The term ‘fourth wall’ is an expression that was born in the art of theatre. It can be defined as an invisible wall separating yourself from what you are watching; in this case it is the film. So in order to beak the fourth wall, the character will directly communicate to or at least acknowledge the audience. This can also be known as meta-reference.
An often used technique, the fourth wall can be broken in many forms, from books, to theatre and even in video games, however most famously in movies. The films included here are not intended to be a list of the greatest films and some of them are personal favourites on the use of meta-reference, so do bear this in mind.
With so many examples of these breaks, ranging from the work of Marx brothers to Wayne’s World, it would be near impossible to cover every sample. So please, read on and observe our 20 memorable films that all break the fourth wall.
1. The Great Train Robbery (1903)
One of the earliest uses of breaking the fourth wall in film is in 1903’s The Great Train Robbery. This silent short may only last 11 minutes but in this small amount of time, several new filming techniques were formed, thus establishing this as a hugely innovative and influential film. With the title being a descriptor, the story concerns a number of outlaws who attempt to hold up a train in order to rob the passengers on board.
The break in fourth wall occurs at the very last scene when the director cuts to a close up of one of the bandits, who looks directly at the camera, lifts his gun and fires a shot at the audience. Due to the age of the film it is difficult to gauge what reaction this scene would have prompted from its audience, however the fact that throughout the film we witness the innocent victims threatened at gunpoint, only to become shot at ourselves, certainly suggests that this would have evoked a certain amount of shock or confusion.
The film focuses on four outlaws who plan on taking control of a train and robbing its passengers. After holding the operator at gunpoint, the group are able to board the train and use any means necessary to carry out their demands. Armed with guns and explosives, the gang wreak havoc upon anyone that stands in their way, which leads to a dramatic finale as a local posse is rounded up to confront the bandits.
A cherished and historical motion picture, The Great Train Robbery is a remarkable and ground breaking film in the Western genre.
2. Summer with Monika (1953)
Ingmar Bergman was well schooled in making films based on the human condition. In Summer with Monika, he provides another insight into how outrageously talented a director he really was, not that it was ever in question. Starring Harriet Andersson and Lars Ekborg, the film chronicles the lives of these two teenage lovers, who escape the clutches of their humdrum lives to travel around several islands of Sweden together.
The meta-reference in this film appears in the final scene when she lights a cigarette, inhales, and then turns to face the audience. As the camera closes in on her face, the background fades to black and we feel her almost looking down at us for judging her.
Harry Lund (Ekborg) is a 19 year old man living in Stockholm with a dead end job. Easy going by nature, Harry lives with just his father after his mother passed away when he was just 8 years old. When he meets Monika, a sultry and adventurous 17 year old who works in a grocery store, the two immediately hit it off and spend the day together. Both depressed with their mundane daily routine, they run away together, using Harry’s father’s boat as an escape vehicle.
Living on the picturesque sunny islands of southern Sweden, the lovers survive by ransacking nearby farms for food and enjoy a carefree life away from the burden of conformity. In what seems the perfect scenario for young love, reality soon sets in and the two are forced to return home. Whilst Harry contentedly settles down, this is clearly not something Monika wishes to do and it soon becomes apparent that her rebellious streak is not something that can be tamed.
Summer with Monika is a bittersweet and passionate story about the reality that young love can face. For a film that was released in 1953, it is surprisingly sexually-charged, although Bergman was certainly no stranger to scandal. Undeniably, Summer with Monika is not Bergman’s best work but without doubt, it’s mastery is unquestionable.
3. The Nights Of Cabiria (1957)
Directed by Federico Fellini and starring his wife Giulietta Masina, The Nights Of Cabiria is a 1957 Italian drama about a prostitute and her search for love. The meta-reference in this film is another that has been debated. At the end of the film, Masina’s character directly stares at the camera/audience and momentarily provides one of the most heartfelt and optimistic expressions caught in film. Many argue that her stare is nothing more than a look at the camera; however with Fellini’s passion for unleashing his own emotions through his films, surely this truly touching scene is our protagonist connecting deeply with the audience.
Cabiria (Masina) is a prostitute in the beautiful city of Rome. Revealing that she has been in this profession since her teenage years, we learn that although she now knows the game well, she is still guilty of letting her guard down and has been taken advantage of on more than one occasion.
The film begins in the same manner and we witness Cabiria’s run of bad luck continue. Her tendency to push away any genuinely caring person in preference of someone likely to just tell her what she wants to hear, further deepens our concern for Cabiria, whose dazzling charisma overcomes her presence as a brazen, reckless street tramp. We watch on as Cabiria continues her pursuit for love and treads a fine line between romanticism and realism.
Giulietta Masina absolutely shines here, in what is regarded as one of Fellini’s best works. A revealing and profound capolavoro that depicts true human characters and feelings, The Nights Of Cabiria is film-making at its very best.
4. The 400 Blows (1959)
One of the most well-known films from the French New Wave was Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows. Released in 1959, this was the debut feature film that introduced the world to this great director and can be found on many ‘best foreign film’ lists. Also noted for containing one of the best child performances of all time, Jean-Pierre Leaud, who was 14 at the time, gives a truly remarkable portrayal of a mischievous young boy who is constantly in bother both at home and at school. With strict, unloving parents and an ironhanded teacher, the young boy falls into more trouble as time goes on, causing the authorities to get involved.
