The last major film written, directed and featuring legendary director Orson Welles during his lifetime. Made in 1974, it is essentially a fast-paced rumination on truth, fakery and expertise, particularly with regards to authorship and authenticity within art.
Originally, Welles was hired merely to narrate the film, to be directed by Francois Reichenbach (who appears in the film). The subject was Elmyr de Hory, a professional art forger who proudly boasted that he had sold thousands of paintings to galleries all around the world, with every expert who had examined them convinced they were the genuine article. He was the subject of a biography by Clifford Irving ... who, during filming, was discovered to himself be a fraud, having published a biography of notoriously reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes that was based entirely on forgeries and faked evidence. Reichenbach and his staff were horrified by this revelation since they had used Irving as a trusted source for a straight documentary about Hory, Welles however enjoyed this turn of events. He convinced the crew to give him the footage, where he made the entire film an exploration of fakery, that of Elmyr de Hory, Clifford Irving, the art galleries, Howard Hughes, Hollywood, mass media, Pablo Picasso's and of course his own tendency towards being a faker over his career. This leads to a Mind Screw that finally bleeds into the movie itself, until it's not sure what's real and what's not... and whether, ultimately, that even matters.
The fast-paced editing techniques used by Welles in the film have been credited with influencing, among other things, the "MTV" style that premiered in the 1980s. The format and style has been adopted by most YouTube video essays: combining documentary and satire, with the occasional skit thrown in. In fact, retrospective analysts have dubbed F for Fake a rare example of a "film essay" as a result of its unusual and influential presentation style. This was Welles' final completed film until The Other Side of the Wind was released on November 2, 2018, after 42 years in the vaults.
Real Life had a Downer Ending, by the way: de Hory killed himself in 1976 when told that he'd soon be extradited to France to face trial for forgery. And, as noted above, Welles was never able to complete another movie, despite continuing to work on various projects right up until his death in 1985.
F for Fake provides examples of:
- Alliterative Title: F for Fake.
- Answer Cut: A frenetic and tense zigzagging. Welles flits back and forth between de Hory and Irving, starting with de Hory making an astounding claim, followed by speechless filler from each men, back and forth, culminating in Irving flatly denying the claim. The effect is to appear as a tense moment between the two men, with de Hory sitting deadpan and Irving sitting dumbfounded in response, when in fact the clips used were from two completely different and unrelated filmings of each men.
- Author Appeal: Welles was an accomplished stage magician, and was therefore fascinated with the slight of hand tricks by con men.note
- Badass Longcoat: Orson Welles' outfit in the film, complete with Nice Hat.
- Bavarian Fire Drill: At one point, Welles reflects on how, in his first professional role, he walked into a theatre in Dublin (where he'd simply happened to end up having run out of money while touring Europe), claimed to be a famous American stage star, and demanded a role in their latest production. And got it.
- Brick Joke: The page quote. Towards the end of the movie, Welles points out that the hour's long been over and his contract with the audience as well; "for the last seventeen minutes I've been lying my head off."
- The Cameo: Welles' old friend from way back in the Mercury Theatre days, Joseph Cotten, pops up to reminisce about how they were going to do a Howard Hughes biopic with Cotten in the lead, before Welles decided on Citizen Kane instead. Then there's a clip of Laurence Harvey, who died of cancer not long after Welles completed production.
- Creator Thumbprint: As well as tying into the movie's themes about truth-as-illusion, the magic tricks performed by Welles for the boys at the beginning of the movie reflect the director's own love of magic tricks.
- Death of the Author: Welles reflects on this In-Universe, suggesting that maybe authenticity isn't important to art:Our works in stone, in paint, in print, are spared, some of them, for a few decades or a millennium or two, but everything must finally fall in war, or wear away into the ultimate and universal ash - the triumphs, the frauds, the treasures and the fakes. A fact of life: we're going to die. "Be of good heart," cry the dead artists out of the living past. "Our songs will all be silenced, but what of it? Go on singing." Maybe a man's name doesn't matter all that much.
- Distracted by the Sexy: One scene is a montage of men gawking at Oja Kodar as she walks down the street in a short skirt.
