Orson Welles’ last finished movie (besides Filming Othello) doesn’t look like much going in. But once it starts, you know you’re in the master’s hands once again. Welles, here in his sixties, reveals two new sides to his cinema audience, the prankster and the editor.
The film gives credit to two other editors, but it was edited by Welles himself. The film is about trickery, and the movie itself is full of tricks. The way it is edited, you may believe that any two people are talking to each other, but in fact they’re not even in the room together. Welles also plays with sound. He dubs in his voice in certain areas with profound trickery as well. Most of the film deals with writer Clifford Irving, who apparently wrote a fake biography of the real Howard Hughes, or was it a fake Howard Hughes? He also had something to do with a great art forger named Elmyr de Hory. By the time the film is done, you don’t know who to believe. You don’t even know if the entire film is a put-on.
Certainly the ending is a put on. At the beginning of the film, Welles announces that he will tell the truth for one hour. By the time we get to the end, just as Welles predicted, we have forgotten what he said. Actress and Welles’ lover, the luscious Oja Kodar, plays a young woman who was apparently painted by Pablo Picasso. Welles concocts a fabulous “recreation” of what happened, even though the story contradicts itself. He then appears and tells us that the whole story has been a fake. The film also deals briefly with his War of the Worlds fakery back in the thirties.
F for Fake calls to mind other documentaries such as the entirely phony This is Spinal Tap and the recreation documentary The Thin Blue Line, and begs the question of whether or not F for Fake really is a documentary. I think it is. Welles is attempting to explain, taking full advantage of the medium, how all stories have a certain element of fake to them, and that filmed documentaries are no different. An odd contradiction in itself for a man, who at the beginning of his career, began work on a documentary entitled, It’s All True.
DVD Details: The Criterion Collection released the laserdisc, from which I wrote the above review, and now they’ve followed up ten years later with an even better DVD. This sublime two-disc set comes with a newly remastered edition of the movie, in which Welles’ new scenes appear crystal clear, but the de Hory sequences (which were filmed by Francois Reichenbach) are still scratchy. (This has no effect on the film.) Oja Kodar provides a hestitant commentary track, and Peter Bogdanovich gives an introduction. As on the laserdisc, the DVD also contains the rejected 9-minute trailer cut by Welles, which contains footage not seen in the film. We also have English subtitles for the first time. Disc Two comes with the 1995 German documentary Orson Welles: One Man Band, devoted to his unfinished works such as The Other Side of the Wind, The Deep and a small screen version of The Merchant of Venice. HBO recently did their own version of this film, in English, but both are worth seeing. Otherwise, we get more information on Irving and de Hory, notably a “60 Minutes” interview with Irving and a new documentary about de Hory (rather straightforward, which shows just how innovative Welles’ film really is). Best of all, Jonathan Rosenbaum contributes new liner notes that reveal more about the film that I caught on my two viewings. Even so, I’m convinced that this is a masterpiece and one of Welles’ most accomplished works.
Starring: Orson Welles, Oja Kodar, Elmyr de Hory, Clifford Irving, Francois Reichenbach, Gary Graver
Written by: Orson Welles, Oja Kodar
Directed by: Orson Welles
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 88 minutes
Date: April 25, 1997