The fourth wall exists in movies to give the viewer the fly-on-the-wall effect and to strengthen the fantasy of the cinematic experience. Sometimes, though, a writer or director lets the actor break through and acknowledge the audience, bringing them directly into the plot of the film. Sometimes the actor just gets a peek past the wall—giving the viewer a knowing wink or sinister grin. Other times, the actor and even the movies as a whole tears through the wall as if it never existed. What follows is a list of some of cinema wall-busting’s biggest culprits.
The Knowing Nod/Glance
1. Death Proof (2007)
Quentin Tarantino’s love of paying homage to different film genres during his films is well-known. In Deathproof, Tarantino introduces viewers to Stuntman Mike Mckay (Kurt Russell), a serial killer who murders women with his car. The fourth wall gets a small hole in it as the director forces the audience to look into the eyes of the villain. This isn’t an innocent glance for the audience; this is meant to be a warning before Stuntman Mike goes to kill again.
2. Superman (1978)
As Superman (Christopher Reeve) flies through space high above the earth; he zooms past the screen before the audience. He turns to his left and gives a charming smile. The audience knows Superman is Clark Kent and we share the secret with him. The smile shows the acknowledgement by the character of the audience and draws us into the plot further.
3. Spaceballs (1987)
Mel Brooks’ Star Wars parody is about a subtle as one expect, so going in, it was just a matter of time before the fourth wall would come crumbling down. When Dark Helmet (Rick Moranis) and his crew view a videotape of Spaceballs the movie, they fast-forward through the events taking place in the film before reaching the present day. This causes the crew to wave their hands in front of the screen—realizing and acknowledging they are being recorded currently in the film. As fourth wall breaches go, it’s suitably Brooks-ish in the outlandish way that puts the viewer in the director’s chair and adds another dimension of comic relief—the characters know you’re laughing at them.
4. Animal House (1978)
John “Bluto” Blutarsky (Jim Belushi) turns to the audience as he’s looking into the girl’s dormitory watching a girl undress. This glance and wink lets the audience know to get ready—they’re about to witness exactly what it looks like. This technique is pure ’80s—and pure National Lampoon—inviting the audience to join this particular Delta Tau Chi House Rush.
5. Trading Places (1983)
During the breakfast scene, the Duke Brothers (Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche) explain in a very demeaning way what commodities are to Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy). Randolph Duke states, “Bacon, as you might find in a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich.” Billy Ray’s glance directly at the camera shows he’s well aware how ridiculous—and absurdly insulting—this entire exchange has been.
6. Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back (2001)
Kevin Smith’s movie breaks the fourth wall by not only mocking film making and those who review films but also through a line of “who would pay to see that” while Jay (Jason Mewes), Silent Bob (Smith) and Ben Affleck (as himself) cut their dialogue to stare out at the audience. This is an affectionate jab at the audience while at the same time indicating they are not taking the film too seriously. If that isn’t enough, Jay also smiles and gives the audience two thumbs up, showing that he, at least appreciates those in the audience who bought a ticket!
7. Richard III (1995)
As one would expect, and this list makes abundantly clear, the fourth wall is most often a casualty of comedy, particularly farce, but Ian McKellen’s turn as one of Shakespeare’s most compelling villains is a great example of how resonate the breach can be in drama. Richard III (McKellen) is glancing in the mirror and takes note of the audience. He turns and stares. In doing so, he pays homage to the film’s roots as a stage play, where the viewer is inescapably physically present during the performance, before turning his attention back to the action occuring “in-medium.”
8. Sunset Boulevard (1950)
Who can forget Norma Desmond’s (Gloria Swanson) famous line—told again and again throughout pop culture: “I’m ready for my close up.” This phrase is spoken by the forgotten silent film star in her delusional make believe comeback. Norma is on the verge of being arrested for the murder of Joe Gillis (William Holden)—whom she’s killed after he’s told her the truth (no comeback, no future career) and packs his bags to leave. In her false impression, she believes the cameras and news crew are present to film her comeback. After her dramatic descent from the grand staircase—the look into the camera out into the audience conveys her madness and her desperation. This classic film moment remains haunting and memorable, all thanks to that pesky fourth wall being ignored for just a moment.
9. The Great Train Robbery (1903)
This direct acknowledgement of the audience comes at the end of the film, after the audience has witnessed an entire train robbery and murdering of a messenger and passenger. The final and most memorable scene of the film is a closeup of the head bandit (played by Justus D. Barnes), who fires his pistol into the camera. In fact, this shot was so terrifying to the audience that some viewers actually thought they were being shot at. Talk about cinematic impact.
10. Psycho (1960)
Containing arguably the most chilling break in the fourth wall, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho has traumatized viewers for decades. Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) plays the taxidermy enthusiast turned hotel entrepreneur/murderer. As the movie progresses, we witness the infamous shower murder scene and the unforgettable shot of the blood running down the drain. When Bates is finally apprehended, he is sits in the precinct and as the jarring violin music plays, the camera slowly pans to the face of Norman as he gives the audience a sinister smile which slowly fades (to a skull?) and then to the image of Marion Crane’s (Janet Leigh) vehicle being pulled from the swamp.
But enough coyness, let’s get more direct…