450+ Movie Scenes Where Actors Break the Fourth Wall, Presented in Two Big Supercuts

Do you remem­ber the first time you saw the fourth wall bro­ken? Few of us prob­a­bly do, but maybe we all should, giv­en how radi­al a depar­ture from estab­lished dra­mat­ic con­ven­tion — specif­i­cal­ly, the con­ven­tion dic­tat­ing that a work of dra­mat­ic art not acknowl­edge the fact that it is a work of dra­mat­ic art — fourth-wall-break­age rep­re­sents. Then again, a work of art can break the fourth wall sub­tly, too sub­tly to make an out­sized impact on our con­scious­ness: take, for exam­ple, all the brief but know­ing glances movie char­ac­ters have direct­ed at their audi­ences through­out almost the entire his­to­ry of cin­e­ma.

A fair few of those glances appear in the super­cut of 400 break­ages of the fourth wall above (which may well con­tain the first one you ever wit­nessed). It draws from films from a vari­ety of time peri­ods, Hol­ly­wood clas­sics and block­busters as well as less­er-known pic­tures.

Togeth­er with the Press Play fourth-wall-break­age super­cut below, it pro­vides an overview of just how wide a vari­ety of ways film­mak­ers have found to momen­tar­i­ly breach what Vin­cent Can­by once described as “that invis­i­ble scrim that for­ev­er sep­a­rates the audi­ence from the stage.” Most films break the fourth wall for laughs, but oth­ers have done it in ser­vice of emo­tion­al, aes­thet­ic, and even intel­lec­tu­al ends.

None of this is to say that the fourth wall stood per­fect­ly intact before the colos­sus of cin­e­ma came along to smash it. The con­cept goes at least as far back as 17th-cen­tu­ry France, first used as a term by Molière and lat­er more ful­ly defined by Enlight­en­ment icon Denis Diderot. But the­atri­cal per­form­ers must have been break­ing the fourth wall, or at least pok­ing holes in it, even before the fourth wall was quite up: long ago, we read in his­tor­i­cal accounts of the­ater around the world, audi­ences even expect­ed a cer­tain degree of inter­ac­tion with the action onstage — or at least they expressed their thoughts on it, often force­ful­ly, attempt­ing to break the fourth wall from the oth­er direc­tion.

Over time, we, the cre­ators and view­ers of dra­ma alike, built the fourth wall, and it has sel­dom tak­en us long to expect its pro­tec­tion in every medi­um we enjoy: the­ater and film, yes, but tele­vi­sion, video games, and even lit­er­a­ture as well. “It is not a good idea to inter­rupt the nar­ra­tive too often,” writes J.M. Coet­zee in Eliz­a­beth Costel­lo, a nov­el that breaks the fourth wall and a host of oth­er con­ven­tion besides, “since sto­ry­telling works by lulling the read­er or lis­ten­er into a dream­like state in which the time and space of the real world fade away, super­seded by the time and space of the fic­tion.” A lit­er­ary sto­ry­teller of Coet­zee’s cal­iber would know. But what oth­er art form has been as often com­pared to a dream, or felt as much like a dream, as film — and what oth­er dreams play out on, lit­er­al­ly, a wall?

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

How the French New Wave Changed Cin­e­ma: A Video Intro­duc­tion to the Films of Godard, Truf­faut & Their Fel­low Rule-Break­ers

Take a 16-Week Crash Course on the His­to­ry of Movies: From the First Mov­ing Pic­tures to the Rise of Mul­ti­plex­es & Net­flix

Cin­e­ma His­to­ry by Titles & Num­bers

We’re Gonna Build a Fourth Wall, and Make the Brechtians Pay for It

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • Serenderpity says:

    It’s not that the notion of break­ing the fourth wall goes back to 17th-Cen­tu­ry France — it’s that the fourth wall did not exist AT ALL pri­or to that time. Not only are all of Shake­speare’s solil­o­quies, arguably, addressed face-to-face to the audi­ence, but medieval Vice fig­ures (which the solil­o­quy-heavy Iago is a riff on) spoke direct­ly to the audi­ence, often mock­ing the oth­er char­ac­ters in the play.

    There are two out­stand­ing exam­ples of the fact that ear­ly mod­ern the­atre had no fourth wall: the induc­tion to John Marston’s _The Malcontent_ (1604), and Beau­mont and Fletcher’s crim­i­nal­ly under-pro­duced _The Knight of the Burn­ing Pestle_ (1607).

    In Marston’s induc­tion scene, mem­bers of the King’s Men (Shake­speare’s com­pa­ny, which pro­duced the play) come out on stage *as them­selves*, talk about how they acquired the play, and joke with anoth­er mem­ber of the com­pa­ny, Christo­pher Sly, who is pre­tend­ing to be an audi­ence mem­ber. They exit, and then the play “prop­er” begins (prop­er in scare quotes because the induc­tion *is* part of the play, but it’s a part entire­ly free of any imag­i­nary fourth wall).

    _The Knight of the Burn­ing Pestle_ is proof that there was no fourth wall for Shake­speare and his con­tem­po­raries. As a play called _The Lon­don Merchant_ starts, a pair of “audi­ence mem­bers,” George and Nell, start talk­ing and com­plain­ing loud­ly about it — it’s not to their taste and they want their appren­tice Rafe to have a role in it any­way. A “com­pa­ny mem­ber” tries to calm them down, but they insist on Rafe being draft­ed into the play, and the com­pa­ny relents. From then on, George and Nell com­ment on the action and con­tin­ue to sug­gest impro­vised scenes for Rafe, while _The Lon­don Merchant_ hap­less­ly stum­bles along as well. Of course, _The Lon­don Merchant_ PLUS George and Nell PLUS Rafe’s impro­vised scenes of drag­on-slay­ing and damsel-res­cu­ing (which don’t belong in any play set in Lon­don) are, all rolled into one, the actu­al play _The Knight of the Burn­ing Pestle_. It’s an absur­dist mas­ter­piece, and when I teach it stu­dents invari­ably pro­nounce their minds blown by the fact that it was writ­ten over four hun­dred years ago.

    At one point, Nell even urges Rafe to demon­strate his act­ing skill with a bit of “huff­ing,” or bom­bas­tic rant­i­ng and strut­ting around (i.e., over­act­ing). What does Rafe do? He busts out a bit of SHAKESPEARE — specif­i­cal­ly, a slight­ly mis­quot­ed bit from Hot­spur:

    By heav­en methinks it were an easy leap
    To pluck bright hon­or from the pale-­faced Moon

    Hey, Rafe, over­act a lit­tle? Okay, here’s some Shake­speare. SHOTS. FIRED.

    Sor­ry for the wall o’ text, but all this is to say, the fourth wall is a the­atri­cal anom­aly that only exist­ed from the 17th/18th Cen­tu­ry up to, rough­ly, the 20th, and it’s well done away with. And sec­ond­ly, go read Knight of the Burn­ing Pes­tle — it’s a delight. You can find a very good edi­tion from the Fol­ger Shake­speare Library here: https://emed.folger.edu/sites/default/files/folger_encodings/pdf/EMED-KBP-reg‑3.pdf

  • Brutus2099 says:

    I’m so glad you wrote this! Cor­rect on all counts — cer­tain­ly did­n’t exist before Moliere — been try­ing to track down a source that proves Moliere coined the term… or even used it at all… but it seems to be apoc­ryphal so far. So infu­ri­at­ing that no one sources mate­r­i­al in these arti­cles. If you hap­pen to have a source for this — would love to know. Thanks!

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