It’s one of those salutary coincidences of movie history that the final narrative film completed by Orson Welles would turn out to be this rumination on an old man’s obsession with storytelling. It’s not that Welles was exactly elderly at the time (he was 51 when he made it), but there’s a matter-of-fact finality to the work that becomes just a touch spooky in retrospect. Commissioned by the French national television agency as a Jeanne Moreau vehicle to commemorate the transition to colour television, The Immortal Story required that Welles work in colour for the first time, catalyzing a fairly dramatic evolution of his style. But it gave him the opportunity to adapt a short story by Karen Blixen (a.k.a. Isak Dinesen), one of his favourite writers, and to work again with Moreau, one of his favourite actors. Less than an hour long, it has remained an obscure film for a variety of reasons, but it’s intermittently remarkable despite its modesty. Continue reading
In 1971, Pauline Kael did her best to kill Orson Welles. In “Raising Kane,” an essay originally published in The New Yorker and later used as a lengthy introduction to the published screenplay, she argued that Welles had unfairly taken authorial credit for a film whose real creative force was Welles’ credited co-screenwriter, Herman J. Mankiewicz. Kael’s piece was persuasive but hardly comprehensive, cherry-picking evidence in an effort to make a liar of Welles. (In his definitive 1978 book on the film, The Making of Citizen Kane, Robert Carringer described Kael’s charge that Welles did not contribute to the script as “a flagrant misrepresentation,” though he did allow that Welles may have hoped not to credit Mankiewicz.) Making the case against Kane was an opportunity for Kael to escalate her ongoing crusade against the auteur theory; it doesn’t seem that she held any personal grudge against Welles, especially given her loving notice for his Chimes at Midnight, made just a few years earlier. But for the aging Welles, by that time a subject of mockery in Hollywood who struggled to finance even the most bargain-basement film projects, the apparently unprovoked attack must have stung. F for Fake is his elegant response—a good-natured but deeply felt riposte, executed with his considerable showmanship and meant to humble artist and critic alike.
F for Fake begins with Welles’ mysterioso intonation: “For my next experiment, ladies and gentlemen …” Here, on a railway platform, Welles is in one of his favorite roles—the magician—and as he proceeds to turn a key proffered by a child into a coin and back again in front of the camera, he warns his audience to “watch out for the slightest hint of hanky panky.” Gauntlet thrown, his film gets up to all kinds of shenanigans. Welles’ magic schtick was perhaps his most accessible public persona, and you can read his decision to narrate F for Fake in illusionist mode as an attempt to ingratiate himself with an audience. However, his use of the term “experiment” in the very first line suggests the unusual nature of his endeavor, as does the aggressive editing style — there are 17 separate shots in the film’s first 60 seconds alone, and it gets faster still from there. Sure, the early 1970s were a go-go era for film editors, but this was unusual even by those standards. This editorial style is the cinematic equivalent of sleight of hand; it allows Welles to get away with all kinds of tomfoolery, despite presenting documentary evidence right before your unblinking eyes. F for Fake is a documentary, yes. But it is also an essay film, a candid-camera lark, an autobiography, and a straight-up master class in narrative filmmaking on a shoestring.
The bulk of F for Fake is footage originated by documentarian Francois Reichenbach, who was making a film about notorious painter and art forger Elmyr de Hory. Welles was working nearby at the time and Reichenbach screened the material for him. One thing led to another, and Welles — intrigued, apparently, by the opportunity Elmyr’s story offered for him to expound on the notion of authorship and authenticity — ended up taking over the whole production. What happened next was extraordinary: Elmyr’s biographer, Clifford Irving, whom Reichenbach had interviewed, was exposed as a fraud. Irving had written a biography of Howard Hughes that he said was based on exclusive access to the man himself. It was to be published by McGraw-Hill, which paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in advances. And it was a complete hoax. Irving had never spoken to Hughes, had in fact forged Hughes’ signature on key documents attesting to the book’s authenticity. If anything, Irving’s challenge to Hughes — I dare you to come out of hiding and denounce this book deal, went the unspoken message to the notorious recluse — was more brazen than Elmyr’s forgeries. The irony of a journalist turned fabulist was delicious. And thus Welles found the territory being mapped in his documentary to be shifting, seismically, under his feet.
The other major player in F for Fake is Oja Kodar, who had been Welles’ companion since the early 1960s. (“That’s her real name, you know,” he assures us.) She is featured early on, in what Welles describes as “a sequence on the fine outdoor sport of girl-watching.” The camera focuses on her swishing hips as she walks the streets of Rome, intercutting purported reaction shots of men gaping in her wake. The sequence is a digression at best — Kodar says it was her idea, but just part of a longer, feminist work she envisioned — but Welles justifies its inclusion here by positioning it as an act of “larceny,” stealing performances from the civilians whose desire it immortalizes. And Kodar reappears near the end of the film, where she is a crucial player in a long anecdote having to do with her Hungarian grandfather, Pablo Picasso, and a cache of unseen Picasso nudes. You could argue that Kodar’s presence on screen is the height of gratuity. That is, in a film that’s ostensibly about art, forgery and authorship, isn’t it remarkable that Welles came up with an excuse to have his girlfriend run down the street, nude under a diaphanous blue veil? And yet somehow he makes it fit.
