Monday, October 13, 2014

Top 20 Fourth Wall Breaks

Breaking the fourth wall: when a character becomes aware of their fictional nature. That’s the definition given on Urban Dictionary, and despite the source, it is an entirely accurate one. Usually fourth wall breaks are executed with the character looking directly into the camera and talking to the audience. Sometimes, they’re far more subtle.

However, a character looking into the camera because the lens is doubling as a mirror or another character is not a fourth wall break. Tyler Durden looking into the camera as he tells a police commissioner, “Do not fuck with us,” is not a fourth wall break, because Tyler isn’t looking at us, he’s looking at the police commissioner. The Narrator telling us about Tyler’s job as a projectionist is a fourth wall break because The Narrator is talking to us.

So, with that distinction, I offer my favorite fourth wall breaks in film. There are hundreds of scenes to choose from for a list like this, so do feel free to share some of your favorites as well!

Please note that this post contains spoilers. I will be describing and embedding key, and sometimes conclusive, sequences to a handful of films.

10. Schizopolis (1996)
“This is the most important motion picture you will ever attend.”

Steven Soderbergh begins his nonsensical, avant-garde headtrip, Schizopolis, by climbing onto a stage in an empty theater, and telling the (absent) crowd that they are about to watch the most important movie ever made. Soderbergh isn’t looking into the camera, but rather, to the empty faces of the people who aren’t in the audience. Get it? Exactly.

9. Man on the Moon (1999)
“I did that to get rid of those folks who just wouldn’t understand me.”

The opening credits of Man on the Moon really tripped me out. I had seen characters talk to the audience before, but this was the first one that really made me “get” what the filmmaker was intending. By starting the film with the slow crawl closing credits, director Miloš Forman set a great precedent for what was to follow. Expect the unexpected, the unique, and the downright weird.

8. High Fidelity (2000)
“Top five things I miss about Laura.”

“And five: she does this thing in bed when she can’t get to sleep, she kind of half moans and then rubs her feet together an equal number of times... it just kills me.”

7. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)
“You’re still here? It’s over. Go home.”

Matthew Broderick spends much of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off mugging to the camera, the best instance occurring after the closing credits. “You’re still here?” Ferris asks. His stunned and somewhat offended delivery always cracks me up.

6. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
“All right, sonny, that’s enough.”

How do you end a King Arthur-esque film that is seemingly unendable? Easy, you have the modern-day police show up, start arresting people, and break the camera. Problem solved.

5. Blazing Saddles (1974)
“I’m workin’ for Mel Brooks!”

Again, this isn’t a fourth wall break in the traditional sense. Instead, as we watch Dom DeLuise attempt to direct a large musical, the cast of Blazing Saddles literally breaks through a stage wall and announces that they are in the middle of a Mel Brooks movie. Hilarious chaos ensues.

4. Spaceballs (1987)
“When does this happen in the movie?!”

The Spaceballs fourth wall break gets extra credit for its inventiveness. At one point in the film, the bad guys put on a VHS copy of Spaceballs in order to track down Lone Starr (Bill Pullman). They fast forward through the part of the movie we’ve already seen, and stop on the exact scene that they are currently in. It’s a trippy little moment that proves Mel Brooks can’t be swayed by convention.

3. Death Proof (2007)
“You’re gonna have to start gettin’ scared, immediately.”

This is so goddamn priceless. Poor innocent Pam climbs into Stuntman Mike’s death proof 1971 Chevrolet Nova SS, Mike slams her door shut and walks over to the driver’s side door as Pam’s friends drive off in a separate car. Mike pauses, looks directly into the camera, and gives us a perfect little smirk. He knows we know what’s coming, and he couldn’t be happier.

2. Wayne’s World (1992)
“It’s like… people only do things because they get paid.”

Much like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, the main shtick of Wayne’s World is that the characters in the movie often speak to the audience. But the product placement scene transcends a normal fourth wall break. In a single sequence, the film pokes fun at product placement and advertising in general, all while actually getting paid by the brands they’re making fun if. Easily one of my favorite moments from any comedy ever made.

1. Annie Hall (1977)
“Boy, if life were only like this.”

This one speaks for itself. The fourth wall break to end all fourth wall breaks. Yeah, if life were only this easy.

