Every film that Orson Welles made was distinctively an Orson Welles movie. Even something like The Stranger, which was Welles’s one attempt to make a standard studio film, still ends up looking like an Orson Welles movie. Of all the films he made, however, there might not be a more “Wellesian” Welles picture than F for Fake.
If we can say that there is no other drama quite like Citizen Kane, and no film noir quite like The Lady From Shanghai, and no Shakespeare film quite like Falstaff, then how do we even begin to address the uniqueness of F for Fake? Well, let’s begin with the fact that no one quite knows how to categorize it. Is it a documentary? Or is it better thought of, as some have suggested, as an “essay film?”
I prefer to call it a work of creative nonfiction. It blends together documentary footage, interviews, dramatic recreations, and almost Expressionistic performance art set-pieces for a meditation on art, forgery, and expertise. Welles starts by looking at the career of the world famous (or world infamous) art forger Elmyr de Hory, the subject of a book called Fake by Clifford Irving…who himself was shortly to become notorious as the author of a bogus autobiography of Howard Hughes. Welles follows this swirl of events and uses them to ponder several questions about the nature of art: What is the value of authorship? If no one knows the difference between a real masterpiece and a fake masterpiece, then is there a difference? Are critics and experts merely con men pretending to know what art “is” so that they can have a job teaching the rest of us? At one point in the film Clifford Irving admits, “I’ve lost my faith in the concept of expertise,” and, indeed, F for Fake functions as a takedown of the very idea of expert appreciation.