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Three Charlatans

March 2023
1min read


starring, directed, and written by Orson Welles , Janus Films/HomeVision, 98 minutes .

“This is a film about trickery,” says Orson Welles at the start of his wildly stylized portrait of the century’s greatest known art forger, Elmyr de Hory. The project began as a loose series of interviews with the coy old painter by his biographer and neighbor, the American writer Clifford Irving. But as they were filming, on the Spanish island of Ibiza, Irving himself was Grafting a hoax even more impressive than getting a fake Modigliani into a museum: the Howard Hughes “autobiography” caper. While Irving pays tribute to de Hory’s successes, you watch his handsome face for signs of the forming plot. Irving explains straight-faced that de Hory lives “in his own world” and is unreliable.

Welles was drawn to de Hory as a fellow “charlatan” and was truly awed by Irving’s manuscript forgery, which he pronounced a greater hoax than his own 1938 “War of the Worlds” broadcast. But in the background of this film about authorship in the art world looms Welles’s own claim that he deserves undisputed credit for his masterpiece, Citizen Kane . (In one of the film’s many asides Joseph Gotten explains that he was to star as a Howard Hughes figure before Welles decided to take over as the Hearstian Kane.) F for Fake is a sometimes maddeningly quick-cutting meditation on “chicanery” and authorship; the shifting stories show both the indulgence and the fascination of Welles’s best work.

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