The sequences with Kodar bookend a long segment of the film that deals directly with Elmyr and Irving. “This is a film about trickery and fraud—about lies,” he says, addressing the camera. Using complex editorial techniques and almost nonstop narration to turn cinema vérité footage of Elmyr and Irving on its head, Welles expresses not disapproval of their chicanery but rather admiration of their chutzpah. Welles playfully positions himself on the side of the devils, describing himself as a “charlatan.” He refers explicitly to his own work on the Mercury Theatre’s War of the Worlds radio broadcast and Citizen Kane, and draws attention to the deviousness shared by artists and con men, declaring, “a magician is just an actor playing the part of a magician.” He saves his opprobrium for experts. “Experts are the new oracles,” he declares. “They speak to us with the absolute authority of the computer, and we bow down before them.” Those experts, Irving tells us, have been helpless to distinguish authentic Modiglianis from Elmyr’s fakes, and it’s the same experts, Welles reminds us, who determine the value of a piece of art by vouching for its authenticity. “A faker like Elmyr makes fools of the experts, so who’s the expert?,” he asks us. “Who’s the faker?”
Welles’ voiceover sets the pace and holds the narrative together even as the images we see on screen jitter constantly forward and backward in time and from location to location. Many shots are pictures of the film itself, as seen in workprint form on the viewing screen of one of the production’s flatbed editing tables, sometimes with the director hunched over the machine. Welles even apologizes for the fast, nonlinear trajectory of the film at one point: “Sorry—I’ve been jumping around like this because that’s the way it was.” And those Moviolas do get a workout. F for Fake is full of freeze frames that function as visual punctuation or witticisms. The technique comes to a head when Welles uses cross-cutting to invent a kind of conversation between Irving and Elmyr that has Elmyr repeatedly insisting that he ever affixed another artist’s signature to one of his own forgeries — a key legal point. Welles intercuts snippets of interviews that were clearly conducted at different times and locations to give the impression of a slightly smug Elmyr denying the charge as a disapproving Irving rolls his eyes a bit and fidgets uncomfortably. After this goes on for nearly a minute, Irving is allowed to make the allegation: “Of course they were signed.”
By now, these techniques have been freely adopted by all kinds of filmmakers. You can see some roots of Chris Marker’s celebrated essay film Sans Soleil here, as well as a blueprint for Michael Moore’s personality-driven, I-can’t-believe-my-eyes approach to documentary, not to mention the tricks used by the editors of movie trailers to short-circuit film narrative and pack as much exposition as possible into a two-minute teaser. Of course, Welles drew on the formal innovations of the French New Wave before him, and Godard was probably the greater influence on the MTV era. The notion of influence isn’t one of the subjects tackled in detail by F for Fake, though it defines one of the tasks facing Welles’ maligned experts — figuring out which authors deserve credit for the innovations that drive development of the arts. All that points, in an oblique way, to the most celebrated segment of the film, an encomium to the Chartres Cathedral. Welles pays tribute to its anonymous architects by delivering a monologue elevating its place in the artistic corpus of humankind. You know the kind of speech I’m talking about: Welles speaks, basso profundo, each shaped breath a pensive sigh at odds with the enormity of what’s erected before him. Time stands still; the air leaves the screening room. “The premiere work of man, perhaps, in the whole western world,” Welles says, his voice shrinking to a murmur, “and it’s without a signature.” It’s a dead serious moment interrupting an otherwise playful inquiry into artistic crimes and misdemeanors. Like a great card trick or disappearing act, it’s perfectly timed and flawlessly executed, and it smoothly shifts the topic from ordinary con artistry by opening a window to the infinite. Calling it magic would be selling it short. In an art world spun by hoaxes, lies, and illusions, it’s nothing less than testimony.
Criterion packages F for Fake for Blu-ray with an exceptionally filmlike HD image that has been pillarboxed to 1.62:1. (Oddly, the picture is not centered in the frame; the left-hand pillar is about 20 pixels thicker than the one on the right.) This transfer won’t win any awards for consistency or reference quality; the source material varies widely in provenance; much of it has been blown up from 16mm to 35mm, amplifying the already apparent grain structure, and some of the shots seem to have been blown up even further during the original editing process. Film damage is plentiful, though Criterion has included the requisite liner note indicating that “thousands of instances of dirt, debris and scratches” have been removed from the digital scans, so you can only imagine what it must have looked like before Criterion scrubbed it down. There is some flicker throughout, along with other variations in picture density, but it wouldn’t occur to me to complain. It’s a sure bet that F for Fake has never looked any better than it does here. The audio, presented as a monaural PCM track, is quite clean, although the noise floor can be heard rising underneath lines of dialogue; the quality of the recordings varies wildly, sometimes within the same scene, but is generally adequate, and Criterion’s reproduction of the original monaural soundtrack seems to have been pretty scrupulous.
