F for Fake was until recently Orson Welles’s last finished film (his actual last film, The Other Side of the Wind, has just been posthumously completed and is set to come out on Netflix this autumn). Welles had already started making documentaries and travelogues, starting with Around the World With Orson Welles. There is an aspect of that in F for Fake, which can be described as an early film essay, a genre that can be said to have begun with Dziga Vertov’s 1929 Man With a Movie Camera. Godard, of course, describes his later films as essays, but F for Fake is a much more enjoyable watch.
The film is about fakery, magic, authorship, and whether “fake” art can have value. It’s focused on Elmyr de Hory, the 20th century’s most famous art forger, as well as Clifford Irving, who wrote a biography of de Hory—and later, a fake autobiography of Howard Hughes. Of course, Welles’s own fame had begun with a famous fake, the War of the Worlds broadcast.
The film was edited in a way that would be considered radical even now. It was remarkable that it was even made, given that the director couldn’t get work anywhere at this point, even in Europe. It’s one of his most playful films as well, something that’s usually associated with Welles. He’s clearly having a great time making this, which was one of his most daring movies, although not his greatest.
Welles’s background as a magician plays a role in both the storyline and the editing. As with a magic trick, there’s a big reveal at a certain point. Welles has said that he was trying to make a new kind of film with F for Fake, and he really did blaze a new trail. Although it has the appearance of a documentary, large sections of it are concocted—he’s making his own fake. Welles has said on record that everything in the film was a trick (like everything in cinema, which was perhaps his point.) Welles, of course, was always a master of playing visual tricks on the audience.
It’s debatable, but by most accounts much of the germ of the documentary had already been filmed by François Reichenbach, who then worked with Welles as his cinematographer on the rest of the film. It has long been seen as Welles’s swan song, but now there will be a new film to take that honour.
The disc is an upgrade of the previous Criterion edition, with a commentary by Oja Kodar, Welles’s former girlfriend, who also helped to write F for Fake and appears in the film and in the commentary she is joined by director of photography Gary Graver. There’s also an intro by Peter Bogdanovich, who was friends with Welles for the last couple of decades of his life and also did some voiceover work on F for Fake. Also included is an episode of a legendary interview with Welles on Tomorrow, plus the extra film/trailer that Welles made to accompany the film, a feature-length documentary about Welles’s many sadly unfinished films, and a more straightforward documentary about de Hory. A 60 Minutes interview with Irving about the Hughes hoax, an audio recording of the famous Hughes press conference denouncing Irving as a faker, and an essay by Jonathan Rosenbaum, one of the most noted Welles scholars.