Orson Welles called F for Fake a “film essay”. That is, while it isn’t a narrative film, it’s not a documentary, because it doesn’t claim to be entirely factual. Welles seemed to think that he invented this genre, but many film historians would disagree. For example, many view Vertov’s 1929 film, Man with a Movie Camera, as a film essay. Regardless of this, F for Fake is innovative in that it uses the medium of film to question the truthfulness of film itself.
F for Fake touches on a wide range of topics, but it is mainly concerned with the story of Elmyr de Hory, a French-Hungarian art forger, and the writer, Clifford Irving. Irving wrote a biography of de Hory, and then he committed a forgery of his own, writing a fake autobiography of Howard Hughes. Handwriting experts declared the manuscript to be real. (Welles suggests that de Hory forged Hughes’s handwriting.) Both de Hory and Irving express a dismissive attitude towards “experts”. One gets the sense that this film may have been meant as a subtle dig at the critic, Pauline Kael, who wrote an essay about Citizen Kane, in which she claimed that Welles didn’t write any of the script.
F for Fake uses a variety of visual tricks. There are scenes in which Irving and de Hory seem to be talking to each other, but they are actually shots from two different interviews that have been spliced together. This film serves as a demonstration that we can take nothing at face value.
The Criterion Collection DVD of this film includes the documentary, Orson Welles: The One-Man Band, which was co-directed and co-written by Welles’s girlfriend, Oja Kodar. This film concentrates on Welles’s later years and includes scenes from many of the unfinished films he made, as well as from the unreleased film The Other Side of the Wind. (And the fact that this film remains unreleased is a scandal.) Among other things, we learn that Welles was obsessed with Moby Dick. Over the years he shot numerous scenes of himself reciting passages from this work, although it was unclear what he intended to do with these. Welles seemed to identify with the character of Ahab. Like Ahab, he spent much of his life pursuing something – in his case success – he could never quite achieve.
Welles also made this bizarre nine-minute trailer for F for Fake: