Wednesday, August 22, 2007

10 Movie Moments That Broke The 4th Wall

“What a pisser” - Ted Striker (Robert Hays) turning to the camera after being told off by girlfriend Elaine (Julie Hagerty) in AIRPLANE! (Dirs. Jim Abraham, David & Jerry Zucker 1980)

Here I go again with another meta-movie list! The phrase “breaking the fourth wall” has been around for over a century. Though as a concept it's been around since before Shakespeare the phrase itself originates from the theater of Bertolt Brecht. It simply meant that a character makes an aside to the audience. Through the invisible wall those watching are addressed, acknowledged and made to feel a little more “in on the joke” so to speak. It’s a device used a lot more in television than on film.

In the '80s it even became fairly fashionable on such shows like Moonlighting and It’s Garry Shandling’s Show – a show that had as its entire premise comedian Shandling talking directly to the studio audience and the viewers at home. The Marx Brothers may have pioneered the concept in cinema with Groucho’s many knowing winks but Bob Hope really nailed it in the seminal road movies he made with Bing Crosby which is where we’ll begin:

1. ROAD TO MOROCCO (Dir. David Butler, 1942) 

Bob Hope is the reigning king of breaking the 4th wall for this classic alone. His character Oliver ‘Turkey’ Jackson has an immortal momment when he loses his detached wiseacre demeanor when he desperately declares “I can't go on! No food, no water. It's all my fault. We're done for! It's got me. I can't stand it! No food, nothing! No food, no water! No food!” As the voice of reason his friend Jeff (Bing Crosby) says “What's the matter with you, anyway?…We'll be picked up in a few minutes.” Hope in all his irrefutable glory responds “you had to open your big mouth and ruin the only good scene I got in the picture. I might have won the Academy Award!” That’s par for the course in a movie that actually has a camel comment - "This is the screwiest picture I was ever in."

(Dir. Peter R. Hunt, 1969)

This is seriously significant because breaking the 4th wall was used to break in the new Bond. George Lazenby had one of the hardest jobs in cinema history – to be the first to fill the shoes of Sean Connery in the iconic role of 007. To make matters even more intimidating this was a Bond adventure with substance – one that he gets married in for Christ’s sake!

Bond's intro had to matter – it had to have him make a mark and it had to acknowledge the audience’s incoming notion that this guy wasn’t the guy they were used to.

So in what every Bond picture has - a cold opening - we see Bond tooling around Portugal in his classic Aston Martin having an instant of near road-rage (we don't see his face in close-up), parking to watch the driver (Diana Rigg) that cut him off attempting suicide by walking into the ocean. He watches through a gun sight mind you. He frantically pulls his car down and runs out to the beach to save her. He drags her out of the water and we get to see his face as he does the customary intro “Bond, James Bond” but immediately adversaries are on his back.

A moon-lit beach fight ensues and of course Bond defeats his attackers but Rigg departs eschewing all pleasantries. After picking up her discarded shoes Lazenby remarks “this never happened to the other fellow”. Priceless for many reasons but chiefly because it acknowledged that there was a much loved “other fellow” and while Lazenby didn’t look directly into the camera ‘til after he said the line – the self consciousness was reigned in. Didn’t save him from being a Bond one-termer but still.

3. ANIMAL HOUSE (Dir. John Landis, 1978)

According to IMDb this is a Landis trademark : “He often has his characters look into camera lens to make eye contact with the audience or 'break frame'". It’s true – it is all over his film work but most definitively when the late great John Belushi climbs up a ladder to view naked sorority girls and when getting what he thinks is a “money shot” turns to do his eye brow signature right at us.

Another trademark breaking the 4th came a few years later in SPIES LIKE US – this time Dan Aykroyd and Chevy Chase were trying to do their version of a Hope/Crosby road movie. During a stressful scene when our beloved SNL bumblers were pretending to be medical staff in Soviet Central Asia - the king of 4th wall demolition - Bob Hope himself appears as if in perpetual golfer mode - "Ah! Mind if I play through? (acknowledges Ackroyd and Chase) Doctor.. Doctor.. I'm glad I'm not sick." * While this is indeed a Landis trademark on the TRADING PLACES commentary Eddie Murphy says it came from being so used to mugging at the camera on Saturday Night Live.

(Dir. John Hughes, 1986) 

There are many instances of Hughes’s characters talking directly to the camera but Ferris Bueller (Matthew Broderick) is purely definitive as a narrator, commentator, and chastizer – like Animal in THE MUPPET MOVIE he even tells the audience to go home at the end. Bueller's great moment in breaking the 4th walldom is when he informs us on the best methods of faking sick to get out of going to school (as if you didn't know the premise). I believe this is one of the reasons that this is former Vice President Dan Quayle’s favorite movie.

After his parents exit Ferris looks us in the eye and says “Incredible! One of the worst performances of my career and they never doubted it for a second.”

Special mention goes to PRETTY IN PINK (1986) At the prom conclusion Ducky (Jon Cryer) looks directly in the camera and knowingly nods after being given a come-on look by a girl on the dance floor.

(Dir. Kevin Smith, 2001) 

As a self pro-claimed Hughes disciple Smith has to work the ‘to camera asides’ but in this movie he may have overdone it a tad. For example – playing themselves Ben Affleck and Matt Damon have a fight on the set of the fictitious GOOD WILL HUNTING 2 : HUNTING SEASON (Yes I know, another film within a film) in which Affleck tries to school Damon : “You're like a child. What've I been telling you? You gotta do the safe picture. Then you can do the art picture. But then sometimes you gotta do the payback picture because your friend says you owe him.” They both turn and look at the camera for an obvious dig at Smith.

The overdoing it comes from this bit in the same film also involving Affleck who this time plays his CHASING AMY character Holden who warns - “I mean, I don't think I'm alone in the world in imagining this flick may be the worst idea since Greedo shooting first. You know it, but... a Jay and Silent Bob movie? Feature length? Who'd pay to see that?” Holden, Jay (Jason Mewes), and Silent Bob (Smith) all look right at us – and to really set things off - Silent Bob gives a smiling double thumbs-up.

6. TOP SECRET (Dir. Jerry Zucker, 1982) 

There are many audience acknowledging nods throughout the Zucker Brothers canon like the one quoted at the top of this blogpost but this Zucker scene really drives the point home: Val Kilmer’s Elvis derived '50s heart throb singer Nick Rivers pours his heart out: “Listen to me Hillary. I'm not the first guy who fell in love with a woman that he met at a restaurant who turned out to be the daughter of a kidnapped scientist only to lose her to her childhood lover who she last saw on a deserted island who then turned out fifteen years later to be the leader of the French underground." Hillary (Lucy Gutteridge) responds “I know. It all sounds like some bad movie.” They both recoil then look our way as if to say ‘did you get that?’ And speaking of 'getting that':

7. SPACEBALLS (Dir. Mel Brooks, 1987) 

After being given the plot synopsis Dark Helmet (Rick Moranis) looks at the camera and says "Everybody got that?" but most notably is the scene in which he and his minions actually put in a videocasette of SPACEBALLS to see what happens next and see themselves looking at themselves onscreen. Dark Helmet says : “what the hell am I looking at? When does this happen in the movie?” Colonel Sandurz (George Wyner) responds : “now. You're looking at now sir. Everything that happens now, is happening now.” Too bad this didn’t help this decade too late STAR WARS satire to be more “in the moment.”

JFK (Dir. Oliver Stone, 1991) 

I know, I know – every list I make has this film on it. Not only because it’s one of my all time favorite films but it does hold the monopoly on movie extras – deleted scenes, cameos, edits, and cinema contrivances galore confirm that it’s forever bloggable. That aside I really couldn’t leave out the moment that Garrison (Costner) wraps up his lengthy court summation by saying : “We, the people, the jury system sitting in judgement on Clay Shaw represent the hope of humanity against government power. In discharging your duty to bring a first conviction in this house of cards against Clay Shaw ‘ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country.’

