When the flush of a new-born sun fell first on Eden's green and gold,
Our father Adam sat under the Tree and scratched with a stick in the mould;
And the first rude sketch that the world had seen was joy to his mighty heart,
Till the Devil whispered behind the leaves, "It's pretty, but is it Art?"
—Rudyard Kipling, The Conundrum of the Workshops
What is the title that appears on the film itself of Orson Welles's 1973 movie about fakers and forgery?
2. ? (Question Mark)
4. ? (Questions) about Fakes
5. Verites et Mensonges (Truth and Lies)
6. F For Fake
This question came to mind when I recently came across the program note for F FOR FAKE when it was shown at the London Film Festival in 1975. Featured is a very informative interview with producer Dominique Antoine. Ms. Antoine’s comments also helped explain when the Iranian company Les Films de l’Astrophore first “took charge” of F FOR FAKE and why it took the film so long to get released after it was first screened in 1973.
In retrospect, it now appears evident that Welles made some extremely bad errors of judgment in regards to both of the films he made with money from Dr. Mehdi Boucherie of Iran. In fact, it seems whenever Welles acted as his own producer, he was often his own worse enemy! Why for instance, would Welles not immediately want to sign a distribution deal with his friend Darryl F. Zanuck and 20th Century-Fox for the U.S. rights to FALSTAFF after Zanuck expressed such enthusiasm and interest for the film in 1965? Why did Welles not sign a deal with Joseph E. Levine’s Embassy pictures for the rights to F FOR FAKE when Levine wanted to buy the movie for the U.S. market? Why did Welles not sign a deal to complete THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND in 1976, when one of the very few viable offers he received finally came his way?
Apparently, in each of these cases, it was because Welles, acting as his own producer, was hoping he could get a much better deal if he just waited patiently. As we now know, in each instance he only received a far worse deal by waiting, and in the case of THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND, he got no deal at all! Which reminded me of the self critical comment made by another artistic genius, Oscar Wilde, regarding his launching an action of criminal libel against the Marquis of Queensberry who had called him a “sodomite.” After Wilde had spent three years in jail he supposedly said, “What colossal stupidity!” While it’s obvious that both Wilde and Welles were artistic geniuses, it seems they both could be “colossally stupid” when it came to dealing with mundane business matters. That is surely why Welles always needed the skills of a strong producing partner, who was in sympathy with his artistic aims. Someone who could shepherd his artistic vision through the dangers of the studio system in the forties, and in the fifties and sixties through the new found independent distribution process. Which is probably why the many strong-willed producers Welles worked with in his career seemed to have had better results in actually getting Welles's films seen. They include: John Houseman, Sam Spiegel, William Castle, Herbert J. Yates, Albert Zugsmith and Alexander Salkind. When Welles acted as his own producer, while the film may have been artistically brilliant, it was almost always never distributed properly. The perfect example of this is OTHELLO. Welles produced and financed the film himself and therefore owned it outright. He sold it to United Artists for release in the United States three years after it had won the Grand Prix at the Cannes film festival. The film opened at the Paris Theater in New York City, and after a brief three week run there, United Artists pulled the picture and apparently never opened it anywhere else in the U.S. (According to Variety, the picture grossed less than $100,000.) The rights then reverted back to Welles, which explains why, except on a very few rare occasions, the movie was never screened in America during Welles's lifetime.
It appears something similar happened with F FOR FAKE. Welles had completed the film on his own and was attempting to sell it, with Francois Reichenbach acting as his producer. They ended up selling the film to the Iranian company, Les Films de l’Astrophore, who were already involved with the financing of THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND. However, before he sold the film, Welles certainly controlled every aspect of the final print, including its title. Which is why one wonders what Welles was thinking of when he perversely refused to give his picture a recognizable name! Even after it was brought by Les Films de l’Astrophore, the film took an astonishing three years to open in America. Although looking at some of the reviews that appeared after its initial showings, it’s not that surprising that there was so little interest by any studio or distributor in acquiring the film, or for that matter, in investing in THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND. Clearly both pictures would be very tough to market, and while they might prove to be artistic successes, there is little doubt their commercial prospects were perceived as being rather limited.
Obviously, with a “new kind of essay film,” on his hands, Welles only further hampered his own commercial success when a myriad of questions surfaced about what the actual title of the film was.
According to Gene Moskowitz’s review in Variety the picture was shown under the title of QUESTION MARK at the Club 13 screening room in Paris, on October 19, 1973. Moskowitz reports: “the film should intrigue buffs and would be a natural for school usage. Welles still shows his film know how despite the thin and sometimes overworked material. Even the title is unclear, for the word “Fake” is used at first and there is then a question mark which may also be the title and maybe more fitting for this glib but interesting pic.”
Jonathan Rosenbaum who was living in Paris at the time and had lunch with Welles in July of 1972, also saw the film at Club 13. Welles told Rosenbaum that he planned to call the film HOAX. Yet, when Rosenbaum saw the film in Paris, his report in the January 1974 issue of Film Comment, gives the title as FAKE. He also added this addendum to his article: “Department of Mystification: Two days after completing and sending off the above (article), Les Films du Prisme sends me a fiche technique of the new Welles film. According to them, the title is QUESTION MARK, Welles and Reichenbach share the director’s credit, and the script is by Oja Palinkas (Kodar), the leading actress. Elmyr de Hory and Clifford Irving (but not Welles) are listed as the leading actors. On the credits of the film that I saw, the word FAKE appears, followed by a question mark, and afterwards the title, “a film by Orson Welles.” For the time being I am content to call it THE NEW ORSON WELLES FILM, co-directed by Irving and de Hory, written by Jorge Luis Borges, and produced by Howard Hughes. …As Welles remarks about Chartres, the most important thing is that it exists.”
The film then apparently had it’s first public showing at The Tehran International Film Festival in 1973, at Roudaki Hall, complete with a tribute to Orson Welles, who received the Golden Winged Ibex Award for Life Achievement in the cinema. What the Persian title for the film was remains unclear, although I find it interesting that Welles was honored for his career in Iran, a full two years before he received an award from The American Film Institute. Ironically when the AFI gave Welles their Life Achievement Award, F FOR FAKE was finished, but still had not been released in America. As a result, no clips from Welles's latest film were shown, since Welles insisted that clips from his work in progress, THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND should be featured. The AFI officials naturally resisted this request, since they really weren’t very interested in Orson Welles's future as a filmmaker, only in his glorious past. They also managed to give the incorrect release date and title for F FOR FAKE in their program book. Let’s just be thankful they didn’t invite Richard Nixon back to present their award to Orson Welles!