10. The 400 Blows (1959)

This one’s a bit of a cheat, as I’m not entirely sure if Jean-Pierre Léaud meant to look into the camera at the very end of The 400 Blows. But I do feel that it counts here, because while the character may not be aware of his fictional nature, the writer/director, François Truffaut, certainly intends for the film to be aware of itself.

9. JFK (1991)
“It’s up to you.”

Perhaps a little too on the nose for some, I remain utterly moved by Jim Garrison’s final, tearful plea to the jury hearing the Clay Shaw case in the end of JFK. As Garrison gives his lengthy closing argument, the camera is positioned high and to his left, so that his eye line is down at the jury. Suddenly, the camera cuts to a gliding shot gently swaying toward Garrison. As he finishes his argument, he looks into the lens and tells us: “It’s up to you.”

8. Fight Club (1999)
“You are the all singing, all dancing crap of the world.”

My favorite moment in Fight Club is a brief scene of Tyler Durden standing in his home, talking to himself. He’s giving one of his infamous “You’re nothing,” speeches, but to who? Suddenly, he looks into the lens and reminds us who we really are. The camera shakes violently and the physical film threatens to break apart (reminiscent of a key scene in Ingmar Bergman’s Persona). Anarchic bliss.

7. Psycho (1960)
“‘Why she wouldn’t even harm a fly.’”

Many of the entries on this list are fourth wall breaks that occur at the very end of the movie. Alfred Hitchcock waits until the final seven seconds of his masterpiece, Psycho, to let us know that Norman Bates is not only all the way gone, but happy that we know he’s never coming back.

6. Goodfellas (1990)
“I get to live the rest of my life like a schnook.”

Ray Liotta’s courtroom speech to the audience is a nice little treat, but I love the final smile he gives us right at the end of Goodfellas. It’s a look that says so much, with Liotta having to say so little. We cut to Joe Pesci firing a gun at the camera (a nod to The Great Train Robbery) as Sid Vicious blares away on the soundtrack. Heaven.

5. Y Tu Mamá También (2001)
“Wanna dance?”

Maribel Verdú drunkenly, perfectly dancing in a bar while looking at the camera is arguably the sexiest thing that happens in Y Tu Mamá También. And that, my friends, is saying quite a lot.

4. Persona (1966)

Entire essays have been written about the first six minutes of Ingmar Bergman’s Persona. It’s such an appropriate, unexplainable way to begin such an unexplainable film. The highlight for me comes when the little boy looks into the camera, and slowly waves his hand in front of the lens, the same way you would do it in front a person’s face to see if they’re paying attention. This one is a bit of a cheat, as it’s made clear in the next shot that the boy may not have actually been looking at us. Or was he? The point is: you have our attention, Mr. Bergman.

3. Funny Games (1997/2007)
“I mean, what do you think? You think they stand a chance?”

There are many confounding fourth wall breaks in both versions of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games. My favorite is when Paul straight out asks the audience if we think the family will make it (which I could not locate to embed here), but the rewinding scene, the hot-cold clip embedded above, and many others are all worthy of praise. What a sick twisted genius Haneke is.

2. Magnolia (1999)
“Why don’t you save me?”

I don’t know what to say about Claudia Gator’s final smile to the camera except to say that this smile is everything.

1. School Daze (1988)
“Please. Wake up.”

The first time I watched Spike Lee’s School Daze, I found it to be unpolished and underwritten, yet somehow also overproduced. The story, about racism within the black community at an all-black college, didn’t grab me, and the acting was far inferior to what I expected from the cast. Then its final scene happened. A scene in which Laurence Fishburne screams at the top of his lungs for people to “Wake up.” He yells over and over, as students get out of bed and meet him outside. Everyone convenes in a courtyard, and Fishburne’s character stands face to face with his enemy, Julian. They share a look at acceptance; a truce. And then they both slowly look into the camera as Fishburne gently tells us to “Please. Wake up.”

It’s a scene that redefines everything that has come before. It’s delicate, poignant, and so beautifully expresses Lee’s overall intention with the movie. Certainly one of the finest conclusions to a film that I’ve ever seen.

