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VIDEO ESSAY: Breaking the Fourth Wall

by Leigh Singer and Matt Zoller Seitz
March 7, 2013 9:30 AM
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Oh, hello there, reader.

I know why you’ve come. You’re here at Press Play to watch Leigh Singer’s awesome supercut of fourth-wall-breaking moments in cinema, aren’t you?

Yes, of course you are! Fess up. Don’t be shy. So saucy! Just look at you, with your bashful, “Oh, dearie me, I just popped over to see if anybody had a new piece up, and oh, look, eye candy, I guess I’ll stick around and watch a minute or two.” Very convincing! Are you a professional actor? A model, perhaps?


Come clean, now. Tell me what clips you expect to see. That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? Listmaking. Seeing if the filmmaker chose the moments you would have picked, and perhaps a few you didn’t know existed. You expect to see Anthony Perkins staring into the camera at the end of Psycho, his face a near-catatonic mask, yet oddly joyous. Or that moment in Annie Hall, maybe—Woody Allen producing Marshall McLuhan to silence a pretentious nimrod in line at the movies. Or the moment in Amelie when the heroine stops being enthralled by a movie just long enough to tell us, “I like turning round and looking at people’s faces the dark.” Or Ferris Bueller or Alfie smarting off. Or Groucho telling us that the obligatory musical number would be a great time to hit the concession stand.

What, too obvious? Too on-the-nose? Well, what about Malcolm McDowell doing his Alex the Droog death-stare in A Clockwork Orange, intercut with an homage to that same moment in the McDowell-starred crime thriller Gangster #1? Or Tyler Durden talking straight into the camera in Fight Club, cut together with Ingmar Bergman’s personality-merging psychodrama Persona? A bit more impressed, then, eh? I was, too. A clever one, this Singer. Very clever. You’ll like his work, I promise.

Don’t skip around, though. Watch the whole thing. There’s rhyme and reason to it, and poetry, and mad inspiration, and internal logic, dream logic… I’m rambling here, distracted, thinking about the music cue he lays down around the 6:00 mark, and smiling.

Oh, and be sure to stick around and watch the credits. They’re quite lengthy but filled with suggestions for further viewing. And there’s a little joke at the end.

Well, that’s it. What are you still reading this for? Press play and start watching!

--Matt Zoller Seitz 

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  • ras the exhorter | February 10, 2014 3:55 PMReply

    no filmmaker has been able to consistently and organically layer dramatic consequences into the breaking of the wall like spike, since spike, arguably before spike. tracy camilla johns in 'SHE'S GOTTA HAVE IT' (can't think of any in the history of film as sexy as this, by the way)? all those wonderfully hyper realistic portraits in DO THE RIGHT THING? ed norton in the mirror in 25TH HOUR? peerless!

  • Alma Andreescu | March 29, 2013 7:35 PMReply

    I love how it's becoming more popular, I looove breaking the fourth wall :) I've done it myself, in my university dissertation and taking it further. I was aiming to break the fifth wall ;)

  • Arch | March 26, 2013 2:24 PMReply

    The video's mentioned on the always-oh-so-amazing FSFF :

  • Gabe | March 25, 2013 4:07 PMReply

    Surprise omissions: 400 Blows, Los Olvidados, Last Action Hero, The Tingler, Sherlock Jr.

  • AJ | March 16, 2013 6:04 PMReply

    The color blind dress joke from "Ed Wood" is one of the greatest fourth wall jokes in cinema.

  • Cable Ray | March 15, 2013 7:28 PMReply

    What? No Back to the Future!?!

  • ClaraDarko | March 15, 2013 1:19 AMReply

    My husband and I had edited a video about actors looking straight into the camera (not always breaking the fourth wall) a year ago. It's in Youtube, under the title "Looking at you (Movie montage)".

  • nic | March 13, 2013 12:16 AMReply

    totally missed the TOP SECRET bit..but the Zucker/Abrams were respresented with Airplane. overall great job though!

  • Cory | March 12, 2013 4:39 AMReply

    Would have liked to have seen Julie Christie up there (from her performance in Altman's Images)! Maybe something from Inland Empire too. No less, great compilation! Love the fluidity!

  • Christopher Bell | March 9, 2013 10:12 PMReply

    Nice job! "Stalker" also has a fantastic one.

  • bilko | March 9, 2013 11:40 AMReply

    Nice compilation! I missed the end of Lebowski where the Stranger says good-bye to the Dude, wraps up the whole dadgum story, then the camera swings left to bowler who rolls a strike. In one take!

  • Garibaldi | March 8, 2013 3:15 PMReply

    Excellent video!

  • Phil | March 8, 2013 7:02 AMReply

    Many of these clips are in the wrong aspect ratio which really ruins it for me :(

    Also agree with Arch.. some of these (ie Tim Robbins falling) don't appear to be breaking 4th wall.. just looking beyond the camera.

    Otherwise.. nice job.

  • Leigh Singer | March 8, 2013 7:59 AM

    hi Phil, and thanks. But yeah, aspect ratios are something I'm still getting my head around.
    The Tim Robbins part of The Hudsucker Proxy clip is there to put the real 4th wall break part - Bill Cobbs - into context. As for the other shots, I'd - obviously - agree with Matt's post below.

