F for Fake

Orson Welles, 1973

As Welles himself points out during the course of the film, his career began with a fake. This would be when he launched his infamous radio version of War of the Worlds, broadcasting it as though it were a genuine news report of Martians invading Earth, allegedly sending panic across America as people believed what they heard to be real (although whether this hysteria is true or simply a construction to give Welles and his show publicity remains unknown). It therefore seems fitting that his final feature would bring things full circle, with a documentary on the nature of forgery- F for Fake.

 ‘Ladies and gentleman, by way of introduction, this is a film about trickery, fraud, about lies’ this is Welles introduction to a film that blurs the boundaries between what is truth and what is not at every possible opportunity. All documentary is a construction of the author, twisting the facts to put across their own particular viewpoint, rarely however does the filmmaker make the confession themselves that they are not being entirely truthful. Welles makes a promise during his introduction to tell the truth for the next hour, anyone paying the mildest of attention will notice the film overruns this initial hour and in turn progressively descends into fabrications, with Welles himself stating that throughout certain sections they were simply ‘lying their heads off’.


In a similar manner to a more recent film like Grizzly Man, large portions of the film were from a stock documentary that Welles discovered before reediting it with his own additional material. The initial focus of this documentary regards an art forger residing in Ibiza by the name of Elmeer de Hory, his villa here is paid for by an anonymous art dealer who he supplies with fakes to be sold on as the real thing, with many facts about himself, along with anecdotes about the sale of his work, supplied by his biographer Clifford Irving. Where Welles steps in and things become interesting, is that Irving himself was later jailed following the discovery that an official biography he had written on reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes was totally fraudulent (Irving himself claimed that he believed he really was working with Hughes on a biography, and that an impostor had in turn tricked him). This is the real focus of the film, if experts such as Irving and the art dealers who sell Elmeer’s work aren’t to be trusted as authorities, then who is?

Before Elmeer’s paintings are validated by an expert they are worthless, however once they receive their seal of approval they instantly become worth thousands. Similarly Irving was convicted on the grounds that a handwriting expert judged correspondence he had received from Hughes as being forged. If the experts can be mistaken in judging Elmeer’s fake’s as genuine, couldn’t they just as easily be wrong when they declare something genuine to be a fake?

Welles films is full of these sort of questions, and he cuts back and forward between them all at a frenetic pace helping to the create the confusion that is so clearly his goal. Stylistically it is in the editing that the film is at its most influential, with its fast pace created via frequent cuts and a very short length of shot. Self conscious as ever of what he is doing, the editing itself becomes one of the focuses of the film, often cutting back to Welles sat in an editing suite overseeing the footage and manipulating it to put across his point. As Godard once famously stated ‘every edit is a lie’, Welles knows this and ensures that it is every bit a feature of his film.

 In Elmeer, Welles has a kindred spirit. He only began with forgery as means to fund his own paintings which he could not sell, similarly Welles would find himself resorting to starring in any film that came his was in a bid to fund projects such as F for Fake that no studio ever would. After this films completion, Elmeer would commit suicide following the decision by Spanish authorities to extradite him to France for prosecution. Despite his best efforts, and despite earning the AFI lifetime achievement award in 1975, Welles would not complete another film in the decade leading to his death. As he declares within the film he ‘started at the top and has been working his way down ever since’, however far he felt he may have fallen, the quality of his films never did, with F for Fake showing the great director was at his best right until the end, continuing to break new ground and forever experimenting with film form.

words by pete bond.