17. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” Ferris Bueller, played by a young Matthew Broderick, has this message for the audience, and comedy-king director John Hughes uses his protagonist’s voice-over to invite viewers to adopt the character’s carpe-diem attitude, as he skips class to have fun in Chicago with best friends Cameron (Alan Ruck) and Sloane (Mia Sara).
Indeed, the manner in which Hughes uses Broderick’s voice-over, by directly communicating to the audience whilst breaking the fourth wall in a very metafictional sense, suggests the spectator is also included in the characters’ adventures.
It seems that Bueller lies to most characters in the film, from his authoritative school principal to his parents who easily believe his feigned sickness, yet as he converses to the audience he is always sincere, even offering advice on how to similarly fake an illness and questioning in the closing moments why we are still watching (“You’re still here? It’s over!”).
In this aspect lies the achievement of the film’s voice-over, it creates a genuine interaction from Bueller to the audience that turns a charismatic character even more appealing and makes a day of replacing work with fun appear so effortlessly enjoyable.
16. American Psycho
American Psycho was never going to be an easy adaptation. Bret Easton Ellis’s novel depicting the Manhattan banker by day and serial killer by night Patrick Bateman unsurprisingly shocked many and was censored in several countries for its graphic content. Nonetheless, Christian Bale gave an exceptional performance as Bateman and director/writer Mary Harron amply achieved to reflect the deranged universe and character that Ellis had created, but also offered frequent laughter surrounding the anti-hero’s self-conscious psychosis.
This exploration into the character’s disturbed mind is effectively maintained by his voice-over. The extents of his violent insanity are exposed in often comical situations where we can observe his intense antipathy for his social environment that he agonisingly conceals.
This silent distaste is evoked as he explains: “You’ll notice that my friends and I all look and behave in a remarkably similar fashion, but there are subtle differences between us. McDermott is the biggest asshole. Van Patten is the yes man. Price is the most wired. I’m the best looking.” This self-awareness is sustained throughout as his voice-over further reveals his blatant narcissism and enhances his lunacy.
The manner in which the voice-over is used is also significant for being parallel to the crescendo of Bateman’s psychopathic outburst. The character announced towards the beginning: “I think my mask of sanity is about to slip”, and as this process progresses the voice-over slowly dissipates, replacing his hostile words with actions instead.
15. The Big Lebowski
Over the years, the Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski has garnered the status of a cult comedy and stoner’s classic, mainly due to Jeff Bridges’ legendary Dude character. However, the film possesses a efficient use of voice-over that often goes unnoticed as the narrator (played by Sam Elliott though referred as The Stranger) is not continually present, but still enhances the film’s general ambiance.
Nonetheless, the Stranger’s seldom appearances are made notable by the Coen Brothers’ witty and eccentric script that turn this mysterious cowboy character (the role Elliott is know for rendering) as an omniscient narrator though with a dazed and comical personality, which matches the Dude himself.
This demeanour can be exemplified by the voice-over that opens the film and helps establish its amusing quality, as Elliott rambles on presenting the Dude in a deadpan tone to conclude “sometimes there’s a man, sometimes, there’s a man. Aw. I lost my train of thought here. But… aw, hell. I’ve done introduced him enough.”
Although the Coen Brothers create rather matchless characters and storylines, Joel Coen did admit that they were influenced for The Stranger from the film noir The Big Sleep and its narrator Philip Marlowe.
The director explained that they used a narrative voice for The Big Lebowski to express “as if someone was commenting on the plot from an all-seeing point of view. And at the same time rediscovering the old earthiness of a Mark Twain”, an inventive way to use voice-over that arguably few but the Coen Brothers could conceive – the Dude certainly abides.
Though a very different film, Trainspotting has, similarly to the Big Lebowski, accumulated quite a cult status over the years and left an indelible mark on British youth culture. Indeed, there are still today countless youngsters with a Trainspotting poster in their room, or many who can even quote most of Ewan McGregor’s “Choose Life” speech from the unforgettable opening sequence. This discourse is precisely spoken in voice-over narration, which Danny Boyle uses frequently in his adaption of Irvine Welsh’s eponymous book.
Voice-over was mainly employed in this film to preserve Welsh’s gritty language and reflect the characters’ essences through Renton’s direct yet personal descriptions. Thanks to its use of voice-over, McGregor’s character additionally manages to uphold coherence of the originally fragmented narrative and helps clarify the relationship between each new event and character.
Though spoken solely by Renton, the narration often switches between first and third person (calling himself ‘young Renton’ at times), which adds to the impulsive effect many of the drug-consuming characters possess. Furthermore, the voice-over offers some relative justification to several of the film’s surrealistic elements (such as the infamous toilet-scene), plus its generally blunt and communicative style explains why Trainspotting continues to remain appealing and quotable to a variety of audiences.
13. Annie Hall
With his own stand-up comedian experiences and influences ranging from Groucho Marx to Bob Hope, it was no surprise that Woody Allen would create some form of interaction with his audience on-screen.
This is demonstrated in many of his works but notably his most acclaimed film, the Oscar-winning Annie Hall, in which he repeatedly breaks the fourth wall and uses voice-over so his main character, Alvy (played by Allen himself and arguably his alter-ego), can communicate his neurotic thoughts, mainly concerning his relationship with Annie (Diane Keaton).
The script is quintessentially Allen-esque for blending his sardonic humour with philosophical and digressive commentaries (especially on relationships), while – thanks to Allen’s inventive writing – achieving to make the film and protagonist consistently entertaining without the need for much action.
