F for Fake: Orson Welles’s Purloined Letter

There were plenty of advantages to living in Paris in the early 1970s, especially if one was a movie buff with time on one’s hands. The Parisian film world is relatively small, and simply being on the fringes of it afforded some exciting opportunities, even for a writer like myself who’d barely published. Leaving the Cinémathèque at the Palais de Chaillot one night, I was invited to be an extra in a Robert Bresson film that was being shot a few blocks away. And in early July 1972, while writing for Film Comment about Orson Welles’s first Hollywood project, the never completed Heart of Darkness, I learned Welles was in town and sent a letter to him at Antégor, the editing studio where he was working, asking a few simple questions—only to find myself getting a call from one of his assistants two days later: “Mr. Welles was wondering if you could have lunch with him today.”

I met him at La Méditerranée—the same seafood restaurant that would figure prominently in the film he was editing—and when I began by expressing my amazement that he’d invited me, he cordially explained that this was because he didn’t have time to answer my letter. The film he was working on was then called Hoax, and he said it had something to do with the art forger Elmyr de Hory and the recent scandal involving Clifford Irving and Howard Hughes. “A documentary?” “No, not a documentary—a new kind of film,” he replied, though he didn’t elaborate.

This sounds like a pompous boast, although, like most of what he told me that afternoon about other matters, it turned out to be accurate. He could have said “essay” or “essay film,” which is what many are inclined to call F for Fake nowadays. But on reflection, this label is almost as imprecise and misleading as “documentary,” despite the elements of both essay and documentary (as well as fiction) employed in the mix. Welles’s subsequent Filming “Othello” (1978) clearly qualifies as an essay, and this is plainly why Phillip Lopate, in his extensive examination of that form (in Totally, Tenderly, Tragically: Essays and Criticism from a Lifelong Love Affair with the Movies), prefers it—citing in particular its sincerity, which the earlier film can’t claim to the same degree. But in qualifying as Welles’s most public film and his most private— hiding in plain sight most of its inexhaustible riches—this isn’t a movie that can be judged by the kinds of yardsticks we apply to most others.

When I wound up being invited to an early private screening more than a year later, on October 15, 1973, the film was called Fake. I was summoned to Club 13—a chic establishment run by Claude Lelouch and often used for industry screenings—by film historian and longtime Cine?mathe?que employee Lotte Eisner, whose response to the film was much less favorable than mine. When I ventured, “This doesn’t look much like an Orson Welles film,” she replied, “It isn’t even a film.” But neither of us had a scrap of contextual information beyond what Welles had said to me, and it wasn’t until almost a decade later that he noted to Bill Krohn, in an interview for Cahiers du cine?ma, that he’d deliberately avoided any shots that might be regarded as “typically Wellesian.” The following year, the International Herald Tribune reported him as saying, “In F for Fake, I said I was a charlatan and didn’t mean it . . . because I didn’t want to sound superior to Elmyr, so I emphasized that I was a magician and called it a charlatan, which isn’t the same thing. And so I was faking even then. Everything was a lie. There wasn’t anything that wasn’t.”

To complicate matters further, the film’s production company sent me a fiche technique a few days after the screening that said that the film’s title was Question Mark, that it was codirected by Orson Welles and Franc?ois Reichenbach (presumably because of the outtakes from his documentary about art forgery that were used) and written by Olga Palinkas (the real name of Welles’s mistress, Oja Kodar), and that its leading actors were Elmyr de Hory and Clifford Irving (but not Welles). Clearly a “new kind of film” creates problems of definition and description for everyone, not merely critics, and by the time the title mutated one last time into F for Fake (an appellation suggested by Kodar—who truthfully can also be credited with the story about her and Pablo Picasso, which Welles adapted), everyone was thoroughly confused. “For the time being,” I concluded in Film Comment at the time, “I am content to call it The New Orson Welles Film, codirected by Irving and de Hory, written by Jorge Luis Borges, and produced by Howard Hughes . . . As Welles remarks about Chartres, the most important thing is that it exists.”


It would be comforting to say my early appreciation of F for Fake included an adequate understanding of just how subversive it was (and is). But leaving aside the critique of the art world and its commodification via “experts”—which is far more radical in its implications than the critique of William Randolph Hearst in Citizen Kane (1941)—it has been only in recent years, with the rewind and stop-frame capacities of video, that the sheer effrontery of many of Welles’s more important tricks can be recognized, making this film more home-video-friendly than any of his others. It has also taken some time for us to realize that his methodology in putting this film together gave him a kind of freedom with his materials that he’d never had before or would again. For a filmmaker who often avowed that the art of cinema resided in editing, F for Fake must have represented his most extended effort. According to Dominique Villain, who interviewed the film’s chief editor for her 1991 book Le montage au cine?ma, the editing took Welles a solid year, working seven days a week—a routine suspended only for the length of time that it took Michel Legrand to compose the score—and required the use of three separate editing rooms.

The key to Welles’s fakery here, as throughout his work, is his audience’s imagination and the active collaboration it performs—most often unknowingly—with his own designs, the kind of unconscious or semiconscious complicity that magicians and actors both rely on. (“A magician is just an actor . . . playing the part of a magician.”) It’s what enables us to accept Welles as Kodar’s Hungarian grandfather and Kodar as Picasso in the final Orly sequence, when they’re both dressed in black and moving about in the fog. And the key to this key can be found both literally and figuratively in the first words Welles speaks in the film—initially heard over darkness that gradually fades in to the window of a train compartment in a Paris station: “For my next experiment, ladies and gentlemen, I would appreciate the loan of any small personal object from your pocket—a key, a box of matches, a coin . . .” This proves to be an actual key in the pocket of a little boy standing in for the rest of us. Welles promptly turns it into a coin, then back into a key inside the boy’s pocket, meanwhile offering us brief glimpses of and exchanges with Reichenbach’s film crew, then Kodar as she opens the train window. “As for the key,” he concludes, “it was not symbolic of anything.”

