mon 24/06/2024

F For Fake | reviews, news & interviews

F For Fake

F For Fake

Orson Welles’ mock-doc on fakes and forgers is terrifically witty and terribly wise

Now you see him: Orson Welles in 'F For Fake'

For all that’s been said about Orson Welles – usually focusing on his towering genius and sizable ego - he was above all a great contrarian. In interviews he was often genial and self-effacing and of course a scintillating raconteur. During his later years he could be avuncular, entertainingly unpredictable and very funny, like a mischievous lecturer.

His The Lady From Shanghai (1947) is so loaded with eccentricity it’s positively cock-eyed and Welles was of course an outcast in Hollywood, that is until he cast himself out. So while those familiar with the legend alone might find F for Fake (1974) tonally surprising, it’s a fine showcase for Welles at his most impish.

In this - Welles’ last completed film - sadly, F is also for forgotten, as it has been one of the more shamefully neglected works in his oeuvre. Additionally, it’s the most difficult to define: part documentary, it’s an inventive, inexpensive, brazenly cut-and-paste version of history, which also features artfully staged sequences and oodles of European glamour. Welles himself states that, “This is a film about trickery and fraud.” before promising, somewhat roguishly, “The next hour will be true and based on solid facts.” That he’s up to something you can be sure.

Opening and closing with a magic trick (Welles was an accomplished magician) F For Fake is, at least in part, the story of art forger Elmyr de Hory (pictured right) and his biographer Clifford Irving - also a fraudster it would turn out, who claimed to have completed an authorised biography of Howard Hughes. Welles bats us, sometimes disorientatingly, between one subject and the other and back and forth in time, frequently appropriating footage from a François Reichenbach documentary, which has been liberally and frenetically re-edited (a process which reportedly took a full year). After the truth about Irving emerged, Reichenbach, it seems, surrendered his original vision to Welles, after first bringing him in to narrate.

In F For Fake the very nature of filmmaking is under the microscope, Welles illustrates how, through the process of editing, footage can be manipulated to suggest connections, deceive and add humour. The film is interspersed with links featuring the man himself (who also acts as narrator) – he appears sat in his editing suite, or attired dramatically in a hat and cloak, providing us with commentary and anecdotes relating to his own trickery, along with a final cheeky tale featuring Pablo Picasso and Oja Kodar (pictured below left, actually Welles’ companion and collaborator, who he holds up as a totem of beauty).

Over the course of this stimulating, idiosyncratic film, the anti-establishment Welles and his similarly inclined subjects also query the validity of expert opinion. Sequences show de Hory symbolically burning his forgeries and, during one such moment, Welles shrewdly notes, “One nod from an expert and that piece of canvas would be worth maybe a couple of hundred thousand dollars.” If value is intrinsically linked to whether something is considered art and this is determined by fallible experts, Welles questions where that leaves art.

An irreverent yet still sympathetic examination of several shady characters (including Welles, who describes himself cheerfully as a charlatan) and a playful consideration of what constitutes art, most of all F For Fake is a triumph of whirlwind, yet startlingly rhythmic editing and ninety joyful minutes spent in impeccable company. Taking inspiration from Picasso’s, “Art is a lie that makes us realise truth”, this is a film of many merits; if Citizen Kane is testament to a young man’s genius then F For Fake is testament to a veteran’s rebellious spirit and wicked sense of humour.

  • The BFI re-release of F For Fake is in selected cinemas from Friday

Follow @EmmaSimmonds on Twitter

Watch the original full-length trailer for F For Fake

In F For Fake the very nature of filmmaking is under the microscope


Editor Rating: 
Average: 5 (1 vote)

Share this article

Add comment

Subscribe to

Thank you for continuing to read our work on For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters