Although some of his unfinished projects have subsequently been released after being completed by other hands, F for Fake was the last film by Orson Welles to be completed by the man himself. This ultra-low budget movie is a real oddity, showing that the 58-year-old Welles who made it was still as brilliant, audacious, unconventional and experimental as the 25-year-old boy genius responsible for Citizen Kane.
It also demonstrates conclusively that the popular view of his career as one long downhill slide after Citizen Kane is utter nonsense. F for Fake is a solid gold masterpiece. It’s also breath-takingly ahead of its time. It has more in common with 21st century styles of television and movie production than with the accepted practices of its own day. It’s not a conventional narrative fiction film, it’s not a straight documentary, it’s not a mockumentary, it’s not reality TV, but it’s all of these things and more. And, fittingly for someone with a lifelong passion for magic, it’s an elaborate magic trick.
The movie in fact starts with Welles (who appears in the movie as himself and as the narrator) performing a magic trick. This leads him to consider the question of trickery, of fakery, and this leads on to the main interlocking strands of the film - an examination of art and literary forgery, of art as fakery, and of his own career as a film-maker, a film-maker being perhaps the ultimate faker and the ultimate illusionist. And of course acting is all about faking. But is faking the same as lying? And is art, as Picasso said, a lie that leads us to the truth?
Welles put the film together by taking an existing TV documentary (made by François Reichenbach who was a friend of Welles and was also involved in the making of F for Fake) on the career of the most notorious art forger of modern times, Elmyr de Hory, pulling it to pieces, adding some new footage and some footage from unfinished projects of his own, and then reassembling all the pieces into something quite different. This is the cinematic equivalent of collage, a concoction that jumps about all over the place in a bewildering and mesmerising fashion but somehow ends up coming together in the kind of unexpected fashion that characterises any good magic trick.
There’s no plot as such, but there are many plots, some involving Elmyr de Hory, some involving Elmyr’s biographer who turned out to be a forger himself, but of the literary variety (he produced a completely fraudulent biography of Howard Hughes). Other plots involves Hughes himself, Welles himself, Pablo Picasso and a stunning young woman named Oja Kodar who happened to be the longtime girlfriend of Welles. At the beginning we’re told that everything we are about to see in the next hour is true, which (like everything else about the film) is both absolutely true and an absolute lie.
Technically this movie is as great an achievement as anything in the career of this great maverick of the film-making art. It’s a movie composed entirely of editing. Very little of it was actually filmed by Welles, but it’s more of an Orson Welles film than almost anything else he ever did. This piece of filmic trickery was engineered entirely by Welles at his editing desk. There are no actors in the movie, everyone plays themselves, but everyone in the movie is acting. Even those who didn’t know they were in the movie.
This is Welles at his most playful, but that does not imply that F for Fake is a lesser Welles work. Quite the opposite. It’s also as entertaining as anything with which he was ever involved, a rollercoaster ride of fun and games. Welles is clearly enjoying himself immensely as the master magician, and the spell he weaves is irresistible. Magnificent!