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F for Fake - Criterion Collection

Classics movie directed by Orson Welles

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With a great creative genius like Welles, how can one tell when he is lying?

  • Sep 2, 2010

Orson Welles’ 1973 docu-drama “F For Fake” is the last major film completed by Orson Welles, who directed, co-wrote, and starred in the film. Initially released in 1974, it focuses on Elmyr de Hory's recounting of his career as a professional art forger; de Hory's story serves as the backdrop for a fast-paced, meandering investigation of the natures of authorship and authenticity, as well as the basis of the value of art. Loosely a documentary, the film operates in several different genres and has been described as a kind of film essay. 

F For Fake is often considered as a masterpiece of the art of editing — a key subject of the film itself, which at many points shows Welles sitting at his editing desk as he narrates. Welles and his assistants worked on the final cut for an entire year, working seven days a week—shots are rapidly intercut almost by the second throughout, lending the film a quick-paced touch. One of the examples considered to be among the best is a series of near wordless shots of Irving and de Hory seemingly in debate as to whether de Hory ever signed his forgeries (the shots of Irving and de Hory were in fact taken at different times).

Far from serving as a traditional documentary on Elmyr de Hory, the film also incorporates Welles's “companion” Oja Kodar, notorious "hoax-biographer" Clifford Irving, and Orson Welles himself, in an autobiographical role.  Several narratives are woven together throughout the film, including those of de Hory, Irving, Welles, Howard Hughes and Kodar.

About de Hory, we learn that he was a struggling artist who turned to forgery out of desperation, only to see the greater share of the profits from his deceptions go to doubly unscrupulous art dealers. As partial compensation for that injustice, he is maintained in a villa in Ibiza by one of his dealers. What is only hinted at in Welles's documentary is that de Hory had recently served a two-month sentence in a Spanish prison for homosexuality and consorting with criminals. (De Hory would commit suicide a few years after the release of Welles' film, on hearing that Spain had agreed to turn him over to the French authorities.)

Irving's original part in “F for Fake” was as de Hory's biographer, but his part grew unexpectedly at some point during production. There has not always been agreement among commentators over just how that production unfolded, but the now-accepted story is that the director François Reichenbach shot a documentary about de Hory and Irving before giving his footage to Welles, who then shot additional footage with Reichenbach as his cinematographer.  In the time between the shooting of Reichenbach's documentary and the finishing of Welles', it became known that Irving had perpetrated a hoax of his own, namely a fabricated "authorized biography" of Howard Hughes (the hoax was later fictionalized in “The Hoax”). This discovery prompted the shooting of still more footage, which then got woven into “F for Fake.” Blurring the lines even more, there are several pieces of footage in the film showing Welles at a party with De Hory, and, at one point, De Hory even signs a painting with a forgery of Welles' signature.

Exactly one hour before narrating Kodar's story, Welles promises that everything in the next hour of his film will be true. Exactly one hour later, the film tells a story where Kodar sits for a series of nudes for Pablo Picasso after getting him to agree to give her the finished portraits, and then selling not those very portraits but fake Picassos in their place. The story climaxes with Welles and Kodar re-enacting a tense exchange between Picasso and Kodar's grandfather, the alleged forger of the paintings, before Welles reminds the viewer that he only promised to tell the truth for an hour and that "for the last 17 minutes, I've been lying my head off."


With a great creative genius like Welles, how can one tell when he is lying? With a great creative genius like Welles, how can one tell when he is lying? With a great creative genius like Welles, how can one tell when he is lying?

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September 08, 2010
Sounds like one of those trippy art films of the period. I am interested in his Lady in Shanghai which I've never seen. Great write-up!
September 08, 2010
Jim, it is a great "art house" film.
About the reviewer
Michael Neulander ()
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Recently graduated with a Masters in Humanities degree from Old Dominion University reading in philosophy and history. I graduated from the Univ. of Miami in 1980 with a B.A. in Political Science; specializing … more
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To call Orson Welles'sF For Fakea documentary would be somewhat deceitful, but deceit itself is very much the subject of this curious film essay. Welles ruminates on the nature of artistic fakery through two examples, that of infamous art forger Elmyr de Hory and the writer Clifford Irving, whose bogus autobiography of Howard Hughes set off a minor media flurry in the 1970s. Postmodernist that he is, Wells then proceeds to narrate and edit the film in such a perversely frenetic way as to blur the lines between what is real and what is deception, making for an often confusing but engaging work of art in itself. We even see the footage we've been watching as it's being spliced together in Welles's editing room. The specter of Welles's often maligned later career hangs over the proceedings like a challenge--is he going to actually complete this strange movie about chicanery, or will it become one of the many unfinished experiments of his twilight years? Happily, Welles concludes the proceedings with a delightful sequence about Picasso, lust, and what constitutes real art.F For Fakeis a fine example of a master filmmaker who had at least a couple tricks left up his sleeve.--Ryan Boudinot
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Director: Orson Welles
Genre: Classics
Screen Writer: Orson Welles, Oja Kodar
DVD Release Date: April 26, 2005
Runtime: 85 minutes
Studio: Criterion
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