8. The Shawshank Redemption
What? The Shawshank Redemption’s voice-over only ranked 8th? The bewilderments are understandable; yet there is some partiality to place it immediately at the top due to the common fondness to simply hear Morgan Freeman’s smooth voice. Indeed, this movie rather deified it, making several productions even craving Freeman’s presence specifically for his soothing voice (i.e.: he narrates a Discovery Channel show and CBS Evening News’ introduction).
But The Shawshank Redemption’s voice-over is undeniably commendable regardless of Freeman’s performance. Based on Stephen King’s short-story depicting Andy Dufresne’s (Tim Robbins) double-life sentence for murdering his wife and her lover and the protagonist’s evolving friendship with Red (Freeman) in Shawshank prison, the story’s 20-year duration could have certainly not been illustrated without voice-over. The latter further helps the audience settle into this usually discomforting environment by guiding us from Red’s point-of-view, a man who knows prison inside-out yet maintains a humane outlook on life.
Indeed, the film’s triumph is largely thanks to its voice-over for conveying its powerful message of hope. The voice-over is also creditable for being largely taken verbatim from King’s story and thus preserving the author’s euphemistic language, as well as using Red as narrator rather than Dufresne – which functions not only for Freeman’s more impactful voice but for evoking how just one character can inspire others to break free (both literally and figuratively in this case).
7. The Usual Suspects
The Usual Suspects’ enduring success is due mostly to the meticulous storyline of Christopher McQuarrie’s Oscar-winning screenplay. The narrative continually constructs the myth of the notoriously elusive Keyser Soze until an ultimate twist, as Roger ‘Verbal’ Kint (Kevin Spacey) narrates in voice-over how he and four other criminals became tricked and eventually suspects to a mysterious shoot-out in a Los Angeles harbour.
It is precisely thanks to Spacey’s masterful acting and voice-over that the suspense heightens and that the audience becomes compellingly engaged to unravel the identity of the devilish figure that Soze is developed into. The brilliance of McQuarrie’s script comes particularly from exposing all the clues but inviting the spectator to distinguish the lies from the truth in Spacey’s voice-over.
The fact that the voice-over originates from Verbal, a meek-seeming cripple who doesn’t offer much but stress the fear that Soze invokes, is specifically why it is so important to the storyline: we are imparted to not trust appearances and to not believe everything we hear. If we watch the film a second time, many hints – several from the voice-over – can be picked up that reveal the plot’s mystery, but nothing can be compared to the exhilaration felt when watching the finale for the first time, and that is arguably a feat that not many films can boast.
6. Citizen Kane
Many cinephiles have labelled Citizen Kane as the best film of all time, and though it is an endlessly disputable claim, its praise is in several aspects understandable. The film displayed Orson Welles’ multifaceted talent, with both innovative filmmaking and an enthralling performance.
The plot centres on a millionaire tycoon, Charles Foster Kane (Welles), who dies alone in his mansion, uttering enigmatically as his final word: ‘Rosebud’. As a journalist (William Alland) investigates Kane’s past and tries to elucidate the meaning of this term, the audience discovers the mystery surrounding not merely ‘rosebud’, but Kane’s whole life.
This is mainly achieved by hearing contrasting voice-over narrations from characters familiar with Kane that the journalist questions. These retrospect about the protagonist in flashback and all in turn become narrators. But although their voice-overs provide interesting insights into Kane’s character, they especially form and enhance the protagonist’s complexities as their differing views and tonal deliveries expose their respective biases – proving them as unreliable narrators.
These numerous voice-overs thus maintain the emphasis on Kane’s elusiveness, but we can also note the significance of Welles’ own voice-over in the celebrated opening. He utters like a newsreel reporter but in a deep haunting tone how it will be “1940’s biggest, strangest funeral”.
This holds an invaluable function to allow the ensuing introduction of the partial narrators and reminds how Kane is renowned but merely through imaginings. We are the only true witnesses to his utterance of “rosebud” yet – particularly due to the various voice-overs – remain mystified throughout in Welles’ timeless classic.
Terrence Malick has been named by many cinephiles a master of voice-over for how emotionally powerful these tend to feature in his films. Although all his works possess commendable voice-overs, his first film, Badlands, arguably remains his most noteworthy one to exemplify his trademark and unique style of voice-overs. In this film, a young and naïve teenage girl (Holly, played by Sissy Spacek) narrates the events that see her and her explosive older boyfriend Kit (Martin Sheen) get tangled up in a crime spree in the Midwest.
By using a childlike voice to carry the narrative’s development, Malick exploits the character’s integral innocence to evoke a sense of moral indifference that lightens from the film’s mostly violent ambience. This apparent apathy is significantly evoked through the languidness of Holly’s voice-over, which actually makes the character seem more monstrous than Kit, who is technically guiltier of the crimes, but, unlike Holly, shows consciousness of his sins and attempts of redemption.
Kit’s simple yet poetic language is also used to reduce focus from the plot’s distressing non-fictional events and rather stress her typically-Malickian sense of wonderment, as she ponders “One day, while taking a look at some vistas in Dad’s stereopticon, it hit me that I was just this little girl, born in Texas, whose father was a sign painter, who only had just so many years to live”.
