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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.”
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.
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.
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…
Who can forget the infamous (and perhaps slightly shrill) screaming of Kevin McCallister (Macaulay Culkin) after applying aftershave? Kevin walks through the house in a towel, detailing how he has just completed his showering routine (a nod to Ferris Bueller perhaps?). Here, the fourth wall breach adds some much needed humor (and sympathy) to the proceedings—Kevin has acted like a total jerk the night before and almost ruined Uncle Frank’s vacation. (Seriously, who wants to spend Christmas in Florida, anyway?) Breaking the fourth wall in this movie gives the audience permission to feel childish again and to root as Kevin to fights to defeat the home intruders.
Sam Elliot stars as the stranger cowboy who brings the audience into the film by introducing the story and closes the film by recapping it with us as you would with a friend or fellow movie-goer. The cowboy also reveals insider information to the viewer, that the Dude (Jeff Bridges) is expecting a “little Lebowski.” This gives the audience a packaged movie from beginning to end—complete with a friendly, knowing narrator who hasn’t forgotten about us.
Shane Black’s film contains perhaps my personal favorite direct address. There are several instances within the film that call attention to the process of film making. For example, Harry (Robert Downey Jr.), in escaping an burglary stumbles shot and bloody into a Hollywood screen test. The blatant direct address comes at the end of the film where Harry and Perry (Val Kilmer) recap the end of the film and tell the audience to go home. This playful breaking of the fourth wall gives the audience the sense they’ve been an accomplice to the plot throughout the film.
Who can forget Michael Caine playing self-centered Alfie? The fourth wall is continually broken in this movie to justify his actions and using women as sexual objects. This is an interesting method as what often comes out of Alfie’s mouth is then completely disregarded by his actions. It often leaves the audience feeling a bit resentful of Alfie, and even more confused by his mindset, which also mirrors how some of the women in his life probably feel. By the end of the movie, and even as the audience feels sympathy toward Alfie, we are unsure if he will ever “get” it.
Thank you, fourth wall, for allowing us to become Amélie’s (Audrey Tautou) best friend. The friend, we find out, her parents never allowed her to have. She often concocts eccentric schemes, ones the audience gets to plan right alongside her. She reveals her deepest secrets, her desires and the main plot of the movie—her crush. It’s fun being friends with Amélie.
There’s nothing like the direct address of the main character to drive home for the audience the excess, the greed and the arrogance of the, well, main character. In Martin Scorsese’s film, Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) continually brags to the audience about his cash flow, his yacht and his schemes. The breaking of the fourth wall allows the viewer to see the genius and madness of the character. Depending on one’s ethical bent, this can make for a cautionary tale or serve as cause for admiration?
David Fincher’s film uses the fourth wall—and the lapses in it—to keep the audience from settling too completely into the story, to imply there’s more to the narrative than we’re being told. There’s the infamous scene where Edward Norton’s character explains to the audience the concept of “cigarette burns” and then Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) accompanies this explanation with an example and nonchalant gesture of such with his back turned to the audience. This method is also used repeatedly to give the audience additional information that the other characters may or may not be aware of. This technique is just one of the reasons Fight Club has become a cult classic.
It turns out that pesky fourth wall has been preventing the audience from assuming a valuable role in relation to the protagonist: that of therapist. Rob Gordon (John Cusack) seeks to have the audience listen to his innermost thoughts and his relationship failures in an attempt to come out of the movie with a better understanding of his relationship with Laura (Iben Hjejle). Throughout the film, Rob gives the audience authority by telling us everything—and by the close of the film, we feel we have contributed to his eventual realization that he has made mistakes and strives to better himself by acknowledging such.
Another example of the direct address, with a twist. The sense in the film is that Woody Allen utilized this concept in order to identify with the audience as they may very well have experienced the same conversations, themes and musings themselves. This gives the audience permission to tap into their neurotic side right alongside the characters while including them in on the plot and eventual love story.
Hail the all-powerful Ferris, who busts through the fourth wall like the Kool-Aid Man making a delivery and never, ever, let’s it get rebuilt. This allows Ferris to provide insight into characters in the movie (think: Cameron and the lump of coal) and advice for those suffering through the perils of high school. One result? The audience gets to feel like we are skipping school right along with Ferris on his epic day off.