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Hanky-Panky Men
Orson Welles's F for Fake

Welles’s one-of-a-kind essay / documentary uses an art forger’s story as a springboard into a free-form exploration of art, lies and fakery.

Perhaps the most startling thing about Orson Welles’s F for Fake is its youthful energy. By the time it premiered in 1972, Welles was 57 years old, and he knew intimately what it felt like to work on a film and never see its release. Even the ones that he finished could take forever: he worked on Othello for nearly four years, and he occasionally had to replace its actors in the middle of shooting. And some favorite projects – like Don Quixote and his last work, The Other Side of the Wind – never made it onto the big screen at all.

So first-time viewers familiar with Welles’s travails may be stunned at how downright ebullient F for Fake is.

There are probably several reasons for the obvious joy Welles felt making the film. It was stunningly easy to make, compared to Welles’s other projects; the themes it explored were personally close to Welles; and he didn’t actually have to shoot all the footage himself. In a sense, Welles acted as the writer and editor in a film that he transformed from a straightforward documentary into an episodic, freeform essay that may be unique in film history.

It started out as a straightforward project. François Reichenbach had made a documentary about the art forger Elmyr de Hory and his biographer, Clifford Irving, and after it was shown on TV around the world, Reichenbach offered all his interview footage – both used and unused – to Welles.

Welles accepted the offer, but something far more intriguing had happened since Reichenbach shot his interview footage: Clifford Irving, whose de Hory biography was called Fake, wrote a biography about Howard Hughes, and he claimed the famously reclusive billionaire had worked closely with him on it. Irving’s descriptions of clandestine meetings with a disheveled Hughes proved irresistible with the public (as well as McGraw-Hill and Time Magazine, which arranged to publish the biography). The story captured headlines around the world, as did Irving’s subsequent downfall (and prison sentence) once his fraud was unmasked. (Instead of printing excerpts of the canceled book, Time gave him a cover story as “Con Man of the Year.”)

For Welles, it offered a cunning new layer to Reichenbach’s interview footage: the biographer of a forger turned out to be a forger himself, and Welles perhaps naturally added another layer to the material by presenting himself in the film as another happy charlatan with a long history of malfeasance. F for Fake, Welles tells us in its opening minutes, is about bigger ideas than simply one forger. It’s about trickery, fraud and lies – and, by extension, storytelling itself. (“Almost any story is almost certainly some kind of lie,” Welles says, with a straight face, and he notes later that “We hanky-panky men have always been with you.”) Welles’s exploration of these more abstract themes is not linear, to put it mildly, but it’s certainly a fun ride.

The film, which clips along at a breathless pace for most of its 88 minutes, thus opens with Welles performing magic tricks for children; cuts to voyeuristic footage of his mistress drawing men’s attention in the street (another bit of trickery: some of the footage is actually of her sister); then dives headlong into the de Hory / Irving fray. Welles then takes over the narrative again, recounting his own fakery with the “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast as well as a few other flights into fakery.

The film finally takes another turn – a slower one – when Welles stages another fraud: his mistress, he claims, was previously Picasso’s lover, and through somewhat shaky means, she had come to possess several unknown Picasso masterpieces. (As a measure of Welles’s playfulness here, he opens the film with a promise that what you’re about to see in the next hour is all true; the catch is that the Picasso material shows up after that hour has passed.)

As fun as it can be to float along Welles’s stream of consciousness, it’s the film’s editing that will amaze you. Its rhythm is fast and unexpected, and it’s an altogether refreshing experience to watch Welles work so buoyantly. (For all its apparent breeziness, the editing process was intense and extended. In an interview that appeared in Dominique Villain’s Le Montage au cinema, F for Fake’s chief editor reported that Welles worked on editing the film seven days a week for a year.)

As a measure of how brilliant Welles’s editing is in F for Fake, compare it to the staid if informative “Almost True: The Noble Art of Forgery” included on the Criterion Collection’s top-notch release of F For Fake. There’s nothing wrong with this 52-minute documentary about de Hory (it was released in 1997). It simply wilts next to Welles’s frenetic genius.

Ironically, while Welles lived another 13 years, F for Fake was his last completed feature. He stayed busy with commercials and various appearances on TV as well as in other people’s films, but he never managed to bring another film of his own to closure. Footage from some of his unfinished projects is included on the Criterion release of F for Fake, and judging it based on snippets, none of it seems worthy of the director of Citizen Kane and Touch of Evil – or F for Fake, for that matter. The budgets are clearly threadbare, so the technical elements suffer, and sometimes the drama seems woefully slow and ponderous.

Through it all, though, Welles still beams youthfully, somehow.

—Review by Doug Childers

Posted June 21, 2005





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