Director: Orson Welles
Cast: Orson Welles, Elmyr de Hory, Clifford Irving
Watch F for Fake online in the UK: iTunes
From They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead to The Eyes of Orson Welles, the maestro who made Citizen Kane has inspired a number of film essays. But before all of them, Welles had already conquered the form, with a smart, playful study on truth, fiction and the blurred line between.
If that sounds P for Pretentious, you’d be right, and that’s precisely the point: F for Fake is giddily aware of its intellectual posturing, going back and forth over its own arguments with a confidence that’s at once overbearing, disorienting and never less than intriguing.
“Ladies and gentleman, this is a film about trickery,” Welles explains directly to camera, and so he introduces a documentary about Elymr de Hory, a forger of fine art who is being portrayed on the page by Clifford Irving in a new book. The American journalist, though, was a forger himself: he later published a biography of Howard Hughes that turned out to be fraudulent too. (For more on that, see the The Hoax, an enjoyable caper starring Richard Gere.)
But Welles, as his fourth-wall-breaking suggests, is using his subject matter as a jumping off point for his own fun – after all, what is filmmaking itself other than fraud on a grand scale, tricking people into thinking what they’re watching is real? The result is boldly experimental for its time, and strikingly different to the Orson Welles we think we know: you almost wouldn’t recognise him as being at the helm, as the film excitedly jumps between behind-the-scenes clips, actual footage from the documentary and other assorted visual tics and tricks. It’s bracingly modern, even today, and even if Welles’ bearded, caped presence anchors it firmly in its dated period.
The result was a late-career curio for the director, a trifle for film students and fans to watch and re-watch in admiration of its complexities. But it emerges in 2018 as a surprisingly natural companion piece to The Other Side of the Wind, which saw Welles in a similarly determined mood to fashion a new mode of storytelling after a career of failing to find traction with his existing style. (Fittingly, Michel Legrand even composed the whirlwind soundtracks to go with both.) It’s a mad, impressively committed flourish of surprise from an undisputed master of cinema; a meditation on authorship that sees him disappear entirely from view, despite being visible in almost every frame. A for Arrogant and K for incredibly Knowing? Without any doubt. But with no end of ideas in its short 95 minutes, F for Fake is never less than E for Entertaining. You can almost hear him howling in mock agony at someone else using an acrostic to describe it.