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An art forger, a great director with a love of sleight-of-hand and one of the biggest scandals in publishing history all collide in Orson Welles' F for Fake (1976). As with his Citizen Kane (1941), Welles presents a movie that at first glance resembles a jigsaw puzzle, jumping back-and-forth in time as well as subject. These are the facts behind the fakery, at least as far as anyone knows.
In the summer of 1968, Spain sent the police to arrest an aristocratic, foppish Hungarian living in a villa on the island of Ibiza. His name was Elmyr de Hory, or at least that was his latest alias. His criminal act was painting art works of great beauty. Normally that wouldn't be a crime but he was in the habit of painting his art in the style of the great masters, forging their signatures onto the paintings, and selling them as newly discovered "masterpieces." Art experts had validated his forgeries as authentic and, since de Hory wasn't talking, there was no telling how many museums had forged Matisses, Picassos and others on their walls.
De Hory spent a couple of months in jail and was exiled for a year. By the time he returned to Ibiza he had gained the attention of two other artists, French filmmaker Franois Reichenbach and an American author who lived on Ibiza, Clifford Irving. Reichenbach began shooting film for a documentary on de Hory while Irving interviewed him. It was Irving who got his work out first as a book called Fake! in 1969. As subsequent events showed, Irving may have learned a bit too much from his subject.
Meanwhile the great director Orson Welles was in Europe trying to get more money from European and Iranian backers for his never-to-be-completed feature The Other Side of the Wind (Gary Graver, one of Welles's cinematographers on F for Fake, is currently planning on completing the film). His bank account way overdrawn after the I.R.S. seized tax payments he'd owed since the late 1940's, Welles was desperate for cash. It was then that he met Reichenbach and saw his footage of interviews with de Hory. He was impressed and volunteered to take over the project of editing the footage into a television program for the BBC.
As Welles was editing the footage, the Clifford Irving story broke. Irving had received an advance of $765,000 from publishers McGraw-Hill for the purported autobiography of long-time recluse Howard Hughes. To prove he was in communication with this titan no one had seen publicly in years, Irving produced documents containing Hughes' signature. Handwriting experts declared the signatures authentic. Of course, just like de Hory's "masterpieces," the signatures were fakes. Hughes, or at least what was presumed to be the voice of Hughes, held a news conference over speakerphone to deny ever speaking to Irving. The phony autobiography became a gigantic media scandal with Time Magazine even using a de Hory portrait of Irving on their cover.
Since Reichenbach had also interviewed Irving in his material on de Hory, Welles knew he was making a program that was sure to attract attention. He talked Reichenbach into elevating the TV show into a feature with additional material to be shot under Welles' direction. The result took over a year to edit, although from the resulting film it is obvious that the time was needed. F for Fake is still one of the most daringly edited movies of its time. Unfortunately, by the time it reached theaters in 1976, the scandal was long over and American critics were put off by Welles' play of truth and lies. Or was it art experts in the press standing in defense of their brethren? In any case it was dismissed as a minor film in Welles's later period.
Now, however, F for Fake stands as Welles' last masterpiece, a playful movie essay on the questions that post-modernists were just then beginning to ask. Where does art gain its meaning? Who is the "author" of a work of art and why is that important to the value of art? Years after his death the true worth of this last major work of Orson Welles has finally been recognized, even by art critics.
Fans of F for Fake will be interested to know that the Criterion Collection is releasing a new, restored high-definition digital transfer of the film on DVD in April 2005. The extra features will include not only the famous 2000 "60 Minutes" interview between Mike Wallace and Clifford Irving where the author reveals the hoax but also audio recordings of the Howard Hughes press conference, audio commentaries by Oja Kodar and Gary Graver, a 1992 Norwegian Film Institute documentary on art forger Elmyr de Hory and a feature-length investigation of Welles's unfinished projects.
Director: Orson Welles
Writers: Orson Welles, Oja Kodar
Producer: Francois Reichenbach
Cinematographers: Christian Odasso, Gary Graver
Editors: Marie-Sophie Dubus, Dominique Engerer
Music: Michel Legrand
Cast: Orson Welles (himself), Oja Kodar (herself), Elmyr de Hory (himself), Clifford Irving (himself), Francois Reichenbach (himself), Gary Graver (television newscaster).
by Brian Cady