F For Fake is Orson Welles’ forgotten masterpiece

I love Orson Welles. He is one of the most amazing people of the 20th Century, a larger-than-life figure who’s had a dozen books written about him (I’ve read quite a few of them). His life could be accurately described as a “Shakespearean” tale of triumph and tragedy (which, considering the many times he performed the Bard’s work, is completely appropriate).

What great heights, and what sad lows. He directed the movie many proclaim as the greatest film of all time at the age of 23, and yet at the end of his life he was begging friends and family for money to finish his last film (I still hold a grudge against Spielberg, the hottest director at the time, for not helping out). Because he never got the necessary funding, he never finished his last movie, The Other Side of the Wind, and thus his last cinematic work was the documentary film F for Fake… a “documentary” in name only.

It’s brilliant, overlooked, and underrated… hence it’s inclusion in this Negelcted Cinema column.

What makes F for Fake so good is it’s more of a personal essay than a documentary, a meditation on life, art, and the creative process. The central “story” of the film is about the great art forger Elmyr de Hory, who made millions by making and selling fake masterpieces. He could mimic the style of the greats, and many many “experts” had authenticated his work as original. Orson takes great fun in puncturing these “experts” but the story gets even more strange when the film reveals that author Clifford Irving (de Hory’s biographer) had perpetrated his own forgery, creating the infamous Howard Hughes “authorized biography.”

Hughes, like Charles Foster Kane, was a man of mystery… who had to come out of hiding to refute Irving’s purported “biography”… and the fact that Orson’s last movie has such an interesting connection to his first provides an odd form of symmetry. Adding to that connection: His co-star in Citizen Kane, Joseph Cotten, appears in F for Fake in a small role.

Detailing anymore about the F for Fake would be spoiling things, save for this: Pay close attention to what Orson says at the beginning of the film, and remember these words in the last seventeen minutes of the movie when he is discussing Picasso and “the girl” (Oja Kodar). You’ll thank me for it.

The movie is also notable for the “kamikaze” style of editing and use of different media (photos, music, 16mm film) to tell a story in a nonlinear way. It’s the type of editing that we later saw in music videos on MTV… Ten years later. Again, Orson was ahead of his time.

Instead of spending time heaping many more superlatives on the film, I’ll simply end here. If you have never seen F for Fake, see it. If you’ve seen it before… watch it again. It’s wonderful, and while it’s not how Orson intended on ending his directing career, it’s still a fine ending to a life in cinema.

Joseph Dickerson is a user experience professional and UX Lead for Microsoft based out of Atlanta, GA. He has implemented processes in user testing, design and ethnographic research and provided design and consulting services for many different projects and organizations.

Back to Top