Orson Welles' unclassifiable final completed film F For Fake is a loving tribute to chicanery, deception, misdirection, scoundrels, sleight of hand, con artistry, dishonesty, and flimflammery in all its myriad guises. It is, in other words, a valentine to filmmaking in general, and its larger-than-life creator in particular. In the film, being a faker and being an artist qualify as two sides of the same coin, and for Welles, being a magician is more than just a hobby or a beloved pastime. It's not hard to see the film as one elaborate magic trick, a dizzy feature-length lark that delights in toying with its audience by pulling the rug out from under its feet at regular intervals.
A singular combination of documentary, essay, narrative, broad comedy, hoax, and cinematic vaudeville, the film began as a BBC documentary about legendary art forger Elmyr de Hory. Welles was asked to narrate, but instead, he took over the project, transforming a straight documentary about art forgery into a freewheeling extended meditation on Hory, real-life Hory biographer and notorious fellow faker Clifford Irving, Howard Hughes, Pablo Picasso, and the complicated relationship between creativity and larceny, art and theft. The film inevitably swoops back to two early touchstones in Welles' early legend: Citizen Kane, a fictionalized biography of William Randolph Hearst that echoes Irving's fictionalized autobiography of Hughes, and Welles' notorious radio production of War Of The Worlds.
In his introduction on Criterion's double-disc DVD, Peter Bogdanovich—always Smithers to Welles' Mr. Burns—says diplomatically that F For Fake is a fine film for people in the right frame of mind. He's right in that it takes a leap of faith and a supreme confidence in Welles' storytelling genius not to see the film as spectacularly silly and self-indulgent. But for those willing to give themselves over completely to Welles, the film offers endless rewards. With a caffeinated sensibility pitched somewhere between the manic formal playfulness of early Jean-Luc Godard and the leering titillation of Allen Funt's What Do You Say To A Naked Lady?, F For Fake swings free and easy like cinematic jazz, riffing wildly on a few established themes and fearlessly exploring the uniquely cinematic magic of editing. The numerous DVD extras include a flaky commentary featuring co-writer Oja Kodar, a 60 Minutes interview with Irving, the press conference where Hughes denounced Irving, and an epic, experimental trailer for the film. It also includes a pair of lengthy documentaries, Orson Welles: One-Man Band (about Welles' unfinished projects) and a straightforward doc about Hory that illustrates just how narrow and constricting the concept of making a genuine documentary can be. As Welles' film colorfully conveys, sometimes it's necessary to lie to get at any kind of real truth.