“It’s (almost) All True!” – Orson Welles’ F For Fake

by Philip Concannon

When he was four years old, Orson Welles’ mother gave him the gift of a magic set, and the precocious boy quickly learned to delight adults with his confident performances. Later, Orson’s father took him to see a number of magic shows, and he was once taken backstage to meet Harry Houdini, for whom he performed a handkerchief trick he was very proud of (he was told by the great Houdini to go away and perfect it). There’s no doubt that magic had always been an integral part of Welles’ life, and perhaps that partly explains the pleasure he took from filmmaking. He famously described it as the biggest train set a boy ever had, but he could have just as easily described it as the ultimate magic trick.

For most of his career, however, Welles was a magician attempting to create illusions with one hand tied behind his back. After his stunning debut Citizen Kane, Welles failed to make another feature film without his efforts being compromised in some way. A couple of his pictures were lost in the editing process while others had to be shot with meagre resources, and many long-gestating projects simply fell apart completely. All Orson Welles ever wanted from life was to create art and dazzle audiences, but over the course of four decades his life turned into a series of battles, disappointments and missed opportunities.

All of which brings us to F For Fake, the last feature film Welles would ever complete, and one that is quite unlike any other film he ever made. Its genesis was serendipitous, but the circumstances that saw this multilayered tale of fakery fall into Welles’ lap offered him his first chance to make a real break for freedom since Citizen Kane. With F For Fake, Welles set out to make something entirely new, and while many fans of the director were ultimately disconcerted by how little this felt like “an Orson Welles picture”, that was all part of his design. As he told Cahiers du cinema in an interview after the film’s release, he deliberately avoided any shots that might be regarded as “typically Wellesian.” For a director who still had the bitter taste of failure and rejection in his mouth, this was an opportunity for complete reinvention.

But if Welles was creating something new here, what exactly was it? F For Fake is most frequently described as an “essay film”, but that term risks making it sound a lot drier and more academic than it actually is. Welles sets the playful tone immediately by performing some sleight of hand on a railway station to a transfixed young boy. “I’m a charlatan,” he cheerfully admits, before he adopts a graver manner and makes his audience a solemn promise – “During the next hour, everything you hear from us is really true and based on solid fact.” From this statement we can surmise that F For Fake will be a documentary and will present its subject to us in a straightforward and honest manner, which is exactly what Welles does…up to a point.

F For Fake is a film about forgery, trickery and lies. Its central figure (aside from Welles, of course) is Elmyr de Hory, a notorious forger of great artworks; the man who once painted such a convincing copy of a van Dongen, the artist swore that he had painted it himself. While Welles films Elmyr at work in Ibiza, another intriguing figure quietly comes into focus – Clifford Irving, who was writing a book about de Hory at the time called Fake. If that name sounds familiar to you, then it’s because Irving himself was later exposed as a fraud, with his claims to have gained access to Howard Hughes for an authorised biography causing a media frenzy, before they were eventually debunked by the reclusive millionaire. This unlikely twist gave Welles the opportunity to transform his short film on de Hory into a complex study of deception, and allowed him to touch on more personal themes of authenticity and authorship in art. Welles made F For Fake a couple of years after Pauline Kael’s Raising Kane article, which hurt the director by claiming that Herman J. Mankiewicz was primarily responsible for the script of Citizen Kane. With that in mind, the inclusion of a passage on Chartres Cathedral, a masterpiece with no signature, feels particularly resonant – why ask who built such a thing when you can admire its magnificence? Welles also thumbs his nose at the self-professed experts who sit in judgement of artworks and expresses an admiration for the way de Hory exposes them: “A faker like Elmyr makes fools of the experts, so who is the expert? Who is the faker?”

The final film Welles made has never been regarded with the same reverence as his debut but it is a remarkable work of art in its own right, and it primarily stands as an extraordinary feat of editing. It weaves together the stories of de Hory, Irving, Hughes and Welles himself into a cohesive and absorbing whole, never drawing attention to the fact that its footage was assembled from multiple sources and shot over many years. The film is cut with an exhilarating, infectious energy, standing still just long enough for us to catch up with it before Welles darts off in another direction. The most unexpected shift comes towards the end, when Welles recounts the strange story of his lover Oja Kodar and her encounter with Pablo Picasso. The tale is wittily staged as a re-enactment, and we might be inclined to take the story at face value, having recalled the director’s promise at the start of the film, but then Welles invites us to consider the specifics of that promise (“During the next hour, everything you hear from us is really true…”), and then we look at our watch…

Welles’ delight in getting one over on the audience with his final twist is evident, and perhaps the most valuable thing F For Fake offers us almost forty years on is simply Orson Welles himself, a great artist and born storyteller who is in his element here. His sheer force of personality is the anchor that holds the movie in place. He guides us through a complicated web of deceit with that inimitable voice – charming, authoritative, humorous and wistful by turn – and he pops up on screen every few minutes with a glint in his eye and a smile on his face, as if to say, “Are you really buying this?” Welles was happy when he made F For Fake, his creative juices were flowing once more, and he felt confident that he was standing on the verge of exciting new possibilities; that the success of his experiment would open doors for him in the twilight years of his career. “I know he wanted to do a whole bunch of new essay documentaries, a new form” his friend and collaborator Peter Bogdanovich recalled, but the failure of this film soon killed that notion. Sadly for Welles, and for all of us, the bright future he envisioned for himself after F For Fake turned out to be just another illusion.

F for Fake is at the BFI Southbank and on limited release from today.

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