In his audio commentary here, which he shares with Oja Kodar, cinematographer Gary Graver can be heard marveling at the quality of Criterion’s print. Graver discusses a working relationship with Welles that began when he called the director up, on a whim, when Welles was staying in a bungalow at The Beverly Hills Hotel. Welles hired him the same day, explaining that the only other cinematographer who had approached him for a job was named Gregg Toland. Inducted into that heady company. He talks about what it was like to watch the film take shape, with the scope of the project seemingly growing by the day. “Orson loved to shoot, and he loved to edit, and he worked seven days a week—which I didn’t realize when I signed on,” he says. He also points out the moment in the film when a scene of Don Ameche playing Howard Hughes was accidentally inserted in place of authentic Hughes footage. Graver alternates anecdotes with Kodar, who discusses her own contributions to the film—including her suggested title of F for Fake, which never actually appears on screen. “Because it was all magic, and it was all a lie … he felt he was going to pinpoint it down if he gives it a title,” she explains. “His film is kind of a visual essay and it is fluid. He was afraid he was going to put it into a frame.” I enjoyed this a lot, but I felt a more scholarly or critical contribution was warranted — an, ahem, expert commentary that might offer more perspective on Welles’ techniques and the film’s place in history. That task falls largely to Jonathan Rosenbaum’s booklet essay; a six-minute video introduction by Peter Bogdanovich is meant to orient viewers who aren’t aware of the film’s historical context, but as introductory viewing it includes what may well qualify as spoilers for anyone approaching the film for this first time; if you want to experience the film on its own terms, save it for later.
The most substantial of the video extras is the 88-minute 2005 documentary Orson Welles: The One-Man Band, which comprises largely English-language footage along with English-subtitled German voiceover. In collaboration with Kodar, filmmakers Vassili Silovic and Roland Zag mimic the style of F for Fake to create an impressionistic documentary about the unfinished projects that occupied the final portion of Welles’ professional life after his return to Hollywood, from his unfinished magic-show TV special to The Deep, his adaptation of the 1963 novel Dead Calm. It’s full of juicy footage for Welles scholars, including many clips from the projects being discussed (the film climaxes with a segment of film showing Oja Kodar performing in a curiously exhibitionistic sex scene from the legendary The Other Side of the Wind) and tapes of some of Welles’ television appearances from the period, as well as glimpses of some of Welles’ paintings, many of which Kodar kept as souvenirs of their life together. The film footage is fascinating, but it does tend to reveal the ultimate limitations of the one-man band approach.
A more purely entertaining tribute to late-period Orson Welles is the 44-minute episode of Tomorrow in which he sits down opposite Tom Snyder for a loose, revealing interview that covers the entirety of Welles’ career, from his days in radio to his life in exile in Hollywood. (He made more money as an anonymous radio announcer, he says.) He talks briefly about his infamous War of the Worlds broadcast, his early friendship with Harry Houdini, his feelings about religion, and his pessimism on the future of humanity. He seems most pained when asked about his childhood. “I must have been intolerable as a child, I would think,” Welles says, wincing. “Yes, totally insufferable.”
In a classic good news/bad news situation, the original nine-minute trailer cut by Welles to promote the film’s release in the U.S is included here. That’s the good news. The bad news is that for some reason, this trailer is included in a version that looks like it was sourced from a black-and-white workprint. (It’s actually interlaced, if you can believe it.) A color version is definitely available—it made an appearance on the Masters of Cinema DVD release in the U.K. and is actually excerpted in Orson Welles: The One-Man Band—so it’s anyone’s guess why Criterion couldn’t lay hands on it.
For history buffs, Criterion has included the audio feed from the original teleconference between a roomful of reporters and Howard Hughes, when the tycoon finally agreed to take questions from journalists who wanted to know if Clifford Irving’s book was authorized. It’s fascinating as a historical document, though it doesn’t have much to do with F for Fake. Along the same lines is Almost True: The Noble Art of Forgery, a po-faced, everything-you-need-to-know-about-Elmyr television documentary from 1997 with bland voiceover narration that employs some of the Reichenbach footage used in F for Fake. It’s more detailed and informative about Elmyr’s scams than F for Fake; at 52 long minutes, it’s also forbiddingly dull. What would have been really interesting is the original Reichenbach documentary Elmyr: The True Picture that originated much of the footage seen in F for Fake; this one is superfluous unless you believe that film buffs are picking up this disc out of a burning desire to know more about Elmyr. In the same category is a nine-minute segment from 60 Minutes in which interviewer Mike Wallace confronts Irving, who had lied to his face 27 years earlier. It’s undeniably intriguing if you want to know more about Irving as a fraudster, but, again, it sheds little light on the film itself. This is the rare Criterion special edition that feels, honestly, a little bloated.