Orson Welles (as himself) presents to us this story of fakery and fraud, claiming to have been a charlatan all of his career. As he introduces his tale at a railway station, he performs a magic trick for a small boy, making his key turn into a coin, then back again and having money pour out of the child's nose. Next, he allows us to meet the film's muse, and Welles' muse as well, Miss Oja Kodar who he places in a cabinet and makes disappear. Yet this is all preamble, as for the next hour, everything he says will be the truth...
Well, maybe, maybe not. F for Fake (that title is never used in the film itself) was Welles' final released film in his lifetime, and quickly gained a cult of fans who were receptive to his screen trickery, but the truth was that this was a fatally smug and capricious piece of work that rather than serving to celebrate Welles, ended up casting him in a poorer light. The basis for the film was a documentary filmed by François Reichenbach about Elmyr de Hory, who claimed to be the greatest art forger the world had ever seen, and clips from this are scattered throughout this project.
Also involved is Clifford Irving and his wife Edith Irving, famous hoaxers of the Howard Hughes autobiography that wasn't back in the early seventies, and Welles ties himself in knots linking this hoax to the forgeries of de Hory - if nothing else, this is a masterful display of editing technique. At points it looks as if Irving is grilling the artist (also the subject of a book by him), one of many items of fooling that make for a densely packed but ultimately exhausting experience. So, for example, Joseph Cotten will show up for a brief clip to tell us that in Citizen Kane he was playing Howard Hughes, which looks like invention of a history that was never intended.
The film, which at least sets out its stall as being factually dubious from the start, goes over the same ground so often that it ends up erasing all meaning from its yarns. So De Hory is returned to again and again, each time providing less illumination so eventually you wonder if he's simply an actor playing a role. There is a fascination with Hughes, and a supposed telephone call with him is used, but frankly it could be anyone doing an impression: do you know what Hughes sounded like near the end of his life? And no discussion of hoaxes from Welles could do without a mention of his War of the Worlds broadcast.
This is illustrated by clips of Earth vs the Flying Saucers but the bits that you hear of the original broadcast are recreations; couldn't Welles even get access to his recordings by this stage? It climaxes with a glorification of Kodar, who the director makes up a whole story about her connection to Pablo Picasso, but by this time you may have lost patience. What rankles the most is that it presents Welles as utterly insincere, as if his immense talent was the fakery of a master showman and not be taken seriously. It's as if all those years of stinging criticism had brought Welles to the point that he hardly believed in his own powers anymore and was compelled to sabotage his own legend. There are incidental pleasures here, but it's a sad little film really. Music by Michel Legrand.