From a psychological perspective, a movie provides a portal to other worlds. It appeals to our desire for escape: exciting our imaginations and presenting moving images that bring to life our wildest dreams and our worst fears. The distance from the action we experience in the movie theatre or in front of the small screen constructs a protective sheath between you and the action. We become voyeurs; engaged in someone else’s drama – safe from the perils that the protagonist is forced to face.
The fourth wall, therefore, is the long-established, imaginary barrier between us and the action. We can peek in; safe from harm. Breaking the fourth wall is a commonly used device in theatre – so familiar, in fact, that we’re unsurprised when one of the characters suddenly steps out of the action and addresses us – the audience – directly.
The movie, however, has a literal, impenetrable fourth wall – the screen that the action is projected onto. It’s rare in the language of celluloid story-telling for that physical barrier to be infiltrated. So when it does happen, it evokes a myriad of responses from the audience – from hilarity, to surprise, to sheer disappointment that the magic has been broken.
Ironically, the iconoclastic “are you talking to me?” scene from Taxi Driver (1976) doesn’t actually break the fourth wall. It’s a masterful piece of controlled eye-acting from Robert De Niro, who successfully holds his gaze slightly left or right of camera, never looking directly down the lens. So what we witness is Travis Bickle’s uncomfortable collapse into insanity.
In the movies, the fourth wall gets broken in a variety of ways. These are my favorite examples of successfully forcing the metaphorical battering ram through the sacred silver screen.
If there’s a film that more perfectly encapsulates Swinging Sixties’ London better than the British comedy classic, Alfie, I’m not aware of one. Starring a very young, uber-suave Michael Caine, the film opens with a classic line – “Get your knee off the steering wheel!” – leaving absolutely no secret as to what he’s up to.
The fourth wall is immediately broken, as he exits the offending vehicle and addresses us directly; forcing the audience into complicity with his bad behavior. His acknowledgment that we are there forces us together – accomplices – as he sleeps his way around London, leaving a trail of feminine detritus in his wake.
Annie Hall (1977)
Woody Allen is the king of the Direct Address.
Alvy becomes increasingly frustrated with the pretentious, pseudo-intellectual film-bore waiting in the cinema queue behind him. Alvy’s frustration grows so intense that he breaks the rules of cinema himself (in a post-modern nod to the content of the film-bore’s ramble), pulling away from the dramatic moment to reason with the audience – as Woody Allen!
The surreality spirals as the offending pseudo-intellectual also steps out of the dramatic construct, with a counter-argument that he deserves to be heard.
The sequence climaxes when Alvy introduces Marshall McLuhan from behind a movie standee – the theorist that the pseudo-intellectual claims to be referencing – to defend the work that the pseudo-intellectual boasted an understanding of.
This really is the movie eating itself, and a masterful stroke of post-modern genius.
Blazing Saddles (1974)
One of my favourite Mel Brooks’ movies ever, Blazing Saddles literally falls apart in the third act. In a leap toward the ultimate post-modern collapse, the action of one film shockingly crashes and conflicts with the action of another.
The uber-masculine world of the Western suddenly clashes with the comedically fey milieu of the “song and dance” number, as the fourth wall quite literally bursts apart, bringing two separate dramatic constructs into direct conflict.
This is an entirely literal expression of the fourth wall, where one story bursts into another – through a wall. Genius.
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is the classic slacker movie: John Hughes style. Using the device of Direct Address, Ferris, so skilfully played by a young Matthew Broderick, makes us complicit in his misadventure.
Direct Address is a device that can interrupt the narrative and wear fairly thin, fairly quickly; but in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off the Direct Address introduces the world of the movie and dissolves into the ether for the remainder of the film.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
Of course, The Rocky Horror Show was a successful theatre piece before it became the Picture Show, so there was already a strong tradition of playing up to the audience in this classic celebration of perverts, degenerates, and monsters.
Besides from Dr. Scott’s preamble in the opening set-piece, we have several moments where Dr. Frank-N-Furter breaks from the dramatic tension with a knowing aside to the audience. There are several knowing looks to the camera and several examples of “Well, how nice”, “Well, how about that?” that reminds you that this is a construct, rather than reality. All part of the bizarre world of the movie, of course.
Fight Club (1999)
If you’ve ever read the Chuck Palahniuk masterpiece, this was always going to be a challenging narrative to bring to the silver screen. The dream-like aesthetic of the book is political, tense, and entirely bewildering, so to make a standard three-act blockbuster was never really on the cards.
The entire movie is narrated by Edward Norton’s The Narrator and sets out to deconstruct established cinematic narrative norms. So it’s only natural for the protagonist (if it’s possible to differentiate the protagonist from the antagonist in this particular movie) to break the fourth wall in as many ways as possible.
The scene introducing Brad Pitt as Tyler Durden is a masterstroke of film-making because both characters not only break the fourth wall but also debunk the secret language of cinematography. If the first rule of Fight Club is that you don’t talk about Fight Club, then they break the rule by creating a film about Fight Club. And they go on to break more rules by sharing the mechanical secrets of the cinematographer’s art form.
Clever. And surprising.
The fourth wall is there to protect us. Almost like an unspoken contract, we know it’s there, and we want it to remain. So when it does crack open, we’re left in a state of confusion, questioning the reality of the construct. And that’s what great art does – surprises us, awakens us, then drifts back into the ether like it never happened. Are there any fourth wall breaks you love, let us know in the comments below.