It can be argued that the following break in fourth wall is more of a general look at the camera than the audience itself, but nevertheless it was a rather unique shot for its time and provides an emotional and empathetic ending to a though-provoking film. At the end of the film, the young boy finally reaches the sea, then after a few steps in the ocean he turns and stares directly at the camera/audience. This ending has divided opinion on the interpretation of this scene, with the director himself admitting that his intention was for Leaud to hold his stare for several seconds longer.
Antoine Doniel is a 12 year old boy in Paris who struggles to fit in. Unwanted at home and often scolded at school, the boy soon falls into trouble with the police after becoming involved in petty crime. With no-one to depend on or trust, it’s not long before Antoine is sent to juvenile detention via psychiatric evaluation, as this is maddeningly deemed the only possible cause for his insolence. Constantly running from something throughout the film, Antoine follows trend in an iconic and beautifully shot coup-de-grace.
Reportedly based on the director’s life, The 400 Blows is an honest and emotional portrayal of youth in revolt. An intimate and powerful film from a highly respected and talented director, this is a bittersweet and intense journey of an ill-fated young boy’s life.
5. Psycho (1960)
One of the most famous and influential horror films of all time, Psycho shocked audiences (and still does) with one of the most iconic and disturbing murder scenes ever shown in cinema. Directed by the master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock, the film stars Anthony Perkins, Vera Miles and Janet Leigh, the latter of which received an Oscar nomination for her performance. Psycho’s fourth wall break is possibly the most notorious of those on this list, with the break occurring at the end of the film, showing Anthony Perkins chillingly grinning directly at the audience.
Marion Crane (Leigh) is a young woman who is in need of some serious cash in order to get married to her boyfriend Sam. Later than day, Marion’s boss entrusts her to hold on to $40,000 for his client and bring it to the bank, however, the temptation proves uncontrollable and she takes off with the money. After attracting the unwanted attention of a suspicious policeman, she quickly stops at a used car dealership and exchanges her car, then carries on with her getaway.
When she gets caught up in a violent rainstorm she pulls into the nearest motel, which just happens to be the Bates Motel. Run by the seemingly charming but nervous Norman Bates (Perkins), he checks her in and brings her snack from the house behind the motel, which he shares with his mother. After deciding that she will return home the next day to face up to what she has done, she takes a shower before bed, beginning to feel a sense of relief that the situation had not escalated further regarding the stolen money.
Later on in the film, concerned for Marion’s whereabouts, her boyfriend Sam and sister Lila (Miles) hire a private detective to find her, which eventually leads them to Bate’s Motel. What follows is a gripping and horrifying finale as the new guests at the motel soon find themselves in danger when an alarming truth is uncovered.
A psychological masterpiece from Hitchcock, Psycho set the standard for horror movies upon its release in 1960. Now standing at over 50 years old, this still sends a chill down the spine, with superb performances, especially from Perkins, who perhaps played the role so well, he was inevitably typecast for the rest of his career. As perfect a horror film as you are likely to see, Psycho has often been copied but never equalled.
6. Black Sabbath (1963)
Black Sabbath is a trilogy of horror stories from legendary giallo director Mario Bava. Credited with being a major force in the Italian horror movement since the 1960’s, many of today’s great directors, from Burton to Tarantino, have all paid tribute to the influence that Bava has had on their careers. As already mentioned, Black Sabbath is presented in three separate stories, reportedly due to the success of Vincent Price’s 1962 Tales of Terror.
The three segments are titled, The Telephone, The Wurdalak and finally The Drop of Water. All three are stand-alone stories and have no connection with each other. This time the break in fourth wall occurs at the beginning and end of the film, from the legendary horror icon Boris Karloff, who also appears in one of the tales. The ending being the most infamous as it shows him riding a mechanical horse on set with film crew and equipment in full view.
A beautiful young woman named Rosy receives menacing phone calls from an ex-lover called Frank, who has just escaped from prison. Seemingly blaming Rosy for his conviction, Frank threatens revenge in an obvious psychotic manner. In need of solace from her would-be attacker, Rosy phones Mary, her estranged lover, to provide company which is thankfully granted. However, several shocks are in store for Rosy in this entertaining and brutal segment.
Set in 19th Century Russia, Vladimir Durfe finds a headless corpse with a dagger still impaled, just for good measure. When he stumbles upon a small cottage whilst seeking shelter, it is revealed that the knife belongs to Gorca, the father of the household, who coincidentally has not been seen for several days. The family tell how Gorca has gone to fight again the Wurdalak, a living carcass, who feeds on human flesh and blood. Despite being warned to leave the house by the family, Durfe stays, after falling for the daughter. That night, at midnight, Gorca returns, but is it the real Gorca?
The Drop of Water
Based in London, we see Nurse Helen calling to a large house in order to prepare the body of an elderly lady recently deceased. After Helen takes advantage of the situation and steals a ring from the corpse’s finger, a series of disturbing and unexplained events haunt the nurse, seemingly in vengeance for the theft.
Each segment deserves its own recognition as shocking and creepy short stories. Obviously, the presence of Karloff in The Wurdalak, almost entitles this to be the best of the series, however my person favourite is The Drop Of Water, which proved to be exceptionally chilling and deeply psychological. All in all, Black Sabbath is a genuinely unsettling and atmospheric horror anthology. Definitely a must see for fans of the genre.