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F FOR FAKE (Vérités et mensonges) (director/writer: Orson Welles; screenwriter: Oja Kodar; cinematographers: Gary Graver/Christian Odasso; editor: Marie-Sophie Dubus; music: Michel Legrand; cast: Orson Welles (Himself), Oja Kodar (The Girl), Joseph Cotten (Guest), Elmyr de Hory (Art Forger), Clifford Irving (Biographer), Francois Reichenbach (art dealer/filmmaker); Runtime: 85; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Orson Welles; Criterion Collection; 1976)
“After seeing this elusive film, I wonder how many pictures of the great artists in the museums are really by them and not by some forger.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Orson Welles’ last effort as a director is an amusingly unique documentary (really more of an unclassified work that drifts into free association) that plays as a homage to forgers and a call for cinema-as-play. As narrator and confessed charlatan, Orson explores trickery and fraud in the art world (including his own hoax in “The War of the Worlds” CBS radio broadcast on Sunday, October 30, 1938, that scared the American public about Martians landing in the States, which is revealed as only rewarding Orson for his misdeed with a chance to take his act to Hollywood and make Citizen Kane).

Orson made the film from discovered documentary footage by Francois Reichenbach of art forger Elmyr de Hory (called the greatest art forger of the century, who was able to operate because there’s a marketplace for such art) and of hoax biographer Clifford Irving, who wrote a fake biography on the faker Elmyr (a mysterious Hungarian) and followed that with a fake biography on the eccentric recluse Howard Hughes by claiming to have recorded interviews of him when they met in person–which forced Hughes to give a radio interview denying this. Welles states that citizen Kane was initially to be a fake biography on Howard Hughes, with Joseph Cotten in the lead. Both Elmyr and Irving coincidentally lived at the time on an island off the Spanish coast called Ibiza.

The film’s theme is encapsulated by the perceptive quote attributed to Pablo Picasso “Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth.” Welles chimes in that “This is a film about trickery, and fraud…about lies.” Regular Welles collaborator in the later years, the sexy, Oja Kodar, added some new material, in a colorful presentation about some 22 Picasso paintings of her that no one has ever seen.

The film is a healthy mixture of the insignificant and the profound, with Orson enjoying himself in the role of a magician (which he says all actors are) to create a higher regard for deception and cast a doubt about authorship as a foolproof notion. Orson wants us to at least not be so reassured when a so-called expert tells you a painting is the real thing. After seeing this elusive film, I wonder how many pictures of the great artists in the museums are really by them and not by some forger.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”