6 Famous Examples of Breaking the Fourth Wall
One of the goals of a filmmaker is to try and make the audience forget that they are watching a movie. This makes the metatheatrical device of breaking the fourth wall a risky technique to use, since it draws the audience's attention to that fact and can potentially pull the viewer out of the experience. With Deadpool 2 hitting theaters today, we wanted to take a look back at some famous fourth wall breaks that predate the foul-mouthed anti-hero's meta antics.
Psycho (1960) dir. Alfred Hitchcock
You’ve heard the term coined as the “Kubrick Stare”. The dropped jaw with the menacing upward look like an evil puppy ready to pounce. Most likely inspired by Kubrick’s years as a Look Magazine photographer, this stare happens in majority of his films. However, many do not break the fourth wall, they are slightly off centered. There is a film that Kubrick did not make that could possibly be the inspiration to this trope. That film being Psycho (1960), with the iconic maniacal stare from Anthony Perkins. His stare oozes a sense of a clever diabolical mind. It’s frightening and you almost feel like Norman Bates is eyeing you up while watching the movie. To add to Perkins’s stare, he gives that slight grin along with no dialogue. It is just enough to make you want to pack your bags and get out of the house. Quite possibly one of the best fourth wall breaking stares in a film. It is extremely hard to forget.
- Rachael Hauschild
Annie Hall (1977) dir. Woody Allen
Breaking the fourth wall is nothing new as a storytelling technique but every once in a while it becomes vital to the story being told. That much is true of Woody Allen's 1977 film Annie Hall, where at numerous times during the film, Allen's Alvie Singer turns directly to the camera to relay a joke to great effect. Beginning with a bit that feels straight out of his old stand-up comedy act he continues to use the “wall” as a direct line to the audience. Most memorable though is a scene taking place in a movie theater lobby. With Alvie and Annie, waiting in line with a pretentious blowhard right behind them, it's a very relatable scene for anyone who's ever had a stranger get on their nerves. The stranger is trying too hard to impress his date causing the audience’s eyes to roll out of their heads. Eventually Allen stops the scene entirely to put this guy in his place with the help of Marshall McLuhan, whom this stranger claims to be an expert on. With the annoyance put in his place, Allen turns to the camera exclaiming “Boy, if life were only like this!” It's a great use of a fourth wall break in a picture that's loaded with them.
- Matt Curione
History of the World Part 1 (1981) dir. Mel Brooks
Mel Brooks’s films are not for everyone. They push a variety of buttons that if some people watch his films for the first time today, there would probably be a barrage of tweets saying how Brooks is the worst director to walk the earth. The humor that is engulfed in his films is extremely unique. Take the hilarious History of the World Part 1 for instance. It tiptoes through historic events and puts crude joking twists on them. In the French Revolution scene, Brooks plays King Louis of France. As King Louis goes about his day he meets woman after woman who he fancies for a brief moment. This is where the fourth wall breaking comes into play. As he introduces himself to each woman, he says hello to them in some unconventional sexualized way. Obviously not the way a woman would prefer to be welcomed. However, after each encounter, King Louis turns to the camera and says “It’s good to be the king.” The delivery of the line is hard not to laugh at.
- Rachael Hauschild
The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) dir. Woody Allen
There's breaking the fourth wall with dialogue and a small aside and then there's literally breaking that wall like in The Purple Rose of Cairo. Allen had used the technique numerous times throughout his career but for his 1985 masterpiece it's the crux of the entire movie, a story of a downtrodden New Jersey waitress named Cecilia played by Mia Farrow who's only escape from her dead end life is the movies. She becomes particularly enraptured by "The Purple Rose of Cairo", the film within the film, and its dashing lead character Tom Baxter, played by Jeff Daniels in one of his first lead roles. She eventually sees the movie numerous times, so many times in fact that Baxter (in the movie she's watching) starts to notice her, “You must really like this movie” he says, at first throwing her for a loop and then changing her life completely as he steps out of the movie and into real life. It's true movie magic and makes for one of Allen's best and most enjoyable pictures as Cecilia and Baxter go on an adventure of their own in the small NJ town and eventually back into the movie itself as she has the night of her life. Of course it ends with a gut-punch of an ending but it's one of the best films about our shared love of the movies and how we connect not just with them but with each other.
- Matt Curione
Richard III (1995) dir. Robert Loncraine
Robert Loncraine’s Richard III sets the Bard’s play in the stunningly realized backdrop of a fascist ruled post-War England to great effect, but what makes this adaptation truly special is Ian McKellan’s bravura performance as the dastardly monarch/tyrant. Based on a staging of the play which also starred McKellen, this was the first film to truly let the thespian stretch his considerable acting muscles, and he didn’t waste the opportunity. The film breaks the fourth wall during Richard’s soliloquies, in which McKellan turns to the camera and spells out his devious machinations to the audience. These moments have a tremendous impact as they capture the tone of the play perfectly. It’s a delight to watch McKellan out maneuver his adversaries, in no small part due to the strong work from the supporting players, the highlights are Annette Benning, Jim Broadbent, and Robert Downey, Jr. Richard III is one of the best adaptations of Shakespeare and its use of this meta technique is inspired.
- Sam Van Haren
Funny Games (1997) dir. Michael Haneke
There’s a lot of room for creative meta moments in horror, but no film has done it nearly as effectively as Michael Haneke’s 1997 Funny Games and its 2007 shot-for-shot remake. Two apathetic yet sadistic young men, Peter and Paul, insert themselves into the perfect lives of the Farber family and proceed to senselessly torture them. Their physical attacks are sickening. Equally so are their biting verbal assaults, delivered almost emotionlessly, often directly to the viewer. The cold commentary on violence in art is preachy, but it works, and there’s a far more interesting and bizarre sequence late in the film as the two home intruders are toying with the defeated matriarch of the the family, Anna. As Paul is berating her, Anna eyeballs the loaded shotgun sitting nearby. She lunges for it and gets a shot off, killing Peter. Paul seems genuinely angry, the first real emotion shown from him, but he knows exactly what to do. He frantically searches for a remote control and rewinds the scene to before the attack so he can grab the shotgun preemptively. It’s a shocking scene that further’s the film’s message and effectively serves as an early climax, because it is immediately clear that the situation is hopeless. The bad guys aren’t losing this one.
- Marcus Irving