You May Also Like


  1. I ve this list! There are some I haven't but the ones I have, I love. I'm not sure how I'll rank them. I will say that the first film that came into my head after reading this post's title was Funny Games. I remember when Michael Pitt's character friggin' rewinds the movie, my mind was blown.

    This list has some of my favourite movies too. Obviously I love every part of Fight Club. My favourite fourth wall break from it quite a tiny one though. It's when the narrator is on the phone with the policeman and he says "I'd like to thank the Academy." That was the moment I fell in love with this film the first time I saw it. Fond memories.

    And then stuff like Annie Hall, Monty Python, friggin Psycho, Ferris Bueller, High Fidelity, Goodfellas- I love it all!

    Sort of related: just yesterday my friend was asking me what I think the sexiest movie scene ever is and the first one I thought of was the dance in Y Tu Mama Tambien.

    1. That's so funny that you were thinking about that dance the other day. Everything about her reads sex - her look, the movement - it's perfect. AND the fact that that whole scene is in one shot is just pure bliss. Love it.

      So glad you like the list. Fight Club made for a great case study to dissect the whole concept, which I thought you might appreciate!

  2. Great picks! Mel Brooks' films are absolutely classic. I don't think there has been a great parody movie since his. Totally love your choice of Kurt Russell in Death Proof. I remember seeing the Grindhouse double feature in theatres and feeling so creeped out by that one break. It may be one of Russell's best performances and puts a lot of anticipation to seeing more action after the girls' conversations.

    1. Thanks Katy! I too think parody is a lost art. I mean, the first Scary Movie is fun and all, but no one handled that genre the way Brooks did.

      And I also think that Russell is a BEAST in Death Proof. Probably my favorite performance of his. Mickey Rourke was originally going to play the role, which would've been interesting. But Russell's humor is what wins me over. Love Stuntman Mike.

  3. Many great ones here. That product placement scene from Wayne's World is one of the funniest scenes i can think of. I would also like to add the scene from JCVD where Van Damme rises up above the set of the movie and starts talking directly into the camera. Van Damme was one of my childhood heroes, but i never really thought of him as anything but a lesser version of Arnold Schwarzenegger before watching that scene. Who would have thought that The Muscles from Brussels could be this personal and honest on screen? The way he manages to say stuff about himself not even his biggest critics would say really brought him in to a new light for me. You would never see anything like that from any of the other macho action guys from that era like Arnold, Seagal or Lundgren. Stallone pretty much gave up on acting as well after First Blood. I honestly this he was snubbed for a best actor nod at the Academy Awards that year. It's just a shame he went right back in to doing mostly direct to video action movies again after JCVD. I would love to see him do some more real acting now.

    1. I actually thought JCVD was sensational in that movie. I fully agree with everything you said here - I never knew the man "had it" until I saw that film. Also a very solid choice for a fourth wall break. Damn, I need to watch that flick again.

  4. If you didn't put Monty Python & the Holy Grail, I would've killed you.

    In all seriousness, this is a great fucking list. I love those little moments. Most notably in the extended cut of Holy Grail where Carol Cleveland talks to the camera about the scene that was going to be cut out as she is happy about what is going to happen while every other character in the film were saying "get on with it".

    That scene in Annie Hall is great. I sometimes with that would happen in real life.

    1. GOTTA have the Holy Grail on here, no doubt. Really happy you dig the list, it was a blast to put together.

      As for that scene in Annie Hall, I honestly can't remember the last time I stood in line for a movie and didn't overhear a guy like that. Thank god for headphones.

  5. The end of Nights of Cabiria is beautiful. Not sure if it technically counts.

    1. That one definitely counts, and it is a great, great call on your part. I haven't seen that movie in years, and that final break honestly slipped my mind. A perfect fourth wall break.

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. Two great points here. The fourth wall break is a notoriously smug device, and those are the instances that I dislike. It's such a fine line from being in on your own joke, to being self congratulatory.

      I also noticed the lack of female fourth wall breaks as I was researching and writing this. Very odd. The one you pointed out is great though, a perfect way to use a fourth wall break.

  7. Great list, again! I think a lot of these movies speak for themselves. Annie Hall would probably be my personal favourite use of fourth wall breaks, but Maribel Verdu... *swoon* The fourth wall break from Funny Games blew my mind as well, it's a true testament to Haneke's mastery.