  • DG | March 8, 2013 2:40 AMReply

    I watched the whole video just to make sure Holy Mountain was included. Gotta be one of the more ambitious uses of breaking the fourth wall I've seen. I know a few people who hate that movie based entirely off of that ending. Still more interesting than doing it as a gag though

  • Claire Biery | March 7, 2013 11:02 PMReply

    Bloody Brilliant.

  • Chris | March 7, 2013 6:23 PMReply

    You forgot the last shot of Magnolia, right before the credits run. And the Eddie Murphy glance in Trading Places after Ralph Bellamy tells him that bacon can be found on a BLT.

  • Leigh Singer | March 7, 2013 5:53 PMReply

    thanks for all the positive comments! I've said this elsewhere, but if I'd included all the clips I found and loved (can't believe there wasn't space for Sam Elliott at the end of The Big Lebowski), it would probably have made it feature-length...
    That said, the Magnolia final shot is a great call, so too the other Breathless shot mentioned. And I wish my Burt Reynolds-70s-heyday knowledge was better because the Smokey and the Bandit clip sounds great!

  • Edward Copeland | March 7, 2013 3:54 PMReply

    Well done. Only one clip that I expected to see that didn't appear: The moment in Smokey and the Bandit when Burt Reynolds, once again having eluded pursuing law officers, backs the Trans Am onto the two-lane highway, pauses, looks directly out his driver's side window and flashes the audience a hilarious shit-eating grin before he speeds away again.

  • Monica | March 7, 2013 3:49 PMReply

    I was waiting for Harold in "Harold and Maude" and Ralphie in "A Christmas Story".

  • Luke | March 7, 2013 2:39 PMReply

    This is wonderful! Brilliantly mashed together.

    My favourite fourth wall moment is the end of Kiarostami's Taste of Cherry. Not because of it's aesthetic quality, but it's political potency.

  • Bob Eff | March 7, 2013 2:01 PMReply

    Also the final shot in Magnolia (1999).

  • Linder | March 7, 2013 1:38 PMReply

    Really cool. What about Campbell Scott in Singles - talking about The Kiss photo? And Xavier McDaniel (X-Man) talking directly to the camera in his dream...several other moments in that movie.

  • Jeanne | March 7, 2013 1:36 PMReply

    My favorite is from PeeWee's Big Adventure, when PeeWee has a hilariously bad cameo in the film about his life. "Paging Mr Herman".

  • Colin Biggs | March 7, 2013 1:16 PMReply

    Very good stuff.

  • Matt Zoller Seitz | March 7, 2013 12:02 PMReply


    Wikipedia: "Speaking directly to or otherwise acknowledging the audience through the camera in a film or television program, or through this imaginary wall in a play, is referred to as "breaking the fourth wall" and is considered a technique of metafiction, as it penetrates the boundaries normally set up by works of fiction."

    Staring into the "camera" counts if the "camera?" does not represent the point of view of any other character in the scene. Who is Alex the Droog looking at in that famous CU in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE?

  • Arch | March 8, 2013 4:13 PM

    Completely agree with the "classical film story telling" thing ... beside nitpicking I'd say I desperately need proof; proof that it's not just Kubrick being Kubrick, and playing with the "don't look at the camera" rule (which wouldn't actually be that different from Ozu's 180° shot/reverse shot thingy). The whole found-footage approach is even more tricky.
    Again that's just for the sake of argument... looking forward to watch/read more from you guys.

  • Leigh Singer | March 8, 2013 8:01 AM

    What Matt said.
    But thanks Arch, glad you liked it anyway!

  • Matt Zoller Seitz | March 7, 2013 7:20 PM

    @arch I feel like "Don't look at the camera" is a fundamental rule of classical film storytelling, and than when a character does it, it either means they're looking into the eyes of another character (i.e., the film has temporarily assumed a subjective POV) or else there's some kind of wall-break happening, however subtle. I think that eye contact happening between Alex and the viewer (and Private Pyle and the viewer in FULL METAL JACKET -- Kubrick really loves these shots!) does constitute "addressing the audience." But that's nitpicking on my end! Glad you liked Leigh's video.

  • Arch | March 7, 2013 5:31 PM

    I hear you. I'm just nitpicking here.
    To me breaking the 4th wall involve actually addressing the audience somehow. Alex has a vague look forward like I have myself after a few (ahem) nothing clearly indicates he's looking at the audience.
    Same thing with A bout de souffle, Patricia could very well just look at Poiccard's body (I always saw it this way) while the famous "vous n'aimez pas la mer" line does break the fourth wall.
    Then again it is still a great great video !!

  • Chris Voss | March 7, 2013 11:54 AMReply

    That's the kind of video you watch and immediately reach for one of your favorite movies to curl up with. I particularly love the broader definition of breaking the fourth wall which, if I'm correct, here implies more of a break with the reality of the story. It's what makes that scene in HUDSUCKER PROXY so wonderful.

    All around brilliant video, as always!

  • Arch | March 7, 2013 11:24 AMReply

    That was some sweet editing I won't deny that. But is it just me or breaking the fourth wall and "just" looking at the camera isn't the same thing ?
    Also, not the About de souffle clip I expected :

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