F for Fake, from 1973, was the last movie directed by Orson Welles. It is a documentary of a sort on the general topic of frauds and fakery, but an intentionally rambling, stream-of-consciousness one.
That style mostly didn’t work for me. I never felt invested in the film. It felt like there was nothing to really follow, more like just watching random bits—some of which were admittedly somewhat interesting—in random order.
The two specific individuals profiled in the most detail are Elmyr de Hory, one of the greatest art forgers of all time, and Clifford Irving, who famously penned the work he attempted to pass off as the autobiography of Howard Hughes. Their lives had intersected when Irving wrote a book about de Hory in 1969, and some of the video footage of Irving interviewing de Hory survived and was incorporated into F for Fake.
Whatever you think of art forgery ethically, de Hory does seem to have been phenomenally good at what he did. He could churn out multiple paintings a day that so closely mimicked famous artists that museums and alleged art experts consistently were unable to tell the difference.
In one of the funnier sequences, a man is shown going from art gallery to art gallery and showing them a painting by a celebrated artist, telling half that it is genuine and half that it is a forgery. At each stop they immediately agree with his claim, insist that it’s obvious, and cite specific features of the painting that prove this.
Indeed, there is much in F for Fake on this general theme of making those who hold themselves out as experts look like asses. As narrator Welles points out, the people claiming the ability to spot fraud in fields such as art identification and handwriting identification are largely bluffing. Thus it’s fakes purportedly catching fakes.
In that regard, there’s much overlap between this film and the more recent, and quite entertaining, documentary Who the #$&% Is Jackson Pollock?
Though I found F for Fake only mildly appealing, I admit Welles himself is an intriguing presence. By this point in his life I suppose he was more of a self-parody—doing TV commercials and such—but he still had a powerful persona, and I enjoyed some of his stories and musings about his War of the Worlds radio broadcast and other things.
For instance, he tells the story of his time as an itinerant painter wandering around Ireland in his teens. However much he painted he was unable to accumulate any paintings to sell because as soon as he finished one he had to trade it to Irish farmers for food or a place to sleep. At 16 he went to Dublin, passed himself off as a big shot actor from New York even though he’d never acted in his life, and found work on the stage. He concludes: “I started at the top and have been working my way down ever since.”
In the section on Clifford Irving and Howard Hughes, Welles says that Citizen Kane was originally planned as a fictionalized life of Howard Hughes rather than a fictionalized life of William Randolph Hearst, but it was eventually decided that Hughes’s life would be just too improbable for audiences to buy.
Welles engages in a bit of fakery of his own in F for Fake, confessing at the end that one of the stories he tells of art forgery was completely made up (though he points out that his precise wording was such that technically he wasn’t lying).