The Conundrum over the title for Orson Welles’s final masterpiece, F FOR FAKE
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!
Sight and Sound, also weighed in about the confusing title for Welles movie in their fall 1973 issue, with a short piece by John Russell Taylor called “Tell Me Lies.” He wrote, “The first and most impenetrable mystery about Orson Welles’ latest film is what, exactly, it is called. The place in the film, which might be expected to provide the answer, is strangely ambiguous. First we see the screen filled with the word FAKE over and over again, small, running diagonally, as though to form a background. Then imposed on this, a question mark. This seems to leave open three possibilities: that it is called Fake, that is called Fake?, or that it is called ?. Sources close to Welles incline to the third solution, and generally refer to it as ‘Question Mark’. But it does seem characteristic of the old illusionist that he should help to sabotage an already unclassifiable and perhaps not very commercial feature by presenting right off this area of puzzlement. How, after all, do you start to sell a film you cannot even refer to, except as what’s–it’s-name, you know, that film?”
Today, it may seem surprising to read there was so much confusion about what the actual title of the movie was, but assuming the print we now can see on the DVD versions is the same film that was shown in 1973 (and with Welles you can never be sure), this confusion seems a bit odd. To be absolutely precise about what actually appears on the screen, here is what I saw:
A title, painted by Welles, "Francois Reichenbach presents," followed by a cut to a "?" again painted by Welles, but on a moviola screen, followed by a cut to a film can with the words “about Fakes” written on it, followed by a swish pan up to another film can with the words “a film by Orson Welles” written on it.
Now, if you logically assume this is the title sequence for the movie, (which seems obvious, at least to me) and you were to use this sequence to determine the title of the film, I would surmise it would translate as either “? about Fakes,” or the more acceptable title, especially from a marketing point of view, as “QUESTIONS ABOUT FAKES.” Yet, quite strangely, not one review or any of the initial reports I’ve read ever mentions the words “about Fakes” that comes after the “?” that appears on the screen.
Needless to say, F FOR FAKE is the accepted title we now know the film by, but it is a title that is never seen or heard in the film itself. This was a name that was first dreamed up by Oja Kodar, shortly after the film had its American premiere on March 29, 1974 at Los Angeles Filmex festival. At that time, the film was called FAKE?, and Stephen Farber gave this scathing report on it in the July 1974 issue of Film Comment: “I must offer a strong dissenting opinion on Welles’ FAKE? (presumably to Jonathan Rosenbaum), a labored and dispiriting jape. Welles’ Worshippers may pontificate about the master’s consideration of art and illusion, and I am sure that Welles wanted to make a movie about those grand themes. If he had had the money, he probably would have chosen to do a fiction film about an art forger—and it might well been dazzling. But it is gross sentimentality to confuse FAKE? with that hypothetical masterpiece. One can have sympathy for Welles’s financial difficulties without losing all critical perspective. Welles seems to me the most gifted director American has ever produced, and almost all his films up to FAKE? Have demonstrated his gifts. FAKE? is no more than a home movie, an indulgent, desperate bit of trick editing; for Welles’s sake I hope that it is quickly forgotten.”
In December of 1974, Jonathan Rosenbaum reported in London’s Time Out magazine that reviews like the one by Stephen Farber were not helping the film get a domestic release deal. He asked: “When will you get to see it? I wish I could tell you. At the moment, nobody appears to know for sure when it will open anywhere. The sad fact of the matter is that the film already appears to be regarded by people in the trade as a commercial disaster—a curious attitude to take towards a film before it’s released, but far from an uncommon one. Indeed, Welles’s career as a director has been plagued by such attitudes. (The most interesting films, after all, are usually the unclassifiable ones, and ‘unclassifiable’ in the movie business usually means unmarketable).”
The film finally appeared in France in the spring of 1975, under the French title of VERITES ET MENSONGES (TRUTH AND LIES). At this point, many English film journalists attending the Cannes film festival were able to see the movie for the first time. Sight and Sound’s astute editor, Penelope Huston had this to say in a report for her summer 1975 issue: “For me, the most sheerly pleasurable movie at Cannes was Orson Welles’ F FOR FAKE, as it now seems to be called after toying with Fake, Question Mark and other titles. John Russell Taylor wrote about it some time ago in Sight and Sound; and the fact that it’s only now properly emerging seems the result of contractual problems. One hopes that some alert English distributor will snap up these seventy-odd scintillating moments of wit, movie legerdemain, ingenuity, anecdote and Wellesian observation. This, of course, is the film in which Welles builds on Francois Reichenbach’s footage about the art master faker Elmyr de Hory, moving from Clifford Irving’s book on de Hory into the Irving–Howard Hughes affair, with side reflections on The War of the Worlds and other topics. Earlier accounts, however, had not fully suggested how much the film is also about Welles—musing on the role of art experts (read critics), enjoying the confounding of these solemn fellows, considering the artist as charlatan and the charlatan as artist. He moves absolutely easily from the devastating cocksure charm of de Hory (who thinks he can sketch a better Matisse than Matisse ever managed) to the great anonymous presence of Chartres. What is ‘art’ without its attributions? Who is Welles, under the conjurors cloak and the black hat? Dazzling, invigorating fun, the film also has relevance to Welles’ wider concerns. It leaves one wondering under what signature he may finally release the long delayed Deep Waters, and hoping that if it takes Iranian assistance to do it, the other Welles films will see the light. There is, simply, no one to touch him.”
