In Richard Linklater’s film Me and Orson Welles (2008) we get an image of cinema’s great auteur as a self-important egotist and an ambitious womanising tyrant. His character is reminiscent of the spoilt brat from his second film, The Magnificent Ambersons‘ George Amberson (played by Tim Holt), whose irritating selfish behaviour leads the town’s people to wish he’d get his comeuppance. The lauded boy-genius Welles was certainly to get his. After two classic (although commercially unsuccessful) films for RKO, Welles’s career stalled. He found himself a washed-up has-been at just 27. The studio’s subsequent motto ‘Showmanship in place of genius’ was surely a personal slight.
His meteoric rise was followed by a steady decline during which he struggled to put together a messy (although occasionally brilliant) body of work - Shakespeare adaptations shot over several years with money from his acting work; a similarly financed but unfinished Don Quixote (1957-1985); an almost finished film - The Other Side of the Wind (1970) - confiscated by the Iranian government following the fall of the Shah; and at least one classic B-movie-noir. This sporadic filmmaking career was to end with F for Fake (1973).
It is ostensibly a film about the Hungarian art forger Elmyr de Hory, who claims to have painted many of the Modiglianis or Matisses still housed in top galleries, and de Hory’s biographer Clifford Irving, who himself faked an ‘authorised autobiography’ of Howard Hughes. Welles spent a year editing together footage from a documentary on de Hory by Franí§ois Reichenbach with scenes of himself telling stories and doing magic tricks (also shot by Reichenbach). Welles, of course, can’t resist talking about his own former glories as a faker. The famous story of his War of the Worlds radio broadcast (1938), which panicked America, is retold over re-edited footage from the 1956 sci-fi classic Earth vs the Flying Saucers (directed by Fred F. Sears).
It certainly poses illuminating questions about authorship. De Hory asks what it is that makes his paintings inferior to the originals when no expert can tell them apart. But perhaps more interesting is what the film adds to the debate on cinematic authorship - being made by perhaps the studio system’s most undisputed auteur. Stylistically it doesn’t look like a Welles film - there are none of his trademark directorial flourishes, no deep focus or elaborate crane shots - but it is undoubtedly a personal film. My favourite version as to how Welles came to make the film is that he was asked to provide the voice-over for a documentary about the art forger - Welles’s rich sonorous voice was much in demand for voice-over narrations - and took it over to make a film about himself.
Welles was to claim, ‘I believe a work is good to the degree that it expresses the man who created it’ and, by that standard, F for Fake must be a masterpiece. However, the picture of the creator is much less critical than in Linklater’s film. One suspects it is merely presenting us with Welles as he would like to be seen: the cape-wearing, entertaining storyteller/magician who appeared on TV chatting to Merv Griffin, Dick Cavett or Johnny Carson. Perhaps the film that best reflects its creator (and in the least flattering light) is Chimes at Midnight (1965), where Welles surely recognises himself in that great corpulent braggart, Falstaff.
It somehow seems fitting that the great auteur’s career should end with him cutting up someone else’s film and making something truly personal out of it; but that this personal vision made with total freedom from studio interference should result in endless shots of his new starlet/paramour Oja Kodar’s bottom and an urbane monologue about himself is a little disappointing.