In hindsight,F For Fake (1973) might be seen as inevitable. In an interview with Jean Clay from almost a decade before the film’s release, Welles warned: “If you try to probe, I’ll lie to you.” Admitting that most what he says is fabricated, Welles astutely advised: “Destroy all biographies. Only art can explain the life of a man.”
Yet, there is something of a gimmick even in that statement. It was through the medium of radio that Welles delivered his first hurrah of trickery, at the ripe old age of 23 on October 30, 1938. The reaction to Welles’ sharply directed radio dramatization of H.G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds” is impossible to fathom now; in the era before internet, cable, and television, Welles broadcast of a faked Martian invasion of New Jersey caused a nationwide panic. Believing it was the end of the world as we know it, the masses rioted and looted. In the resulting exodus, traffic was jammed in neighboring cities. Hundreds—if not thousands—died. Those of weak hearts dropped dead. The rivers beneath bridges were flowing with the bodies of suicides. Orson Welles immediately became a household name.
Only, those reports were predominantly fake as well. The station did not have a sizable audience. Few were actually listening to the broadcast, let alone fooled by it. There were a scant number of purported deaths, with the highest estimates ranging from five to twenty. However, that was enough for Welles and company to shrewdly feed the press until it escalated into a glorious myth. Thank God we’ve evolved past that now… well, until a certain political faker last year spewed, without a shred of evidence, “I saw thousands of Muslims [replacing Martians] cheering in New Jersey on 911” and his sycophants went “ooh” and “ahh” to the cheap parlor trick.
Unlike politicians, Welles called himself out in F For Fake, as he did thirty-five years prior when he manufactured a public apology for the unintentional catastrophe caused by manufactured Martians. To the world at large, Welles’ apology only confirmed the epic scale of that 1938 disaster.
Although Welles was nearly fired from RKO over the radio broadcast, such trickery deserved a reward. Welles eventually got it when the studio gave him carte blanche for the production of Citizen Kane (1941). If you haven’t heard of it, it’s this little movie about a newspaper magnate and charlatan that caused an epic backlash, but a few critics seemed to like it somewhat.
Like that infamous Martian debacle, a baroque cult grew around F For Fake and for years, but with poor distribution, it was more discussed than seen. Fortunately, the 2005 Criterion Collection release remedied that. Welles himself guides us through an innovative and entertaining mirrored labyrinth of forgeries. Despite the hearty laugh and kaleidoscopic mischief, like all of Welles, there is an inherent sense of loneliness peeking through the facade.
Of course, documentaries (Welles referred to F for Fake as a theatrical essay) are supposed to be factual. Who but Welles would render the medium as surrealistic taffy, focusing on a trilogy of frauds, including himself? With a wave of his thick magician’s hand, Welles breathlessly narrates the viewer through 90 minutes of punchily paced, whirlwind intercutting and briskly edited farce. The editing process, however, was anything but brisk, taking an entire year. It shows. In one compelling sequence, Welles, a painter himself, compares film editing to painting, paralleling composition in the two mediums.
Welles’ oeuvre belongs to that category of complexities that require repeated viewing. This, his last completed film, is no exception. It’s as cheeky and mosaic a swan song as could be hoped for from American cinema’s ace oversized sorcerer.
While The Lady from Shanghai (1947) is famous for its climatic hall of mirrors sequence, F For Fake is more mirror than celluloid. Picasso once said that all art, regardless of subject matter, is self-portrait. Welles, whose own self-portraits are among his most successful canvases, confirms this by assuring us that he is not much different from Elmyr de Hory, a true Paganini of the palette and one of the world’s most foremost talented art forgers who replicated Manet, Renoir, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Picasso, Modigliani, Chagall, and Matisse with startling ease. So successful a forger was Elmyr that when he committed suicide just three years after being featured in F for Fake (French authorities had just successfully secured permission to extradite him), many initially assumed that he had faked his death.
Elmyr’s biographer Clifford Irving was far more infamous for his forged “authorized” autobiography of billionaire. Irving had claimed that Hughes, admiring his Elmyr biography “Fake!” agreed to a series of interviews. After McGraw-Hill paid him a six figure advance, Irving never expected recluse Hughes to publicly denounce the book, but the aviator did just that in 1972, which resulted in the forger serving over a year in prison. For those of us old enough to remember, it was the biggest hoax of the decade. Welles is impressed enough to award Irving the coveted number one faker honor (Elmyr comes in second) introducing him as: “The author of ‘Fake!,’ a book about a faker who was himself a faker and the author of a fake to end all fakes.” Welles proudly concludes that Irving “must have been cooking it up when we were filming him. If you can buy the notion that Irving turned to forgery before he turned to Elmyr, then I guess you can keep right on through the looking glass and believe that his book about Elmyr is a pack of lies. ‘Fake!’ is a fake and Elmyr himself is a fake faker.”
In the selfie portion of the film, Welles brags how he lied his way into his first acting gig at the age of 16 when he told Dublin casting directors that he was a famous star in New York and, somehow, got them to believe him. What he says next could be a summation for the director of Citizen Kane who failed to top himself with his follow-up films: “I began at the top and have been working my way down ever since. If acting is an art, cooking up a bogus Broadway career was a fine case of art forgery.” Of course, there is also… Mars: “In my past, there aren’t any Picassos. No, my next flight into fakery was by flying saucer.”
Oddly, that flight is brief, and after an even quicker traversal through the life of mystery man Hughes and his litany of doubles, Welles utilizes his longtime mistress Oja Kodar (whose father was an also an art forger) as eroticized bait for Pablo Picasso, who solicits a series of portraits. It’s an unexpected and extended sequence… that is entirely faked.
Perhaps sensing that F For Fake might be his epithet, Welles dons cape and glove, waxes about mortality and art, and leaves us a film with one final mystery: rumor has it that most of the footage was actually directed by Francois Reichenbach.