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F FOR FAKE

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Orson Welles, Oja Kodar
Director:  Orson Welles
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.66:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  88 Minutes
Release Date:  April 26, 2005

"Up to your old tricks, I see."

"Why not?  I'm a charlatan."

Film ***1/2

The filmmaker is, first and foremost, an illusionist, and there were few as good at cinematic sleight of hand as Orson Welles.  From his first feature Citizen Kane, where he created the idea of the scope and glorious magnitude of Xanadu mostly with empty space and carefully constructed pools of light and shadow to make the space seem more expansive, Wells instinctively knew that the camera was quicker than the eye.  Instead of Jean-Luc Godard's statement that film was truth 24 times a second, he probably would have subscribed to Brian De Palma's theory that film lies 24 times a second.

Fitting, then, that his last completed film was both an examination of and an exercise in fakery.  F For Fake is not a documentary in the traditional sense, but more of what Peter Bogdanovich calls a "documentary essay".  Welles may begin his yarn by exploring two of the great forgers of the 20th century, but he seems to amusingly discover a kinship with them between what they did and what he does.  The resulting movie is ambitious and layered, with revelations born out of revelations...and yet, as Welles reminds us, in the movies, we can never be too sure of truth.  Especially in a story about lies.

To simplify:  Elmyr (a user of various last names) was the greatest art forger Europe had ever seen.  With a few strokes of a pencil or brush, he managed to pawn off canvases that fooled most of the so-called "experts".  One museum, which Welles says he can't identify for legal reasons, had no less than 22 of Elmyr's artworks on their walls, each proclaimed time and again to be the real McCoy.

Enter Clifford Irving to make a film about Elmyr's life and career.  Irving is interested in the idea of passing off fakes as the real thing, and as it turns out, his curiosity was more than academic.  Soon Irving's name would eclipse Elmyr's as the greatest faker of all when it turns out his biography of eccentric airplane legend Howard Hughes was a fraud from top to bottom.

So Welles stepped in to the project with a delightful conundrum on his hands.  But his mischievous charm makes us constantly wonder if he's being square with his audience.  We first glimpse Welles at a train station, with some of his cast and crew around him, performing some simple magic for a small child.  As he introduces his project, he promises slyly that for the next hour, what we see will be true.

In both Elmyr and Irving, Welles senses creative kindred spirits.  As we watch Elmyr work, we don't question that he's an extremely talented artist, and Irving managed to fool the world with a great story that essentially came from his imagination.  Yet Welles made (and some might say lost) his reputation on a film that took the life of a real American newspaper tycoon and spun it into a fantasy of illusion and trickery for the screen. 

This movie grows more fascinating as it goes along...like a big box with smaller and smaller boxes inside, Welles proceeds with his material like a kid at Christmas...or perhaps a better analogy would be the magician he purports to be at the beginning.  Nothing up his sleeves?  There's always something up the sleeves, otherwise there would be no illusion.

What of, for example, the beautiful co-star Oja Kodar we see briefly at the beginning, walking through the streets as men ogle her?  Welles promises she will play an important role later, and she certainly does.  But she also played a pivotal role at the beginning.  That footage of her was from a short film she made that Welles asked to incorporate into his own.  Later, there is a re-enactment of a tragic scene involving no less than the great Pablo Picasso, where Welles and Kodar circle each other in a foggy street, each repeating spoken lines from the story.

If Orson Welles gained a reputation for his unique and influential sense of camera work, he capped of his career with one of the best examples of film editing ever put to celluloid.  Using various source materials and film stocks, Welles uses his cutting to constantly remind us of the nature of illusion.  Footage of Elmyr and Irving, which looks like ordinary documentary stuff, becomes more elusive as Orson shows it to us on a small flickering moviola.  The final stretch, in which new footage of Kodar is juxtaposed with still photos of Picasso creates an illusion of voyeurism.  A little trickery in between to make the images appear through the slats of a window blind adds to it.  It's a bit of chicanery that calls attention to itself, but with cutting and pasting, Welles gleefully demonstrates how fragile the nature of reality is.  Yet with all that, he saved his greatest illusion for last.

F For Fake is unlike any movie I've ever seen, and it may be, as Welles himself put it, "a new kind of movie" he left us with to cap off his unique career.  It's a film that requires attention and patience, and probably a second viewing.  I admit, I was a little put-off by what I felt were eccentricities and indulgences my first time through.  But being that it was Orson Welles, I decided to give it a second go.  It was a totally different experience.  What was cloudy became clear.  This time through the puppet show, I could see the strings...and it made me appreciate the effect even more.

BONUS TRIVIA I:  Like The White Album, F For Fake is simply the title this movie has become known by.  In Welles' mind, his film had only a question mark for a title.

BONUS TRIVIA II:  Joseph Cotten, Paul Stewart and Lawrence Harvey appear briefly as themselves.

Video ***

Criterion makes this a much easier call than it might have been, given the varied nature of film stocks and ages of the multiple components of the film.  The hodgepodge effect serves the overall theme of reality versus illusion, and this anamorphic transfer presents it all cleanly and with good attention to detail.  Sure, there some grain here, some marks there, but to remove those would have been to spoil the effect.  This is one disc you may use your pause button on frequently, just to examine the nature of Welles' screen compositions.

Audio **

The mono audio track is perfectly workable, with dialogue and music beds sounding clean and clear.  Dynamic range is minimal, but unessential, and I noticed no undue noise or hiss to interfere with the presentation.

Features ****

Criterion delivers again as only they could with two discs' worth of goodies for this undervalued classic.  Disc one has a terrific commentary track featuring Oja Kodar and cinematographer Gary Graver, who speak of Welles in both professional and personal terms.  There is a classy introduction by Peter Bogdanovich, and the somewhat legendary but seldom seen 9 minute trailer Welles crafted from the film, which included footage not in the final movie.

Disc two boasts even more goodies, starting with a superb 1995 documentary Orson Welles: One Man Band.  This feature length extra is an exploration of Welles' unfinished works, filled with lots of rare clips and footage.  In it, we learn that his reputation for not finishing projects wasn't entirely his fault.  One film, The Deep, was nearly completed when its star Laurence Harvey died.  His version of The Merchant of Venice had actually wrapped, but before Welles could edit it, the negatives were mysteriously stolen.  There are also clips that show his great sense of humor, including skits where he portrayed Winston Churchill, and a rather amusing bit of self-parody where English tailors snicker rudely at his rather bizarre measurements.

There are also features on Welles' subjects, one feature length take on Elmyr and a 60 Minutes II interview with Clifford Irving about his faux Hughes biography.  Rounding out is the 1972 telephone press conference with Howard Hughes, where he exposed Irving's fraud (an audio only feature).

Summary:

Movies may be illusions, but Criterion's excellent treatment of them on DVD remains an unwavering reality.  This little seen final completed film from Orson Welles gets a red carpet treatment worthy of the great iconoclast.  The film may not entertain all audiences, but serious students of cinema should not pass this one up.

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