Release Date(s)1973 (October 21, 2014)
Studio(s)Janus Films (Criterion - Spine #288)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: A
Orson Welles’ final film released prior to his passing, F for Fake is every bit as important to the art form as his previous work. Discarded critically during its initial release, it has since grown in estimation in the eyes of film fans all over the world. It’s a work that helped usher in what Welles referred to as “a new kind of film,” being a stylistic precursor to the documentaries made today.
One could argue quite successfully that F for Fake acts more as a visual essay rather than a traditional documentary, as it never sticks to one subject. Its primary focus is on art forger Elmyr de Hory, but it also plays with Welles’ notions of authorship and legitimacy. Woven in too are details pertaining to Howard Hughes, Hughes’ autobiographer Clifford Irving, Welles’ then-girlfriend Oja Kodar, as well as examinations of Welles himself. The film uses various interviews, new and old, as well archival footage and newly-shot sequences to carry out its narrative.
F for Fake can be a perceived mess to those not giving the film the time it needs. It absolutely demands your full attention in order to follow it. There’s a loose structure, jumping from one point to another, but it never loses its focus. Welles’ intention was to create something completely different than the more conventional documentary, at least in form. In one instance, Welles might be waxing philosophical about the perceived truths of authenticity while speaking about Elmyr de Hory, then he might simply switch gears, jumping off into an exploration of Clifford Irving. It has the appearance of nonsense, but all subjects are clearly tied together into a complete and cohesive structure.
Truth be told, there just wasn’t a documentary like it at the time. Welles’ examinations of his subjects and his various philosophies make for one of the finest and most interesting visual essays ever committed to film. His extraordinary ability to take what he perceived to be the mundane, turn it on its head, and make it something else entirely is, sadly, one of the most tragic aspects of his filmmaking career. Many of his ideas were never fully appreciated until years after his passing, informing and influencing new generations of filmmakers. F for Fake is not merely a little seen Welles masterpiece, but it’s also an encapsulation of his entire career.
As noted previously, F for Fake utilizes a wealth of material (film, audio, and otherwise) in varying conditions with different transitions between them. The film was intentionally designed with all of the material not being in the best of condition for its aesthetic. F for Fake will never have a pristine look, so Criterion’s treatment of it is to be admired. It still retains a filmic appearance with all of the various grain structures, color palettes, shadow details, skin tones, and brightness levels left intact. The most I can critique is image stability and contrast levels, both of which are more than acceptable. The film’s soundtrack, sourced from its original English mono in LPCM, is also of the same caliber. There are subtitles in English for those who might need them. The film’s overall presentation is impressive and has been treated with much respect.
There’s also a wealth of supplemental material to dig through. You get an introduction to the film by filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich; an audio commentary with Oja Kodar and director of photography Gary Graver; an episode of the talk show Tomorrow with Tom Snyder from 1975 (featuring an interview with Welles); Orson Welles: One-Man Band – a documentary about Welles’ unfinished projects (with indexed chapters); Almost True: The Noble Art of Forgery – a documentary about art forger Elmyr de Hory (also with indexed chapters); a 60 Minutes interview from 2000 with Clifford Irving; the full audio recording of Howard Hughes’ 1972 press conference as heard in the film; Welles’ original (and rejected) nine-minute theatrical trailer; and finally a fold-out insert with an essay on the film by critic Jonathan Rosenbaum.
Overall, this is another fantastic package from the good folks at Criterion. F for Fake is an experience you’ll likely never forget... Welles makes sure of that. Even if you don’t like it, you can’t help but admire his commitment to doing something incredibly different than other filmmakers were at the time. It’s a marvelous film and one that I’m glad to say has been properly preserved for the future. Highly recommended.
- Tim Salmons