The film turned up next at the New York Film Festival, in September of 1975, and by now it appears that the title of F FOR FAKE had finally been settled on, although there was still no American distributor who was willing to acquire the film.
In November of 1975 it was shown at the London Film Festival, where these comments from Antoine Dominique appeared in the program notes:
Interview with DOMINIQUE ANTOINE
By Henry Moret and Jacques Pinturault
Taken from the French magazine Ecran 75
Translated by Tony Rayns.
Ms. Antoine is the head of the Paris office of the Franco-Iranian production company Les Films de l’Astrophore, founded by the Iranian cinema enthusiast, Dr. Mehdi Boucherie.
We didn’t produce F FOR FAKE, but bought it completed, in collaboration with the well-known German company, Janus Films. This was in July 1974, a title over a year after my first meeting with Orson Welles in July 1973. Our company had just decided to follow, for four years at least, a policy of co-producing films of major filmmakers. And we had terrific luck. The first filmmaker, who came along looking for a French co-producer, was Orson Welles who wanted to finish THE OTHER SIDE OP THE WIND, a film that is very important to him. It isn't just a reflection on Hollywood, the style and tone of the film is totally new, not just in Welles’s own work, but in relation to other contemporary cinema too. He had already assembled an hour of silent rushes.
Then, in July 1974, after L’ Astrophore had made the decision to co-produce THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND, Francois Reichenbach, who had been in at the beginning of what became F FOR FAKE, came to us and asked us to take charge of this film, too. He was just getting over a serious operation and the work of promoting and distributing a new film was more than he could manage. He thought that since we were already co-producers of THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND, it would be simpler if we took on the other film, too. We had already seen the film four or five times and it was, for us, one of Welles* most fascinating. We didn't hesitate a second in accepting Reichenbach's proposition.
The film is a fantastic lesson in montage. François Reichenbach didn't miss a single preview: we reserved a seat for him and he must have seen it a dozen times!
In order to make the film, Orson Welles had asked Reichenbach to let him use some surplus footage that he had shot on art forgers for a French TV series called "The Third Eye” Reichenbach's 16 mm footage included sequences devoted to Magritte’s widow, to Madame Matisse and Elmyr de Hory. Welles was interested in using the de Hory material for a program that he wanted to make for American TV.
It was at that point that Clifford Irving arrived on the scene. Orson was beginning his editing, and the shooting of new footage, which was due to take a few weeks, then spread out over several months.
Apart from the Reichenbach material, Welles shot all the scenes with Irving, the Picasso-Oja Kodar sequence and obviously everything in which he appears, himself. Still other material came from the private stock of images that Welles shoots for himself whenever he gets some money from one of his acting roles.
The opening sequence with Oja Kodar, a Yugoslavian girl whom he met during the shooting of THE TRIAL was shot long before he had the idea for F FOR FAKE. The same goes for the sequence of Laurence Harvey's arrival at Orly airport. In fact, the film is an extraordinary puzzle of bits and pieces, sounds and images edited with fiendish precision.
Here are the primary sources Welles used in editing F FOR FAKE:
New footage shot by Gary Graver (1971 – 1972)
Elmyr: The True Picture – BBC Reichenbach documentary (1968 – 1970)
Magic Trick with Oja Kodar and Laurence Harvey, shot by Lazlo Kovacs (1968)
Portrait of Orson Welles (1968) Reichenbach documentary
Girl Watching – Oja Kodar in Rome (1969)
Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956) Ray Harryhausen film
Howard Hughes footage (newsreel 1940’s)
Don Ameche leaving a ship (newsreel)
Hughes telephone press conference (1971)
Hurricane-storm footage (newsreel)
ORSON WELLES: Now it’s time for an introduction. Ladies and gentleman, by way of introduction, this is a film about trickery, fraud, about lies. Tell it by the fireside or in a marketplace or in a movie, almost any story is almost certainly some kind of lie. But not this time. No, this is a promise. For the next hour, everything you hear from us is really true and based on solid fact.
In late 1976 F FOR FAKE was finally picked-up for U.S. release by Specialty Films of Seattle, who unfortunately had neither the resources nor money to market such an unusual movie. However, an ever optimistic Welles decided to shoot a trailer to help sell the film with his own money, and in December 1976 he, Oja Kodar and Gary Graver created a short promotional film in his Los Angeles house. When the finished film was presented to Specialty films it ran over 9 minutes and the distributor didn’t even bother to have prints processed, since they realized that even if they did, very few theaters would be willing to show such a long and unusual trailer.
In January 1977, Welles appeared in person for the U.S. theatrical premiere of F FOR FAKE in Boston, and ironically, he used the occasion to film a question and answer session with the audience for his essay film then in-progress, FILMING OTHELLO. F FOR FAKE opened in several other major U.S. cities in 1977, including San Francisco, Seattle and Los Angeles. The important New York opening was on February 25 at The D. W. Griffith Theater in Manhattan’s trendy Upper East Side neighborhood (where I was first entranced by the film), but with little money to spend on advertising, it quickly disappeared from cinemas and remained mostly out of circulation until it was finally released on videotape and laserdisc. In my view, the film is Orson Welles's last completed masterpiece.