
Richard returns in a separate interview piece which focuses more on the technical side of making the picture and adding some more anecdotes he missed in the first doc. There's then a great British television episode of a 60s series called Tempo which interviews Welles and takes a retrospective look at his career. It gets into some interesting areas, and Welles is very open and forthcoming. Then there's an interview with Steven Berkoff, who's a bit of a Kafka historian, who gives a lot more information on the original novel and how the film represents it. Finally, there's the theatrical trailer, a 20 page booklet and the film's deleted scene, which has been floating around online, but never properly preserved on disc. I believe the old French DVD may've shown a clip of it, but without any of the words. See, the audio for the deleted scenes has been lost (although you hear a brief clip of it in the trailer), but for this blu-ray, they've used Welles' script to add complete subtitles, so we can finally understand everything the characters are saying.

The only thing that the Image DVD had that the blu doesn't is the alternate opening made for US television (The Alpha DVD has nothing but the trailer). This isn't as much as a loss as it sounds, however, as no original footage was shot for this opening. It's just a narrator introducing the cast and plot over stills from the film. Curiously, he tells us the whole story right up to and including the very ending moment - wow, spoilers! - before bidding us to watch the film. It would've been nice to have this on the blu has just another little bonus for completists, but it's really not important.
I should also point out that, for those interested, this blu is very robust with language options, including optional English, French and German subtitles and French and German dubs (along with the original English audio, of course). Unlike the DVD, this disc was clearly taken from a French print, as it has the Le Proces title card and completely different French credits at the beginning and end of the film. The opening credits scroll in the American version and fade in and out on the French version. But it stands out even more at the end, where Orson Welles reads the credits aloud over a still frame in the American version. He still reads them out loud in the French version, but now the names also appear in text on screen... and, distractingly, not in the order that Welles reads them in. Anyway. that's not a complaint (even though Welles was of course American, he was well into the stage of his career where he was making his movies in Europe, so the French titles could be said to be the original credits), just a little anecdote.

Simply put, this is the best, definitive release of The Trial in all regards. Superior transfer, superior audio, a strong collection of extras, better language options, and of course it's in HD. Could another company come along and take second, even better stab at this in the US? Sure, in fact, Kino was rumored to release a blu of this in 2013. But it's been a long time since we've heard any word of that, and there's every chance it would wind up being the same transfer anyway. So you can keep holding out if you want to, but what we've got here is pretty great.

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