    I would also put forward another mentioned above, the opening of Marie Antoinette, when Kirsten Dunst gives that look that... it gets me every time.

    1. Thanks! Verdu is such a stunner in that scene. That dance makes me fall in love with her every time I watch it. And Dunst's look in that break is priceless. Like, "Holy shit, what have I gotten myself into?"

    2. Gah, I can't believe I forgot to mention Adaptation. and The Rocky Horror Picture Show! Two of my all time favourite films.

  8. I love meta. I don't know why, but every time meta comes up, I'm immediately hooked. It's hard to argue with these selections. Funny Games and Fight Club are perfect for this. And those two Mel Brooks scenes are in my book among the top ten or twenty greatest comedy moments of all time (especially the Spaceballs scene. Man, that guy can break fourth walls). Other moments I'd like to bring up are Seven Psychopaths (a movie I love way more than I probably should) when they're in the car and Marty/Colin Farrell is talking about how he's going to end his screenplay by going to the desert and talking throughout the rest of it and then that's exactly what they do. Seven Psychopaths is full of stuff like that, actually. Adaptation, the whole movie could really qualify. I'd also like to bring up the various Bugs Bunny fourth wall breaks and these moments from one of my favorite cartoons I watched as wee lad

    1. Adaptation is probably my favorite meta movie ever made. Every single thing he tells Tilda Swinton that he doesn't want in the movie, ends up in the movie. I remember reading a criticism of that film (by a mainstream reviewer, though I can't remember which one) and they said the film turns into everything the main character doesn't want it to turn into. I read that review and I'm like, "Yeah, that's the entire point..." Ha.

    2. And another one I almost forgot: "It's good to be king."

    3. Ha, yeah, Brooks really has a handle on it.

  9. This is like the list to end all lists, my friend!!! Perfect subject, and of what I've seen, I love these!!!

    Funny Games is like one giant fourth wall break, because the whole movie was built to be a direct conversation with the audience.

    Brilliant choices!

    1. Thanks buddy! I so appreciate your kind words! You're right, Funny Games really is one giant fourth wall break. Love those damn movies.

  10. Excellent list. Really glad to see School Daze get the top spot. I love the movie and I've never been sure how it plays for someone who isn't African American and hasn't been privy to that particular brand of intra-racial discrimination. So I'm pleased the ending resonated with you. Also happy to see Mel Brooks get so much love, especially the Blazing Saddles scene. I'll admit, however, that I was hoping to see Young Frankenstein get a mention. The numerous knowing glances and smirks Gene Wilder gives the audience are priceless.

    1. Thanks man. You know, there are so many Mel Brooks ones to choose from, that I felt it best to cap it at two. Still, the breaks in Young Frankenstein are priceless as well.

      If School Daze ended five minutes sooner, I honestly wouldn't have liked it. Which isn't to say it's a bad film, only that I didn't "get" a lot of it, for the reason you mentioned. But that final scene is as good as movie endings get.

      Lee often has trouble with his endings (Jungle Fever... da fuck), but I so appreciate what he did with Daze.

  11. Fucking Funny Games! I almost threw my TV when that happened. lol

    Okay, FG rage aside, this list is awesome.Persona and Fight Club being my favorites for drama, and I really loved all those comedy ones.

    I always liked the "Unlike other Robin Hoods, I can speak with an English accent" scene from Robing Hood: Men in Tights. And that quick shot of Into The Wild when Emile Hirsch "bites" the camera after saying "You're the apple of my eye."

    1. That apple one from Into the Wild is a lot of fun. You can tell they just did that one the spot and Penn was probably like, "Yeah, fuck it, keep it in," in editing.

      When I saw that rewind scene in Funny Games, I didn't know what the hell was going on.

  12. You've named most of the ones I would have thought of. Most any Mel Brooks movie could have qualified. When Bob Hope and Bing Crosby would cameo in each other's movies they would usually look to the camera.

    In Hot Shots Part Deux they had a scene with Charlie Sheen narrating ala his role in Platoon. He's on a boat on a river and passes by Martin Sheen narrating ala his role in Apocalypse Now. They yell to each other "I loved you in Platoon/Apocalypse Now!"