Do not forget your dying king. Show this world that this is still a government ‘of the people, for the people and by the people’ Nothing as long as you live will ever be more important – it’s up to you.” As the camera goes upward but still holds Costner’s direct camera gaze we get a feeling that this breaking the 4th wall stuff isn’t just comedy kids stuff. Which brings us to:

9. WAYNE’S WORLD (Dir. Penelope Spheeris, 1992)

Like Eddie Murphy, Mike Myers has a SNL mugging at the camera background and the characters here come from a cable access show in which they talk directly to the camera so of course they would continue to bash holes in the ever so fraglie fourth wall. Funnily enough they use it to satirize product placement at the same time. Wayne tells sleazy TV exec Rob Lowe that he"will not bow to any sponsor" as he poses with a bag of Doritos, a piece of pizza from Pizza Hut, takes some Nuprin, and tops it all off with a swig of Pepsi. He grins at us and even says the slogan "it's the choice of a new generation."

10. THE MUPPET MOVIE (Dir. James Frawley, 1979)

Kermit and the other Muppets (my word program insists this should be capitalized) regularly consult the screenplay on their journey to stardom so it's unsurprising but still hilarious when Floyd Pepper (Jerry Nelson) says "well, if this were the movies..." and Dr. Teeth (Jim Henson) adds "which it is", Floyd continues "...we'd think of a clever plot device" then Scooter (Richard Hunt) energetically finishes "like disguising their car so they won't be recognized!"

Yep, when in doubt just think of how it would be done in the movies. It'll save you every time. Okay! That's enough meta-movie mania for right now - gotta go star in my own movie. Good luck with yours.

More later...


James E B said...

big ups simply because the muppet movie is so good. But the entire movie breaks the 4th wall, by doing the opposite. Taking seemingly "real world" puppets and giving them real lives.

I like your blog, i only recently found it, but It's in my favs now.

Anonymous said...

Alright, this is stretching it, but I wanted to come up with something...

Hard Day's Night: The scene where the lady recognizes John backstage and he convinces her that it's not him. As he walks up the stairs, he doesn't directly address the camera visually, but we have his voice telling the viewer "She looks more like him than I do." What do you think? Obviously not top ten material but...? Oh who am I kidding, I suck at this. It might help if I knew more movies than Beatles, Star Wars and Eddie and the Cruisers.

Anonymous said...

Come to think of it, there's also that scene in AHDN when they're in make-up or something, and Paul is trying on the fake nose reciting some Shakespeare line about the whatever and something another flesh, and he turns to the camera with a hair dryer and "zaps" the viewer. Now that's definitely the kind o' stuff you're talking about. I suck.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post!

Anonymous said...

Hate to get artsy-fartsy here, but, in the Fellini movie Nights Of Cabiria, at the very end, Cabiria, who just transgressed from suicidal to maybe things are going to be ok and is tentatively smiling at the children around her, looks briefly at the camera, nods and smiles as though telling the audience "don't worry I'm gonna be ok".

Anonymous said...

Loved the list, thought it was great, but I clicked on the link thinking there was no possible way Woody Allen could NOT be on it. After scrolling through the ten, I was shocked.

So I put it of the best 4th wall breaks by Allen (he's had a lot) would have to be in Annie Hall. After a moviegoer, standing behind Alvy in the movie theater goes too far in his absurd ramblings, Alvy pulls Marshall McLuhan out from behind a movie cardboard advertisement. Mcluhan then scolds the moviegoer, "I've heard what you said. You mean my whole fallacy is wrong. How you got to teach anything is beyond me!" To which Allen looks at us and claims, "Don't you wish life was like this?"

A VERY CLOSE second would obviously be the opening of the movie in which Allen sets up the plot of the film by telling us flat out what he's going to tell us.

Great blog!

Adam said...

My favorite you didn't list was in Mel Brooks' BLAZING SADDLES, in which Hedley Lamarr (Harvey Korman) notes, "You will be risking your lives, whilst I will be risking an almost-certain Academy Award nomination for the Best Supporting Actor."

