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Peter Cook and Dudley Moore's hilarious Bedazzled rephrases a timeless joke: After totally flummoxing a poor sap named Stanley Moon (Moore) the Devil (Cook) raises his hand and says: "I confess, Stanley. Everything I've ever told you has been a complete lie, including this."
That's basically Orson Welles' trick in his final completed film F for Fake, a fuzzy essay on mischief masquerading in the form of a documentary. Welles loved magic and considered the movies the best conduit for impish game-playing; whenever he was left to his own devices he turned to magic acts, whether entertaining troops during WW2 or appearing on the Dinah Shore show as a slightly inebriated guest. He probably suggested his completely superfluous magic to the producers of Casino Royale as a way to avoid boredom. 1
F for Fake is a bogus documentary on con-men and high-stakes fraud, supposedly about art forger Elmyr de Hory and literary faker Clifford Irving (he's the one who came up with a fraudulent Howard Hughes memoir). Both of these men used their considerable charm to keep their confidence scams aloft, and when found out created a mystique around their falsehoods. Orson uses the same diversions when he performs a trick levitating a human body, until he whips off the sheet that covers it. 2Orson winks, makes jokes, affects an intimidating intellectual air and talks around his subject to misdirect the viewer. There's hardly an honest phrase spoken in the whole show... the filmic basis of which is "borrowed" interview footage from a straight docu on the forger de Horys.
Many find Welles utterly wonderful in this Chandu the Magician role, galumphing about in a cape and felt hat, his eyes slyly darting here and there. Every gag he's ever learned is here, including an endless battery of sophisticated editorial tricks -- the rapid-fire cutting, associative cuts and visual slight of hand are worth studying on their own.
Admirers will point to Welles' self-mocking "honesty" in the restaurant scene: he apparently orders the house steak soon after being served an enormous boiled lobster. Detractors will see him avoiding the downside of con games (fraud, crime, hubris, real victims) by spinning the discussion off onto tangents. According to Welles, the foolish critics that can't tell the difference between originals and fakes justify the shenanigans of de Horys and Irving. Welles, a bona-fide brilliant filmmaker, seeks our sympathy by constantly referring to himself as just another con man. He's only that in the context of this movie -- unless one wants to be perverse and insist that all films are con-jobs.
Welles is said to have invented his famous dialogue in The Third Man, the short speech about peace and war and the Renaissance and cuckoo clocks. He used it to lift the Harry Lime character up to a higher (Wellesian) level of sophistication. In F for Fake, Welles caps his wild stack of arguments with a topper about the cathedral of Chartres, a cultural wonder designed and built by artists unknown. It's a tremendous achievement in spite of being unsigned; nobody knows who designed it. By some twisted logic Welles uses this example to validate the achievements of anonymous forgers. Of course, Welles insists that he doesn't believe any of his own assertions, and that F for Fake is only a jest. That leads us back to the Bedazzled riddle. Welles trots out a variation on it to excuse seventeen minutes of what he calls "bald-faced lying."(spoiler)
F for Fake is a wickedly rich puzzle and a great source of discussion sure to start arguments among the nicest film fans. The older 16mm material is augmented by Welles' new 35mm scenes, making use of ample footage of Oja Kodar, as an actress, object of voyeurism and writing participant. The section where she and Welles go over the meeting of Pablo Picasso and her grandfather, an art forger, comes after the 60-minute honesty limit established by Welles early on. 3 Other credited "special participants" -- interview subjects, patsies, co-conspirators -- include Joseph Cotten, Richard Wilson, Laurence Harvey and Nina Van Pallandt. Just so we know for sure we'll never move in the same crowd Orson does!
The Criterion Collection's Blu-ray of F for Fake is an upgrading to HD of their 2005 DVD release. We can now see more of a contrast between the 16mm documentaries that were raided and Welles' new material, we also appreciate more how clever some of the editing is -- Welles at least twice matches narration with shots of himself talking in a different location, matching lip movements just long enough to to make us think that words belong there. On this third viewing we also take beter notice of the music score by Michel Legrand, which adds flavor Welles' speeches and a bit of exoticism to scenes filmed on Ibiza.
The extras answer a great many questions about this feature. A feature commentary records the thoughts of cameraman Gary Graver and star-writer Oja Kodar. An introduction by Peter Bogdanovich is retained as well as Welles' bizarre 9-minute trailer, the one the distributor would not finish. Disc two has a Norwegian docu on the art forger Elmyr de Hory, a 60 Minutes segment about Clifford Irving, and audio excerpts of Howard Hughes' response to Irving's claims. Last up is a fascinating feature-length docu about Welles' later years that includes clips from unfinished film projects like The Deep and Moby Dick. Jonathan Rosenbaum provides the insert essay.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
F for Fake Blu-ray
1. I remember seeing this appearance, and noting his embarrassment when his card tricks didn't work.
2. A discreet camera cut in Casino Royale masks an identical 'levitation act'; through the miracle of video, in F for Fake one can see the wire form revealed as Orson pulls the sheet from the "body." Notice the background greenery 'dimple' below where the cage was - a matte has been used to cover the wire form falling, but the suspending filaments still remain. Modern CGI could easily erase all traces of prestidigitation... rendering the shot as fraudulent as the average new movie. Orson understood the power of special effects, and uses scenes from Earth vs. the Flying Saucers to illustrate his personal best con-job, the 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast.
3. I should try that sometime: claim in a review that I'm offering ten paragraphs of utter truth. When the review goes longer than ten paragraphs, I'll be free to make up whatever malarkey I feel like! Then I can be upset and confused when readers no longer trust me. (Just kidding, Orson's audience wants to be fooled.)
The version of this review on the Savant main site has additional images, footnotes and credits information, and may be updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.