When Orson Welles completed F For Fake in 1976, he never intended it to become the last film of his to play in movie theaters during in his lifetime. Welles would live for another nine years, but his final days alternated between lucrative voiceover and character actor work, and a constant search to find financial backers to get his own productions released.
After F For Fake, he never did. I’m tempted to write, “sadly”, but to a certain extent, Welles had only himself to blame: generally speaking, a director must be bankable–his films must turn a profit–and Welles’ films rarely did. As I wrote in an early Blogcritics piece about Welles’ first and best film, Citizen Kane:
Citizen Kane’s inability to turn a profit, coupled with Hearst’s actions, ultimately blackballed Welles in Hollywood.
Incidentally, Welles was far from blacklisted–a far, far too loaded a word to describe what happened to his career post-Kane. He worked constantly in movies, both in front of and behind the cameras. He just couldn’t come to grips with the seemingly obvious fact that movies have to turn a profit, which means they have to connect with a mass audience. Even Kubrick, the most avant-garde of American directors, knew instinctively that he had to build his films around large, popular themes – nuclear hysteria, outer space, horror, Vietnam, and sex. His one film that didn’t have a theme that a large audience could immediately tap into, Barry Lyndon, failed to turn a profit in the US. He wouldn’t make that mistake again for the three films he had left in him.) Welles couldn’t find a plot or protagonist that a mass audience could bond with.
But while Welles never intended F For Fake to be his swan song, it’s still quite an interesting film to go out on.
For one thing, unlike the vast majority of Welles’ previous movies, it’s a documentary. This long excerpt from a Tuner Classic Movies page on the film is an excellent description of how the film came to be:
In the summer of 1968, Spain sent the police to arrest an aristocratic, foppish Hungarian living in a villa on the island of Ibiza. His name was Elmyr de Hory, or at least that was his latest alias. His criminal act was painting art works of great beauty. Normally that wouldn’t be a crime but he was in the habit of painting his art in the style of the great masters, forging their signatures onto the paintings, and selling them as newly discovered “masterpieces.” Art experts had validated his forgeries as authentic and, since de Hory wasn’t talking, there was no telling how many museums had forged Matisses, Picassos and others on their walls.
De Hory spent a couple of months in jail and was exiled for a year. By the time he returned to Ibiza he had gained the attention of two other artists, French filmmaker Francois Reichenbach and an American author who lived on Ibiza, Clifford Irving. Reichenbach began shooting film for a documentary on de Hory while Irving interviewed him. It was Irving who got his work out first as a book called Fake! in 1969. As subsequent events showed, Irving may have learned a bit too much from his subject.
Meanwhile the great director Orson Welles was in Europe trying to get more money from European and Iranian backers for his never-to-be-completed feature The Other Side of the Wind (Gary Graver, one of Welles’s cinematographers on F For Fake, is currently planning on completing the film). His bank account way overdrawn after the I.R.S. seized tax payments he’d owed since the late 1940’s, Welles was desperate for cash. It was then that he met Reichenbach and saw his footage of interviews with de Hory. He was impressed and volunteered to take over the project of editing the footage into a television program for the BBC.
As Welles was editing the footage, the Clifford Irving story broke. Irving had received an advance of $765,000 from publishers McGraw-Hill for the purported autobiography of long-time recluse Howard Hughes. To prove he was in communication with this titan no one had seen publicly in years, Irving produced documents containing Hughes’ signature. Handwriting experts declared the signatures authentic. Of course, just like de Hory’s “masterpieces,” the signatures were fakes. Hughes, or at least what was presumed to be the voice of Hughes, held a news conference over speakerphone to deny ever speaking to Irving. The phony autobiography became a gigantic media scandal with Time magazine even using a de Hory portrait of Irving on their cover.
Since Reichenbach had also interviewed Irving in his material on de Hory, Welles knew he was making a program that was sure to attract attention. He talked Reichenbach into elevating the TV show into a feature with additional material to be shot under Welles’ direction. The result took over a year to edit, although from the resulting film it is obvious that the time was needed. F For Fake is still one of the most daringly edited movies of its time. Unfortunately, by the time it reached theaters in 1976, the scandal was long over and American critics were put off by Welles’ play of truth and lies. Or was it art experts in the press standing in defense of their brethren? In any case it was dismissed as a minor film in Welles’s later period.
Now, however, F For Fake stands as Welles’ last masterpiece, a playful movie essay on the questions that post-modernists were just then beginning to ask. Where does art gain its meaning? Who is the “author” of a work of art and why is that important to the value of art? Years after his death the true worth of this last major work of Orson Welles has finally been recognized, even by art critics.
As Doug Pratt wrote in his review of the film a few years ago for The Laser Disc Newsletter, what makes the film work–and allows it to transcend its documentary nature–is Welles’ incredible voice:
The material is just interesting enough to be worthy of a documentary presentation, and that is all Welles needs to put on a grand performance. He uses his most manipulative voice, not the Jehovah intonations which one is normally familiar with (selling wine before its time and the like), but his radio voice, which, through unnatural pauses and changes in pitch, pulls your whole head into the speaker with him. The makeshift visuals cannot be dismissed either, as there will often be a clever transition between one piece of film and the next. Like the work of Picasso and the other artists discussed in the film, the movie may have the look of having been thrown together, but it was guided by the instincts and strengths of a master.
The new DVD version of F For Fake includes a newly mastered video transfer, about which Criterion, who produced the disc, says:
F For Fake is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.66:1. On standard 4:3 televisions, the image will appear letterboxed. On standard and widescreen televisions, black bars may also be visible on the left and right to maintain the proper screen format. Assistant editor Dominique Engerer supervised this new high-definition digital transfer, which was created on a Spirit Datacine from a 35mm interpositive. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, and scratches were removed using the MTI Digital Restoration System. To maintain optimal image quality through the compression process, the picture on this dual-layer DVD-9 was encoded at the highest-possible bit rate for the quantity of materials included.
The soundtrack was mastered at 24-bit from the 35mm magnetic master, and audio restoration tools were used to reduce clicks, pops, hiss, and crackle. The Dolby Digital 1.0 signal will be directed to the center channel on 5.1-channel sound systems, but some viewers may prefer to switch to two-channel playback for a wider dispersal of the mono sound.
Welles completists will no doubt flock to F For Fake. But it’s a remarkably ingratiating film even to those who are often put off by the rococo excesses of some of Welles’ later dramas. And to borrow from the title of another of his documentaries, it’s all true. Well, some of it, anyhow.
Update: As I explain in a later post, in many ways F For Fake anticipated such well known celebrity charlatans as Michael Moore and Al Sharpton.