See, also, almost all of 24 HOUR PARTY PEOPLE.

Anonymous said...

This is such a fun list. I would almost like to see comedies in a separate category, though, since it's so easy (and nothing about Monty Python?).

I'm pretty sure there was some fourth-wall-breaking in Breathless, A Woman is a Woman and other new wave films. Plus most musicals. And the Monkees' Head, which broke all four walls I think.

diego said...

Someone mentioned when Hedley Lamarr makes a reference to his own potential Academy Award nomination, but even better is when he's alone in his office looking into the camera, musing, "But where would I find such a man? (pause) Why am I asking you?"

And another fantastic one not on the list is in the movie Trading Places, when the Dukes are explaining to Billy Ray about the commodities they trade, and they get to pork bellies and say that they are "used to make bacon. Which you might find in a bacon and lettuce and tomato sandwich." And Eddie Murphy just looks at the camera. His timing and expression are brilliant. He also looks at the camera earlier in the movie when he's being driven to jail, but the pork bellies moment is the best.


Anonymous said...

What about Fight Club? That seemed kinda lost in the list (which was a great list) I just think that the film does a tiriffic job of breaking the forth wall

diego said...

Sorry, I left a comment saying that the list didn't mention Trading Places, but it does. I must have inadvertently skipped that part. My humblest apologies to the author.


Rich D said...

I'm surprised nobody's mentioned the countless times Groucho Marx would turn and advise the audience to head out to the lobby until whatever was going on in the scene blew over...

Anonymous said...


Tom said...

yeah, what about goodfellas? the "breaking the fourth wall" moment during the trial at the end just blows you away, b/c it comes at a time when you least expect it.

Anonymous said...

The big non-comedic fourth-wall break that sticks out most in my mind happens in Felicia's Journey: Bob Hoskins wordlessly confronting the audience as he's heading upstairs to drug his latest victim. A bizarre moment that seems like it shouldn't "work," but the sheer intensity of Hoskins's stare sells it. I'm not so keen on the movie as a whole, but it was worth seeing once just for that. I was hoping someone had put it on YouTube, but apparently not.

Bob Turnbull said...

Michael Haneke's "Funny Games" has a few fourth wall moments when one of the young home invaders turns and speaks to the camera - essentially making the audience complicit to the crimes occurring.

"Tristram Shandy" was kinda one big fourth wall crumbling.

Some old Warners Looney Tunes cartoons had moments where you would suddenly see silhouettes of audience members and then the characters would talk to them.

At the beginning of Frank Tashlin's "The Alphabet Murders", we meet Hercule Poirot (played by Tony Randall) and he talks directly to the camera. As he bids adieu and walks away the camera follows him. He immediately turns around and says "No, you cannot follow me!"

HJA said...

GOD BLESS YOU for mentioning the "pork bellies" moment in "Trading Places"; I think that's about the funniest couple of seconds in the universe. A lot of the 4th-wall-breaking moments in "Jay and Silent Bob", by contrast, like when the characters look at the camera, don't work so great. Which I find kind of amazing, because I wouldn't have thought a director could screw those gags up, especially the "who in their right mind would see a Jay & Silent Bob movie" line, whatever the exact wording is.

I've got another movie – Peter Sellers mugs at the camera toward the end of "A Shot in the Dark," at the conclusion of the the-killer-is-someone-in-this-very-room scene, when all the suspects are arguing loudly among themselves and completely ignoring Clouseau. Funny, plus right out of left field.

Anonymous said...

The earliest one that comes to mind (aside from Groucho Marx) occurs at the end of Dieterle's "All That Money Can Buy" - Walter Huston as the Devil points his finger at the audience as if to say, "You're next!"

Anonymous said...

Most forth wall breaking is (at least in the comedies) rooted in Looney Tunes, with Bugs being the biggest proponent.

Ain't I a stinker?

Anonymous said...

"Most forth wall breaking is (at least in the comedies) rooted in Looney Tunes, with Bugs being the biggest proponent."

