Tuesday 19 March 2024

Above: Before the Law, a pin screen image from Orson Welles’ film of The Trial.

I was recently asked to select three films on a theme of justice. Because of the way I have spent the last decade, my first thought was to choose three documentary features related to the topic of universal jurisdiction. These were The Judge and the General (2008) by Elizabeth Farnsworth and Patricio Lanfranco Leverton, The Silence of Others (2018), by Almudena Carracedo and Robert Bahar, and Bringing Assad to Justice (2021) by Ronan Tynan and Anne Daly. However, I began to feel a more open and creative choice might be better, one that shared works from my other interest—animation.

The three films I eventually chose were:
  • Who Killed Cock Robin? (1935). Directed by David Hand. 8 minutes.
  • The Tell-Tale Heart (1953). Directed by Ted Parmelee. 8 minutes.
  • The Trial (1962). Directed by Orson Welles. 1 hour 59 minutes.

The first two are classic animated shorts, and the third, while not animated, does have an important animation connection. All three films deal with the issue of guilt, but in quite different ways.

Who Killed Cock Robin?

Who Killed Cock Robin? (1935). Directed by David Hand. United States: Walt Disney Productions. Available on YouTube.

The short Who Killed Cock Robin? was one of the Silly Symphony series of cartoons. These films were an anthology series, avoiding recurring characters, which Walt Disney used as a testing ground to expand the artistic and technical range of his studio. In Who Killed Cock Robin? the studio’s artists tried their hand at animated caricature,(1) presenting the figure of Jenny Wren as a parody of Mae West. This made Jenny effectively a parody of a parody of a parody, as Mae West’s stage persona was thought to have been in part inspired by female impersonator Bert Savoy.(2)

The cartoon is a broad-brush satire of prejudice and corruption in the US judicial system, showing police brutality as routine, and persecution of people who are Black, working class, or suffering mental health problems, as the norm. “Hang them all!” orders the judge, before gay cupid comes out to reveal the truth about Cock Robin.

The Tell-Tale Heart

The Tell-Tale Heart (1953). Directed by Ted Parmelee. United States: United Productions of America (UPA). Available on Vimeo.

Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, The Tell-Tale Heart (1843), tells of a murderer who, tormented by guilt, is unable to conceal his crime, and for this animated adaptation, Poe’s words, abridged, are spoken in voiceover by James Mason.

Film is a collaborative medium, and the director is not always the most notable creative contributor. In the case of The Tell-Tale Heart, it is the contribution of designer Paul Julian that stands out.(3) He was the one responsible for the stunning painted images. The paintings are rarely truly still—they provide a maze of paths down which a restless camera travels. To call them backgrounds seems misleading, as these expressionist paintings carry the story much more than the occasional and limited movements of the characters, and they deliver the story with force.

The Trial

The Trial. (1962). Directed by Orson Welles. France, West Germany, Italy: Paris-Europa Productions, Hisa-Films, Fi. C. It. Available from Box of Broadcasts.

Adapted from Franz Kafka’s 1925 novel Der Process, Orson Welles’ film of The Trial tells the story of a young man, Josef K, who very early one morning is woken by strangers who have entered his bedroom to tell him that he is under arrest, but refuse to tell him on what charge. This begins the unwinding of a mystifying judicial process that is secretive, elusive, comic and terrifying. Josef K, played by Anthony Perkins, is in a state of constant anxiety through the film, oscillating between defiance and submission. Kafka’s hypersensitised prose is translated into high-contrast black and white cinematography, wide angles, off-kilter viewpoints, rushing movements through incongruent settings, and so many faces, innumerable fearful, weary, and haggard strangers, unsettling women, tormentful children.

The officers and offices of the law are shown as shabby and abject. We see no uniforms, badges, crests or seals to validate their authority, and K. initially asks whether the whole thing might be a joke. Yet even as he speaks with defiance, his demeanour shows that he experiences the court and its workings as real and capable of destroying him. He seeks to cling to some authority of his own, citing his work position, his hopes of promotion in his department, but next to the unseen and unknowable lofty structures of the court, his own knowable status seems little. He is defeated by threats of shadows.

Not knowing what he is accused of, possibilities of guilt crowds in upon him. Is he guilty of causing the eviction of a fellow lodger? Does his boss suspect him of a sexual relationship with his young cousin? Is he himself an informer? This last possibility arises when, perversely, the police don’t use violence against him but against each other in his presence. Two of them are whipped by other policemen in a room at his workplace because, they tell him, he accused them of soliciting bribes. To make it stop, he then tries to bribe one of the ones doing the whipping, but his money is refused and he flees.