    Not sure if this counts since they are "outtakes", but they are shown in the film itself - A Bug's Life has one where one of the characters smacks into the camera, leaving some gunk on the lens...except that there is no camera there because it's an animated movie.

    1. That's a funny moment in Hot Shots Part Deux. There's a fine line between breaking the fourth wall and being meta. Hell, I'm not even sure what the difference is myself, but that's still a damn good scene.

  13. I love that one in Fight Club - it stands out from the movie but it never disrupts the whole thing. I almost wish Fincher would do this kind of stuff more often, especially that he often uses humor in his films. Related to Fincher, one of my favorite examples of fourth wall break is Kevin Spacey talking to the audience in House of Cards, which is probably my favorite thing in the whole series.

    1. It's such a great little moment in Fight Club. And the House of Cards ones are perfect too. I love when he just gives a little look to the camera. Those are even more fun than his monologues. Fuckin' Frank Underwood.

  14. Such a fun list with great, great choices. The inclusion of Death Proof is lovely.

    Agreed on Man On the Moon. The unpredictable comedy of Andy Kaufman really shines through Milos Forman's aesthetic on that film.

    One of my favorite fourth wall breaks is in Monty Python's Meaning of Life. The 'Middle of the Film' segment is so bizarre. I love it.

    1. Thanks man. Nice to hear some additional praise for Man on the Moon. I hadn't seen that one in years, but when I rewatched it recently, it really resonated with me. No one ever really knew that guy.

  15. Ooo, lots of great ones on your list, Alex! I loved the scenes from Wayne's World and Ferris Bueller's Day Off, and of course Fight Club's! In general, the most recent one to come to my mind is basically all of House of Cards with Kevin Spacey's character.

    1. Thanks Kristin! Spacey's fourth wall breaks are priceless on that show. I loved the way he ended the first episode of the second season. "No, I haven't forgotten about you." Ha.

  16. The Ferris Bueller fourth wall breaks will always mean so much to me because, as a young kid, that was the first time I realized you COULD break the fourth wall. It was such a rush! And I love your thoughts on School Daze as a whole. All so true.

    I might submit Ted Striker's immaculate fouth wall break in "Airplane!" To this day when something bad happens in my life I'll look at the non-existent camera and think/say "What a pisser."

    1. I LOVE "What a pisser." Honestly a whole post like this could be dedicated to fourth wall breaks in parody films alone. So many classics to choose from.

      And I'm with you on Ferris Bueller. Probably the first film that made me aware that characters were "allowed" to do that.

  17. I gotta say, I always do like it when all of a sudden a fourth wall break happens in film. My favorite is probably Goodfellas, due to the fact it is one of my favorite movies, and I just love mob movies in general.

    My top 5 of all time would be:
    1. Goodfellas
    2. Fight Club
    3. Ferris Bueller's Day Off
    4. American Psycho
    5. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

    At least I think American Psycho counts. He may not be directly looking at us, but I think Patrick Bateman is addressing us. Anyway, I also like a lot of the other ones on here as well. I really like the separation of the genres, it just seems like a good idea, to give each category competition amongst itself. And I have to say, this is one of your best lists yet I think, really fun and enjoyable. Like 4th wall breaks usually are, just feels like now that you know the characters, for they usually happen at the end, you can now have conversations directly with them. I always liked that at least. Keep up the great work.

    1. Wow, thanks man, that's so kind of you to say! The inclusion of Patrick Bateman is an interesting choice on your part. I've never thought of him as talking directly to us, but hey, who the hell knows with that guy. Ha.

      I love that end scene in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, it just barely missed the mark here. The Goodfellas one is so jarring, because he's been such a constant narrator throughout and then BAM, he's talking right to us. Such a bold choice.

      Thanks again for reading and commenting, Geordan!

  18. Awesome list! Funny Games, Annie Hall, Psycho and Ferris Bueller are some of my favorites. I'd add Alfie and The Wolf of Wall Street, but I still need to watch School Daze and Schizopolis.

    1. Was very tempted to include The Wolf of Wall Street, but I didn't want the list to be too Scorsese heavy, you know?


  20. Don't forget Tom Jones (1963)!

    1. It's a good one! But not one of my favorites.