Orson Welles’ F For Fake (1974)
France, 1974. Dir: Orson Welles
Starring: Orson Welles, Oja Kodar, Elmyr de Hory, Clifford Irving, Francois Reichenbach, Gary Graver, Joseph Cotton.
At one point in F For Fake, whilst discussing his career, Orson Welles says “I started at the top and have been working my way down ever since.” Although just a glib line from the director, it nevertheless points to a general attitude towards Welles’ career – that he never lived up to the expectations generated by the creative heights of his first feature, Citizen Kane (1941). If this assertion is to believed, the fact that F For Fake is Welles’ final major feature may signal that it’s not likely to be amongst his best work. In actual fact, looking at his later films only emphasises the fact that, far from never making another Citizen Kane, Welles simply wasn’t interested in retreading old ground, instead choosing to make each new film a daring and unique picture (which ironically was exactly what Kane had been in the early 40’s, therefore maybe Welles was always maintaining the same creative heights). The films of Welles european period are amongst his very best – the claustrophobic Kafka adaptation The Trial (1962) (Welles’ own personal favourite of all his films), the acclaimed Shakesperian anthology Chimes At Midnight (1966), and finally F For Fake.
Described by Welles as a “new kind of film”, F For Fake playfully combines interviews, stock footage and experiments in editing with bogus fictional segments, hidden camera stunts and film trickery into a spellbinding kaleidoscopic movie, with Orson’s mischievous narration pinning seemingly unconnected strands together. It began life as a straightforward documentary on Elmyr de Hory, the world’s most famous art forger, who had been the subject of a recent biography, Fake! by Clifford Irving. At this point, the film was just a BBC arts documentary directed by Francois Reichenbach, featuring interviews with both Hory and Irving. But during production, events took a unexpected turn when Clifford Irving, having written about the life of a great faker, found himself at the centre of a scandalous fraud. In 1972, Irving had sold the rights to a sensational autobiography of notorious recluse Howard Hughes, which after denouncements from Hughes himself, he admitted to being entirely faked (this whole episode was later the basis of it’s own film, The Hoax in 2006). Fascinated by the deception, Welles took Reichenbach’s footage, expanded it and wove together segments on Hory’s forgeries, the Irving fraud, Hughes’ life and Welles’ own career of artistic duplicity, into a meditation on the general art of fakery.
The film also indulges in its own flights of fancy, relating a completely false story about a series of Picasso portraits. But those paying attention will notice that Welles states only the first hour of the film will be concerned with the facts (another lie however – the film is still sprinkled with fallacies throughout). All the narratives are perfectly intertwined, from the relationship between Hory and Irving, Welles’ reflection that Hughes was the original basis of Charles Foster Kane and the fact that Welles’ own career was built on a series of untruths (firstly, how he cheated his way into an Irish theatre company and secondly, how his infamous radio broadcast of The War Of The Worlds (1938), fooled and terrified an entire nation.)
F For Fake is a dizzying, captivating piece of documentary film-making and, far from showing a director whose creativity is on the wane, proves that Welles was capable of being as ingenious and adventurous as when he first stepped into Hollywood.
F For Fake is available on Eureka’s excellent Masters Of Cinema DVD collection.