Instead, he did so by using several techniques, including voice-over, in unique ways to grab the spectator interactively. For instance, characters enter each other’s flashbacks, subtitles appear that contradict dialogue, or an actual figure (Marshall McLuhan) mentioned by a character magically enters the scene.
The use of voice-over while breaking the fourth wall is probably the most definitive technique Allen uses to interact with his audience. By inviting them to listen to his humouristic rants, he encourages the realisation that his personal relationship problems are actually universal, and his unrestricted contact with the audience creates an intimacy that few could replicate.
12. Double Indemnity
Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity is cited by several critics as the epitome of film noir, with its director one of the few auteurs to have flourished during the Hollywood Golden Age. Like many noir films, Double Indemnity rests heavily on its voice-over narration. The latter is used in this work as the protagonist, insurance salesman Walter Neff (played by Fred MacMurray) reticently recounts in flashback the crime his fellow co-star, Barbara Stanwyck, had persuaded him to undertake.
In his retrospection, Neff’s sense of doom and disenchantment, that dominates the film’s atmosphere and opposes its sunny Californian setting, is continually evoked. The character’s continuous inner conflict and his personal struggle to confess his actions is embodied by the way in which the voice-over is introduced, with an injured Neff staggering to his desk to record his crimes on a Dictaphone for his boss (Edward G. Robinson) to hear.
MacMurray’s voice-over thus achieves to mirror the film’s characteristically gloomy ambiance and plunge the spectator in the narrative from the injured protagonist’s viewpoint. For these reasons, Double Indemnity has proven itself as an example for scriptwriters for how to use voice-over efficiently to penetrate into a character’s depths, and has understandably endured through all this time.
11. Taxi Driver
Taxi Driver is arguably one of Martin Scorsese’s most significant works for its gritty realism of New York City and its portrayal of the deranged yet fascinating character of Travis Bickle (Robert de Niro).
With Bickle’s seemingly unfathomable mind-set, we are able to gather invaluable insight into this figure that varies between hero and anti-hero with his telling voice-over. The fact that the character’s narration comes in the form of an internal monologue reveals his unsettling psychology and somewhat foreshadows his lunatic meltdown.
The spectator is put in rather ambiguous situations from Bickle’s narration. Despite the character’s distressing personality, a lot of truth can be acknowledged from his observations. We go from being fearful to eventually gaining some sympathy to this mysterious character, that we are ultimately uncertain whether to admire or dread. Still, most of the film’s notable quotes come from the protagonist’s voice-over, including: “Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets”.
It can also be highlighted that Bickle’s voice-over largely contrasts from what is observed on-screen. This enhances the film’s disturbing and ambiguous effect as De Niro delivers generally denigrating reflections in a serene tone, which becomes as menacing as the film’s abundant violence. Overall, De Niro’s voice-over certainly succeeds to carry and enrich the film’s narrative, due principally to how it reveals the inner thoughts of one of cinema’s most disconcerting characters.
10. Jules and Jim
One of the defining works of French New Wave pioneer François Truffaut, Jules and Jim begins pre-WWI and depicts the troubled and ambiguous love triangle between two best friends, the German-Austrian Jules (Oskar Werner) and the Frenchman Jim (Henri Serre), and the stunning Catherine (Jeanne Moreau).
Its melancholic storyline was actually based on the non-fictional novel written by Henri-Pierre Roché that Truffaut read when he was young and admired so much he declared: “If I ever succeed in making films, I will make Jules and Jim”.
As his career launched, the French filmmaker took some time to create a narrative that would accurately mirror Roché’s story, but it was ultimately decided that the use of an omniscient and non-diegetic narrator with voice-over would best portray the three characters’ entanglement. The technique was employed to effective outcomes to inform the audience of the progression of the characters’ relationships and also reveal personal insights concerning their emotional states.
It is important to highlight that voice-over especially carries significance in Jules and Jim as the plot spans almost a 30-year period from pre-WWI to pre-WWII years. Therefore, the narration provided by Michel Subor helps explain to the audience the occurrences during this time and its omniscience is essential for keeping an equivalent outlook at both male protagonists in this darkly romantic drama.
9. Fight Club
Adapting Chuck Palahniuk’s iconic novel was never going to be an easy task for David Fincher and screenwriter Jim Uhls. There lied the challenge of ensuring that the film did not lose the poignancy conveyed through the book’s first-person narration. Still, it is mainly thanks to its use of voice-over, conveyed by Edward Norton’s sardonic tone, that the film manages to sustain Palahniuk’s controversial depiction of society’s consumerist features.
In the film’s first part, the voice-over holds an essential role by familiarising us with the Narrator’s inner reflections and immersing us in the materialistic lifestyle he fervently bemoans. This is valuable for the story’s development, as Norton’s internal anarchism gradually externalises. Also, the voice-over assists in enabling the multiple ellipses that subtly introduce the character’s disorder, as he states: “If you wake up at a different time, in a different place, could you wake up as a different person?”
Notably, the Narrator’s lunacy only becomes evident relatively late, as his voice-over reveals his schizophrenic nature. We thus realise, through Fincher’s plentiful twists, of the narrator’s integral unreliability. Furthermore, the voice-over helps in highlighting the work’s theme of imprisonment.
We discover that the Narrator’s initial nihilism, that would make him escape his oppressive lifestyle, would actually only lead to his subordination to the equally domineering figure of Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt). The Narrator’s voice-over hence becomes a form of imprisonment in itself, and it is only at the end when he frees himself of it that he is able to tell Marla (Helena Bonham Carter): “everything’s gonna be fine”.