F for Fake

Director: Orson Welles
Screenplay: Orson Welles & Oja Kadar
Features: Orson Welles, Oja Kodar, Elmyr de Hory, Laurence Harvey, Clifford Irving, Nina Van Pallandt
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1976
Country: France / Iran / West Germany
F for Fake Blu-ray
F for FakeF for Fake was one of Orson Welles’s last completed features. On the one hand, it is a grim reminder of what happened to one of the cinema’s great geniuses, as his previous feature, Chimes at Midnight (aka Falstaff; 1965), was made more than a decade earlier, and he lived for another decade and only completed one other feature film, 1978’s Filming Othello (although he continued working on numerous projects until his final days). The last 30 years of his life were littered with fragments and uncompleted films, the remnants of a great artist whose unconventional ideas and methods alienated him from those with the resources he needed to realize his visions. On the other hand, F for Fake is a wonderfully fitting conclusion to Welles’s long career, a playful exploration of the mysteries of art, magic, and fraud, all themes that were central to his best films. Remember that Citizen Kane (1941), for all its revelations, was ultimately about a person’s unknowability, both in and out of the spotlight.

A true auteur in every sense of the word, Welles was always first and foremost a deeply personal filmmaker, which is why it was so difficult for him to capitulate to anyone’s vision other than his own. He was himself a master of cinematic trickery, as his masterpiece Citizen Kane so readily attests. It is impossible to discuss Welles without also discussing his contributions to the magic of cinematic illusion, which is why it is somewhat ironic that French theorist André Bazin was so taken with the sense of realism in Welles’s films.

F for Fake is not quite a documentary; it is more like an essay that dives headfirst into its subject, pulling it apart it from the inside (in this sense, one can see its influence on the structure of recent political documentaries like Fahrenheit 9/11). On the surface, the film is about fraud in all its many manifestations, but it is really about Welles himself. Cloaked in a black hat and flowing magician’s cape, Welles is constantly front and center as the film’s narrator and guide, and his own fascinations with fraud—in terms of both harmless, entertaining magic tricks and the self-motivated deception of others for gain—dovetails with the film’s subjects. In the opening scene, Welles is performing a magic trick for a young child, and a woman (cowriter Oja Kodar) leans out the window and notes that he’s “up to his old tricks” again. “Of course,” Welles happily replies. “I’m a charlatan.” Immediately we sense that Welles is in his element.

All of the subjects in F for Fake are charlatans, and part of the film’s trickery is the way it embeds forgery within forgery. One of the main subjects is an art forger named Elmyr de Hory, who is able to mimic with stunning ease the work of virtually any master painter, yet was never able to develop a vision of his own. Elmyr’s life story is being chronicled by a writer named Clifford Irving, who had just turned the world on its ear by convincing a major publishing house to pay an enormous advance for his supposed autobiography of reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes, which turned out to be a complete hoax. Thus, we have Welles the master director and “charlatan” making a film about a forger writing a book about another forger. Clearly, to ask where “Truth” with a capital T lies is not only an exercise in futility, but one that is fundamentally absurd.

F for Fake is also about the process of filmmaking itself and how it can so easily deceive, particularly with the power of editing. The film frequently shows Welles sitting at his editing table, piecing together bits of film to create his story—a clear exercise in fabrication. The foundation of Welles’s project is an earlier documentary on Elmyr by François Reichenbach, which he purchased and completely re-edited to suit his purposes. When Reichenbach made his film, Clifford Irving’s Howard Hughes hoax had not been unmasked. Thus, Welles’s appropriation of the footage, which he admits in the film itself, becomes a form of reinterpretation that lays bare how Reichenbach’s film played into Irving’s hoax in its original form.

Welles’s film is uniquely formless, in that it has its own rhythm, but you’re never sure in what direction it will head next. It is filled with diversions, tangents, and meandering ideas culled from years of Welles’s work, all of which are loosely bound together by the theme of fakery. F for Fake was clearly inspired by the European new waves of the 1960s, both visually with its use of zooms and freeze frames and discontinuity editing, and also in its narrative looseness and sly self-referencing. Welles may have been a difficult filmmaker to work with, but he never allowed himself to become staid and outdated. The question of what he could have done had he been given the resources throughout his career—what major illusions he could have foisted on us—will forever haunt those who feel passionately about his work.

F for Fake Criterion Collection Blu-ray
F for Fake is also available from the The Criterion Collection on DVD.
Aspect Ratio1.66:1
AudioEnglish Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
  • Audio commentary by cowriter and star Oja Kodar and director of photography Gary Graver
  • Introduction by filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich
  • Episode of the talk show Tomorrow from 1975 featuring an extensive interview with Welles
  • Orson Welles: One-Man Band (1995) documentary
  • Almost True: The Noble Art of Forgery (1997) documentary
  • 60 Minutes interview from 2000 with Clifford Irving
  • Audio recording of Hughes’s 1972 press conference exposing Irving’s hoax
  • Extended, nine-minute trailer
  • Essay by critic Jonathan Rosenbaum
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection / Home Vision Entertainment
    Release DateOctober 21, 2014

    Criterion’s new high-definition transfer of F for Fake is a solid improvement over their 2005 DVD, especially in terms of detail and integrity of the film grain. Because F for Fake is a film composed of numerous different elements—some old footage, some stock footage, some shot on 16mm, some shot on 35mm—the image quality is understandably variable. Sometimes the image is extremely clear and sharp, while other scenes are grainier or less contrasty. This is what the film is supposed to look like, and Criterion’s transfer, which was taken from a 35mm interpositive under the supervision of assistant director Dominique Engerer, looks very good, maintaining the intended look of the film while also cleaning up any dirt and scratches. The monaural soundtrack, which was transferred at 24-bit from the 35mm magnetic master, sounds fine for a film of its age and given the multiple sources of the audio.

    Criterion’s Blu-ray includes all of the supplements that previously appeared on their 2005 two-disc DVD set, plus one major new addition: a 45-minute episode of the talk show Tomorrow that originally aired on April 8, 1975, in which Welles talks about the difficulties he has faced over the years as an independent filmmaker. From the DVD set we get an extended nine-minute trailer, an informative video introduction by director Peter Bogdanovich, who was a good friend of Welles’ and worked with him in the early 1970s, and an audio commentary with star/cowriter Oja Kodar, who was also Welles’ life partner during his last 20 years, and director of photography Gary Graver. The commentary is consistently interesting, although it often has little to do with the film itself and instead focuses on anecdotes about Welles’ life. Orson Welles: One-Man Band (1995) is an excellent 90-minute documentary that is mostly about Welles’ unfinished projects. It is a real treat to get to see excerpts from Welles’ unfinished works, including the ocean thriller The Deep; Moby Dick, a formally stark experiment in which Welles reads passages from Herman Melville’s book; and, most notorious of all, The Other Side of the Wind, which is supposedly in a nearly finished state, but remains unreleased due to legal difficulties. For more information on Elmyr de Hory, there is Almost True, a 1992 Norwegian Film Institute documentary on the great art forger. The Clifford Irving-Howard Hughes scandal is given deeper context with the inclusion of Hughes’ infamous phone-call press interview in which he came out of nowhere to denounce Irving’s supposed autobiography (and also field questions about his health and appearance), as well as a 2000 interview with Irving on 60 Minutes in which he discusses the hoax and comes clean to Mike Wallace, to whom he had blatantly lied on the same show back in 1972 when the hoax was just a rumor.

    Copyright ©2014 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (3.5)

    James Kendrick

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