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?

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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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