One sees his droll point, but I beg to differ. By virtue of being personal and pocketed, then taken away and eventually returned to its owner, the key is precisely symbolic of the viewer’s creative investment and participation solicited in Welles’s “experiment” over the next eighty-odd minutes. And distinguishing between what’s public and private in these transactions, both for the viewer and for Welles, is much less easy than it sounds. A movie in which Welles can’t resist showing off the beauty and sexiness of his mistress at a time when he’s still married seems downright brazen, especially in contrast to the tact he shows in alluding to de Hory’s homosexuality, yet he can’t simply or invariably be accused of wearing his heart and libido on his sleeve. In some ways, the self-mocking braggadocio—such as ordering steak au poivre from the same waiter carrying off the remains of a gigantic lobster—becomes a kind of mask, while his deepest emotions and intentions are hidden away in his own pockets, just as firmly as our own private investments remain in ours. Those who decide that the expose?s of various hoaxes (including those of de Hory, Irving, and Welles) are superficial and obvious may be overlooking the degree to which these very revelations are masking the perpetration of various others, some of which are neither superficial nor obvious.

For an immediate example of this process, consider the word clusters in the title sequence that we’re asked to read on the sides of film cans as the camera moves left from “a film by Orson Welles” to “with the,” then up in turn to “collaboration,” “of certain,” and “expert,” which sits alongside another can labeled “practioners.” Because we’re so preoccupied with following the unorthodox direction of our reading imposed by the camera—proceeding from right to left and then from down to up—most of us are apt to read practioners, a word existing in no dictionary, as practitioners. And given how loaded, tainted, and double-sided the word expert is soon to become in this movie, it’s possible to conclude that the real collaborators and “practioners”—the spectators of Welles’s magic who collaborate with him by putting it into practice—are none other than ourselves. In other words, we know best and we know nothing.

Similarly, we should look very closely at what we’re being shown in the early “girl watching” sequence—perhaps the most intricately edited stretch in the film, especially in contrast to the more leisurely and conventionally edited late sequence devoted to Picasso’s ogling of Kodar. (Both sequences incidentally feature a tune that Legrand calls “Orson’s Theme,” though Welles’s placement of it suggests it might more fittingly be called “Oja’s Theme.”) If we freeze-frame in the right places toward the end of “girl watching,” we’ll discover that a couple of full-frontal long shots of “Oja Kodar” approaching us on a city street don’t actually show Kodar at all but another woman (her sister Nina), of roughly the same size in the same dress. Given the whole sequence’s elaborate peekaboo tactics—a mosaic of almost perpetual fragmentation—it stands to reason that two very brief shots pretending to reveal what many previous angles have concealed can readily fool us by hiding in full view, just like Edgar Allan Poe’s purloined letter.


As Finnegans Wake was for Joyce, F for Fake was for Welles a playful repository of public history intertwined with private in-jokes as well as duplicitous meanings, an elaborate blend of sense and nonsense that carries us along regardless of what’s actually being said. For someone whose public and private identities became so separate that they wound up operating routinely in separate households and occasionally on separate continents, exposure and concealment sometimes figured as reverse sides of the same coin, and Welles’s desire to hide inside his own text here becomes a special kind of narcissism. When Welles made his never-released nine-minute F for Fake trailer three years later, he even avoided having his name spoken or seen (“Modesty forbids”)—except for when Gary Graver, his cinematographer and partial stand-in as host, prompts him with, “Ten seconds more, Orson.”

For a filmmaker who studiously avoided repeating himself and sought always to remain a few steps ahead of his audience’s expectations, thereby rejecting any obvious ways of commodifying his status as an auteur, Welles arguably found a way in F for Fake to contextualize large portions of his career while undermining many cherished beliefs about authorship and the means by which “experts,” “God’s own gift to the fakers,” validate such notions.

It has often been asserted that this film was his indirect response to Pauline Kael’s “Raising Kane” and its (subsequently disproven) suggestion that practically all of Citizen Kane’s screenplay was written by Herman J. Mankiewicz. It’s worth adding, however, that Welles’s most direct and immediate response to Kael’s screed was his masterful semiforgery of “The Kane Mutiny,” a polemical article that deceptively ran in Esquire under Peter Bogdanovich’s byline, included many quotations from Welles, and cogently responded to Kael’s essay on a point-by- point basis—a remarkable display of Welles’s gifts as a writer that paradoxically had to conceal this fact. In her writing on Welles, University of Michigan professor Catherine L. Benamou has noted the echoes of the fire consuming the Rosebud sled in the burning of a couple of forged canvases in F for Fake, and one could also cite the way that various “conversations” manufactured through editing reproduce aspects of the community chatter about the Ambersons in The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), or the way a Gypsy-like fiddle, Welles’s Slavic intonations, and all the frenetic plane-hopping call to mind Mr. Arkadin (1955). There’s even a cuckoo clock thrown in at one point that summons up both Arkadin and The Third Man. For all his regrets, this self-referentiality is one of the many elements that make F for Fake the most celebratory of Welles’s films. As he puts it while distant views of Chartres nearly replicate our first views of Kane’s Xanadu: “Our songs will all be silenced—but what of it? Go on singing.”

This piece originally appeared in the Criterion Collection’s 2005 DVD edition of F for Fake.

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