Watch Them Watch Us: A History of Breaking the “Fourth Wall” in Film

Remem­ber that scene in Nashville, when Kei­th Car­ra­dine sings “I’m Easy,” and every woman in the club thinks he’s speak­ing direct­ly to her?

Break­ing the fourth wall—also known as direct address—can have the same effect on a film­go­ing audi­ence. The com­pi­la­tion video above makes it clear that actors love it too. Break­ing from con­ven­tion can tele­graph an unim­peach­able cool, à la John Cusack in High Fideli­ty, or afford a vet­er­an scenery chew­er like Samuel L. Jack­son the oppor­tu­ni­ty to turn the hog loose. It’s most often deployed in the ser­vice of com­e­dy, but a stone-cold killer can make the audi­ence com­plic­it with a wink.

Screen­writer and jour­nal­ist Leigh Singer pulled footage from 54 films for this mash up, and freely admits that time con­straints left some favorites on the cut­ting room floor. What would you add, if you hap­pened to have Mar­shall McLuhan right here?

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Artist Rob­bie Cooper’s Video Project Immer­sion Stares Back at Gamers and YouTu­bers

The Film Before the Film: An Intro­duc­tion to the His­to­ry of Title Sequences in 10 Min­utes

Sig­na­ture Shots from the Films of Stan­ley Kubrick: One-Point Per­spec­tive

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is that rare Gen­er­a­tion X‑er who did­n’t see Fer­ris Bueller’s Day Off until 2013. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday

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Comments (7)
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  • Greg says:

    “What would you add, if you hap­pened to have Mar­shall McLuhan right here?”

    I imag­ine this-

  • Larry Franz says:

    In “Road to Utopia”, Hope and Cros­by are sled­ding through the Klondike coun­try­side and enjoy­ing the scenery, when some­thing catch­es Hope’s eye:
    Hope: Hey, get a load of that bread and but­ter!
    (Cut to a shot of a snow-cov­ered moun­tain)
    Cros­by: Bread and but­ter? That’s a moun­tain!
    (The “Para­mount Pic­tures” logo sud­den­ly appears in front of said moun­tain)
    Hope: Maybe a moun­tain to you, but it’s bread and but­ter to me!

  • Antonia Thier says:

    In Good­fel­las in the court room scene the fourth wall is bro­ken which points to its sta­tus as fic­tion as well as ques­tion­ing why we love the gang­ster film — a nod to Scors­ese’s genius

  • MH says:

    It’s not real­ly a his­to­ry of any­thing. I was expect­ing some­thing show­ing an evo­lu­tion. And com­men­tary about how this has impact­ed film. I think that is what is obvi­ous­ly miss­ing.

  • Lawrence Fleischer says:

    Trea­sure of the Sier­ra Madre: Wal­ter looks into the cam­era and shakes his head when a native girl eyes him seduc­tive­ly.

  • Gene Hawkins says:

    In Wake Up, Ron Bur­gundy: The Lost Movie, in the scene where the news crew is trav­el­ling to Mr. Hauser’s house, Brick notices the cam­era through the wind­shield, but when he tells every­body else, they don’t hear him and still don’t notice it.n

  • jack henry says:

    My fav is when the 3 Stooges were break­ing rocks in a prison yard; Lar­ry was
    set­ting big ones on a sit­ting Curly’s head, and Moe was crack­ing them with a
    sledge­ham­mer. Lar­ry picked up one rock that was obvi­ous­ly heav­ier than the
    oth­ers, and Curly says, “Hey, wait a minute! That’s a *real* one!” Then he
    turns to us and says, “I’m no fool!”

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