Therefore, Badlands – and probably Days of Heaven – are surely Malick’s best works in terms of voice-over for the personal and revealing insights they offer from the childlike but pensive narrators.
4. All about Eve
Bette Davis stars in arguably her most significant role in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s depiction of the drama that occurs in Broadway backstage and in show business as a whole. Crucially conveyed by Mankiewicz’s script, packed of theatrical and witty content, we observe the extents to which show business persons will go to in order to maintain their reputations.
The complexity of each character is carefully delineated particularly thanks to the voice-over provided by scathing New York drama critic Addison De Witt (played by George Saunders). The narrator’s contemptuous voice is presented from the start (“To those of you who do not read, attend the theatre, listen to unsponsored radio programs or know anything of the world in which you live – it is perhaps necessary to introduce myself”), allowing Mankiewicz to introduce the film’s overriding cynicism and hypocrisy.
There is no need for dialogue to initiate the drama and impending conflict between Eve (Anna Baxter) and Margo (Bette Davis), as the voice-over does so instead by judgementally mentioning Margo, a famous yet ageing actress, as “a great Star. A true star” though deliberately highlighting that the story will be “all about Eve”, the public’s new idol.
Although the narrator later alters to Celeste Holm, the power of the film’s voice-over undeniably originates from Saunders’ account, which adds a valuable effect to the film’s melodramatic universe.
3. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
Robert Downey Jr.’s return to film and scriptwriter Shane Black’s directorial debut are merged together in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, a parody of the detective-genre and of film noir in particular about a private eye, a thief feigning as an actor and a struggling actress. Its script is notably significant for how it pokes fun with the entire idea of a narrator, with Downey Jr.’s continuous voice-over never lacking in tongue-in-cheek humour.
Shane Black innovatively adopts a metafiction-inspired style in which his characters (Downey Jr. in this case) comment on aspects of the narrative and ponder upon how the audience might feel about it. Indeed, Downey Jr. chatters ceaselessly, frequently breaking the fourth wall, and is in constant playful interaction with the spectator.
Its mediocre box-office success possibly suggests the public’s inability to empathise with the story’s directness. Yet the voice-over’s exchange implies a lack of concern towards what the spectators might think, as Downey Jr.’s character states in one of his many ironic quotes: “By now you may wonder how I wound up here. Or, maybe not. Maybe you wonder how silly putty picks shit up from comic books. The point is, I don’t see another Goddamn narrator, so pipe down.”
“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster” begins Ray Liotta in Martin Scorsese’s gangster classic Goodfellas, which renowned critic Roger Ebert commented on: “No finer film has ever been made about organized crime – not even The Godfather”. One of the chief reasons for this praise is how it is told in a storytelling manner led by Liotta’s voice-over, which manages to absorb the spectator in the lawless mafia underworld.
The film’s plot was based on screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi’s book Wiseguys that depicted the true events of Henry Hill’s life (portrayed by Liotta). Although the actor wasn’t allowed to meet Hill until the film’s completion to not affect his performance, much of the cast and crew regularly consulted the mobster. This authenticity and faithfulness to the book is strongly reflected in how the voice-over is used, as it unfolds in a rather autobiographical style from Hill’s perspective, offering personal details about each gangster and crime.
As manifested from the opening narration quoted previously, the character’s voice-over is naturally biased. Yet, it is so powerfully gripping that it manages to heighten the appeal of even the most ruthless criminals to practically make us want – like Hill – “to be a part of them”.
Indeed, even though many of the film’s actions are gruesome, we are inclined to empathise with the narrator as his voice-over engrosses us effectively, rendering even the most violent crimes justifiable. For these reasons – and probably more – Scorsese’s use of voice-over can certainly be commended as one of several techniques that make Goodfellas an all-time great.
1. Sunset Boulevard
In one of his rare publicised conversations, legendary Hollywood filmmaker Billy Wilder once declared: “The thing about voice-overs – you have to be very careful there that you don’t show what they’re already seeing. Add to what they’re seeing.”
With Sunset Boulevard, one of his most defining films that, similarly to Double Indemnity, contains several film noir characteristics, Wilder inventively uses a dead man’s narration as the voice-over to his film.
The latter opens with the narrator – scriptwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) – floating in the pool of a Hollywood home with two shots in his back and one in his stomach, while announcing off-screen: “before you hear it [the murder] all distorted and blown out of proportion, before those Hollywood columnists get their hands on it, maybe you’d like to hear the facts, the whole truth…”
This opening sequence and the film’s disconcerting voice-over impeccably construct Wilder’s depiction of Hollywood’s dismal side, as diva Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) plots her comeback to stardom. Instead of killing the suspense by exposing the protagonist’s death from the start, the opening rather builds the audience’s curiosity to discover what caused the demise, this being particularly thanks to Holden’s poignant voice-over.
This classic influenced countless scriptwriters in realising how far the voice-over technique can be taken, and the relationship between the narrator and death is one that was explored by many (American Beauty for instance). Many had initially commented on how Wilder broke the rules of screenwriting by using a dead man as narrator, yet to this claim the filmmaker simply responded, “Who wrote the rules? There are no rules.”