- Documentary: ... Or, at least, it starts out as one, being built on the bones of a bona fide documentary on the forger Elmyr de Hory, but it becomes more of a Mockumentary as the film progresses.
- Exact Words: Read Welles' line at the start again about how everything for the next hour would be completely true. The movie lasts about a hour and a quarter, and that last quarter of an hour is dedicated to Welles telling a tale about Oja's supposed past as a model for Picasso, which in the end he reveals to be a lie and that it never really happened.
- Several layers; the opening credits run over footage of Oja Kodar, Welles' girlfriend and the co-writer of the movie, being the subject of "the fine outdoor sport of girl-watching", with the numerous men glancing at her as she passes them captured on concealed cameras. This ties into the theme of trickery and reality (the men don't know they're being observed, so their reactions are genuine). It is also a good reason to have footage of Welles' rather attractive girlfriend walking around in a figure-enhancing dress practically designed to best display her legs and rear end.
- Goes even further late in the film, when Welles' expands on Oja's past, as a model for Picasso. It consists of over 10 minutes of watching her in a succession of flattering outfits, and eventually no clothes at all. Of course, this is all a lie. None of it really happened.
- Genre Shift: The film actually began as a straight documentary about Elmyr de Hory, which collapsed when its main source and interviewer (Clifford Irving) became exposed as a fraud. Then the footage was given to Orson Welles, who added his own material and made something much, much weirder.
- High-Class Glass: de Hory breaks one out from time to time. Most notable in the scene where de Hory is using a High Class Glass while someone else explains in voice-over that de Hory is not from a noble family as he claimed, but was from the lower middle class.
- Lighter and Softer: Almost every Welles movie is intense, dark, serious and documents self-destructive Byronic Hero or Villain Protagonist. This film is far and away Welles' lightest work, even being somewhat optimistic, humorous and above all "fun".
- Master Forger: Elmyr de Hory is a forger who spent decades selling fakes of Picasso, Matisse, and others before the art world finally caught on. The documentary had a mid-development shift to a general view of fakery when it was discovered that Clifford Irving, the reporter used for the research on de Hory, was a forger himself.
- Mockumentary: Although it starts out as a documentary about how a film about a famous faker was derailed by an even more notorious fake, the film shifts to become more of a spoof of the documentary format as it progresses. Welles himself might be the most famous faker of the bunch.
- Real Life Writes the Plot: Invoked and lampshaded; as when it was revealed during filming that Clifford Irving, de Hory's biographer, was himself a faker, this was too good not to put in.
- The Reveal: Towards the end of the film Welles reveals that the preceding quarter of an hour of the documentary, specifically the storyline involving Oja Kodar and Pablo Picasso, has been a complete fabrication, as he had only promised to tell the truth for the first 60 minutes of the film.
- Self-Deprecation: Orson Welles spends a lot of time mocking his image and past as a faker:Orson Welles: I guess you could say I started at the top and worked my way to the bottom.
- Spiritual Successor:
- Exit Through the Gift Shop another documentary assembled largely from stock/found footage examining the nature of art and authenticity, with a Deadpan Snarker director.
- Some see this as one for Citizen Kane, especially the opening Mockumentary newsreel, with Welles parodying how information and mass media distort and mislead even when it claims to be objective, and likewise, dealing partly with the pre-production of Kane, its connection to Howard Hughes and also having a similar theme of old age and passing of time.
- Statuesque Stunner: Oja Kodar gets quite a bit of the camera's attention in this regard. Interestingly, so does an unidentified blonde seen assisting director Francois Reichenbach during the train station sequence.
- Stock Footage: Clips of the Ray Harryhausen movie Earth vs. the Flying Saucers are interspersed with Welles' reminiscence about The War of the Worlds.
- Take That, Critics!: Invoked; a central theme of the movie is questioning what, exactly, the point of art criticism even is if the art critics can't even tell a genuine article from a forgery. Needless to say, de Hory, Irving and Welles have some pretty snarky things to say about critics and 'experts'.
- Unreliable Narrator: Virtually the trope codifier - at least past a certain point in the film. See Wham Line, below.
- Wham Line: "I did promise that for one hour, I'd tell you only the truth. That hour, ladies and gentlemen, is over. For the past seventeen minutes, I've been lying my head off."