Directed By: Orson Welles
Starring: Orson Welles, Oja Kodar, Joseph Cotten
Trivia: An excerpt of Welles' 1930 radio broadcast of WAR OF THE WORLDS is recreated for a scene in this film
On October 30, 1938, Orson Welles and his Mercury Theater troupe performed a radio play inspired by H.G. Wells’ classic novel, War of the Worlds. During the first portion of the hour-long program, several actors posed as professional newsmen, delivering what sounded like actual reports of an invasion from Mars currently underway. There was a disclaimer at the beginning, of course, saying it was all made up, but for those listeners who tuned in a few minutes late, this “radio play” was all too real, leading to widespread panic in a few areas of the country. Seemingly surprised by the chaos his radio show had stirred up, Welles sheepishly apologized for the trouble he caused. Yet, in the end, I’m sure he smiled a little at how easy it was to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes.
That’s precisely the subject of his 1973 documentary F for Fake. As Welles himself says, this is “a film about trickery and fraud. About lies”. Throughout the movie, we’re introduced to people who’ve made a career out of lying, including Clifford Irving, a writer who once penned a fake biography of billionaire Howard Hughes, and Elmyr de Hory, a neighbor of Irving’s (both men, at the height of their notoriety, lived on the Spanish island of Ibiza) who many consider to be the greatest art forger of the 20th century. In fact, his copies of the works of Matisse and van Dongen (among others) were so convincing that they even fooled a few experts. At the time F for Fake was produced, Elmyr was still selling his forgeries to many “respectable” art dealers, who made more money off of them than he himself did.
F for Fake, which would prove to be Welles last feature film, is a rapidly paced, light-hearted, often witty pseudo-documentary about charlatanism, and the director, who also acts as narrator and host, clearly had a great time making it. Joined on occasion by his girlfriend, the uber-sexy Oja Kodar (approximately 25 years his junior), Welles blissfully takes us on a fascinating journey of discovery, the lesson of which seems to be you can’t always believe what you hear, even if the people talking are so-called “experts” (several handwriting specialists clamed a signature Irving had on a contract was, indeed, that of Howard Hughes. It wasn’t, of course). Welles himself gets in on the act, opening the movie with a magic trick he performs to amuse a young boy at a Paris train station, then pulling back to show the film crew capturing it all, an admission of sorts that the entire scene was staged. Much like art and literature, movies are an illusion, and even a documentary isn’t above telling a lie every now and again. As proof, Welles, at one point, regales us with an intriguing, and supposedly true, story, only to reveal at the end it was a complete and total fabrication.
Don’t worry… I won’t say which story it is. That would spoil the fun. And F for Fake is definitely a lot of fun.