But a lot of Bugs's behavior, including the asides to the audience, is rooted in Groucho Marx (which, in turn, is probably due to the early Marx Bros.'s films being adapted from their stage performances, where they could actually interact with a live audience). Except for Bugs's knack for causing his enemies to explode, fall off cliffs, shoot themselves in the face, etc. Now that would have made for one hell of a Marx Brothers movie!

Anonymous said...

I was just reminded of the final shot of Medium Cool, where the fourth wall is broken not by one of the main characters, but by a cameraman, turning to the audience as a call to action.

Melissa said...

A great one can be found in The Good The Bad and The Ugly when Tuco asks (chicken in hand):

"If you work for a living, why do you kill yourself working?"


flaresntickers said...

Can't believe nobody has mentioned the excellent scene near the end of Goodfellas where Ray Liotta leaves the witness stand and talks directly to the camera while the courtroom whole room look at him.

Anonymous said...

Other John Landis films that break the fourth wall include -

American Werewolf In London - During the transformation scene!

Michael Jackson's Thriller - The final shot.

Not forgetting a variety of other such as -

Alfie - Narration: The obvious influence behind Ferris Buller.

Two of the Austin Powers movies.

Scrooged - Bill Murray's final lines are spoken to the audience.

The Secret Of My Success - Opening titles.

A Bug's Life - End titles

Singing In The Rain - The billboard at the end of the film!

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Beware as this is bay be a spoiler for those who wish to watch this PoS movie. The Holy Mountain (1973) broke the fourth wall with a revelation to the gods. This is, perhaps, the most significant instance of breaking the fourth wall of any movie I've seen (including all those that had been listed in this top ten).

Anonymous said...

Biggest "Break the 4th wall" Movie has to be The League of Gentlemen's Apocalypse (2005) - The fictional world of Royston Vasey is facing apocalypse and the only way to avert disaster is for the cast of characters to find a way into the real world and confront their creators. Great scenes where the Characters come face to face with the people playing them.

Anonymous said...

In "Coming To America", when the daughter is getting the 'Soul Glow' guy out of his wet clothes, he looks right at the camera.

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Anonymous said...

The scene in As Good As It Gets where Jack Nicholson, in the back of the car, moves his head slightly and his sunglasses drop into place. You know he's looking into the camera, complete with knowing smile, even though you can't see his eyes.


Danger Dodgeson said...

Maybe I'm the only one that ever saw this but...Michael Haneke's 2007 "Funny Games"? THAT is the epitome of breaking the fourth wall. Granted, this film is dissed for being a remake (by the same director, mind you) but the 4th wall-breaking is still great.

Anonymous said...

Really interesting that no one mentions C3PO on Hoth in Empire Strikes Back. Even as a kid I remember this scene stick out as strange.

I'd like to see a similar list of non-comedic films that have broken the 4th wall.

Anonymous said...

Great Muppet Caper: Piggy starts in on this loud self-pity party and Kermit stops her mid-stride with the ever effectual "you're overacting; you're hamming it up" she responds that she's trying to save this movie and he responds that she should try to save her performance...the next few moments are pure comedic gold...that and the end of School Daze with Laurence Fishburne and Giancarlo Esposito...great, great moment...

PaddyODawes said...

So glad Inspector Clouseau got a nod above. (It's actually what brought me here.) It is a sublime scene, as you watch him sidelined in bitter denunciations about who did what to whom between the suspects, after half a dozen outbursts of which he gives up even the pretense of trying to follow what's going on and turns to the camera with a face of such tragic submission...

OT comment alert....sent this to a friend earlier:

Scene two, Shot in the Dark:

(phone rings)
Commissioner Dreyfus:
Ah. Yes, my darling. I was just about to call you. I'm on my way. I've got the cheese and the beaujolais. What? My love. Kiss the children for me.


....hold on...


Man: Your wife is on the other line.

Dreyfus: Tell her l'm out of town.

PS If I had to pick one, I would also go with pork bellies. And I don't even like Eddie Murphy as a rule.