Any adaptation of a novel for the screen involves changes. Interviewed at the time of the film’s first release, director Orson Welles told Huw Weldon of the BBC that he had “no compunction” about changing the book—“If you take a serious view of filmmaking, you have to consider that films are not an illustration or an interpretation of a work, but quite as worthwhile as the original.”(4) In the case of The Trial, the first change was made at the very beginning, as Welles chose to open the film with a parable that in the novel was only told to the main character much later in the story.

The parable, Before the Law,(5) was first published in 1915 independently of the novel, which itself was published posthumously a decade later. It begins:

Before the law there is a doorkeeper. To this doorkeeper comes a man from the country and asks to be admitted into the law. But the doorkeeper says he can’t let him in now. The man thinks about it and then asks if he will be allowed to enter later.

“It is possible,” says the doorkeeper, “but not now.”

The doorkeeper warns the man that beyond this door there are further doors, and more doorkeepers. So the man from the country sits and waits for permission to enter. He waits for years, a lifetime. He tries bribing the doorkeeper, who takes everything but says, “I only accept it so that you don’t think you have left something untried.”

The film opens with Orson Welles telling this parable in voiceover, illustrated by images of artwork by Alexandre Alexeieff and Claire Parker. These images were created with a pin screen,(6) a method that Alexeieff and Parker used for a number of animated films, but here their images are still. Most probably the original intention was to fully animate the sequence, but constraints of budget or time forced abandonment of the plan. Animation is usually laborious and slow, and pin screen animation was particularly so, as the technique demanded creating the artwork before the camera, frame by frame, without the possibilities of pre-preparing artwork through a division of labour as was normally done in commercial cel animation.

In the novel, this parable was told to K. by a priest during chapter nine, In the Cathedral. The priest told K. that the parable was part of “the writings which preface the Law.” The character of the priest also briefly appears in the film, but here it’s K’s advocate, played by Welles, who now steps in to retell the parable. The advocate uses a slide projector and screen to show K. the same illustrations seen at the start of the film. “I’ve heard it before,” K. interrupts, “We’ve all heard it—the man is dying of old age still waiting there, and just at the end the guard tells him that the door was meant for him, only for him.”

The guard tells him no one else could enter this door, the advocate reminds K—“And now I am going to close it.” Then the advocate continues, “Some commentators have pointed out that the man came to the door of his own free will.”

“And we’re supposed to swallow all that?” K. demands. “It’s all true?”

“We needn’t accept everything as true,” the advocate replies, “Only as necessary.”

While it’s all too possible to connect The Trial—both the book and the film—with horrors of history and of the present day, its great power is that the story is not bound to a particular time and place. It is not a narrowly targeted satire, but instead a wildly imaginative exploration of the brutalities possible in the relationships between the individual and the group. It is only through further growth of imagination that we might ever find ways out of the traps it describes.


1. Animation historian Michael Barrier provides extensive information on Who Killed Cock Robin?—much of it gathered through his interviews with people involved in the film’s creation, story artists Bill Cottrell and Joe Grant, as well as documents from the production:
“Only one character, Jenny Wren, is an unmistakable caricature, of Mae West. A number of other characters look as if they should be caricatures, but they aren’t, not like Jenny Wren. When Cock Robin is shot and falls, he utters three last ‘a-boos’ before ‘expiring,’ but that’s really just a Crosby reference, from a character who is not a Crosby caricature. […]
“Other characters suggest Harpo Marx and Stepin Fetchit, but only in the most general terms […]
“When I spoke with Grant in 1986, a few days after speaking with Cottrell, he laid their hesitation to a practical difficulty, one having to do with the skill level the Disney animators had reached by early 1935. ‘We had a problem of just exactly who could do the job, to follow through,’ he said.”

2. “Mae West onstage probably owed more to Bert Savoy than to any woman in the theatre before 1920.” Lillian Schlissel in her introduction to Three Plays by Mae West: Sex, The Drag and Pleasure Man (1997).

3. Director Michael Sporn writing in 2013 about Paul Julian on his blog, Splog:
“His most famous and greatest achievement is, of course, the work he did on The Tell-Tale Heart. This is his film. Ted Parmelee directed it, but I’m certain that he pretty much set the camera moves and timing, leaving all the design work for Julian.”
Several more of Michael Sporn’s blog posts highlighted Paul Julian’s work.

4. Orson Welles on THE TRIAL, transcript of a 1962 interview on the BBC with Huw Weldon.

5. Vor dem Gesetz, Franz Kafka, Selbstwehr Vol. 9, No. 34 (7. September 1915).

6. Pin Screen (1973), directed by Norman McLaren. Canada: National Film Board of Canada. With Alexandre Alexeieff and Claire Parker.