Breaking the Fourth Wall: From Alfie to The Wolf of Wall Street

fourth wallAh, the fourth wall: that invisible barrier between the audience and the stage that allows us to suspend disbelief.

Breaking the fourth wall – addressing the audience directly – is probably as old as theatre. After all, doesn’t Puck turn to the audience at the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream to assure us everything will be okay?

If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber’d here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend:
if you pardon, we will mend:
And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearned luck
Now to ‘scape the serpent’s tongue,
We will make amends ere long;
Else the Puck a liar call;
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.

Some audiences are still surprised by the sudden breaking of the fourth wall. If you think it’s a relatively recent development that applies only to very meta, hippy-dippy, avant-garde, off-off-off Broadway stuff, you’ve obviously forgotten what it’s like to be at a panto.

Breaking the fourth wall is less common in cinema, but it does happen, most recently in Leonardo DiCaprio’s asides in Wolf of Wall Street (2013). Here are some classic moments when movie characters take a moment to chat to us.

In Alfie (1966), Alfie (Michael Caine) explains the difference between a single bird and a married bird.

In Annie Hall (1977), Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) meets Marshall MacLuhan. If life were only like this.

Sometimes it can be a real pisser, as in Airplane! (1978), AKA Flying High.

Sometimes it’s as if the characters are just in a bad movie, like in Top Secret (1984) – a great movie.

At the beginning of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986), Ferris (Matthew Broderick) explains how he’s going to make his sick day count. After all, “life moves pretty fast; if you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

Rob Gordon (John Cusack) spends most of High Fidelity (2000) making lists and telling us about them.

Harry Lockhart (Robert Downey Jr.) thanks us for watching Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (2005). Gay Perry (Val Kilmer) is less interested.

 

Much like Alfie, skirt-chaser Charles Highway (Dexter Fletcher) tells us all about his technique and conquests in The Rachel Papers (1989).

In a very meta moment in Fight Club (1999), the Narrator (Ed Norton) draws attention to the fact that he’s in a movie when he explains how his, er, friend Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) likes to pass the time at work.

In perhaps an even more daring move in Funny Games (2007), a character uses a remote control to rewind the scene he’s in.

The fourth wall is broken several times in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), so there’s probably no better way to end the film.

After George Lazenby took over from Sean Connery as James Bond in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), he briefly acknowledges Connery at the film’s opening.

When he’s not wheeling-dealing, doing drugs or whoring, Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) has a lot of fun relating his wild life to the audience.

 

About the Author

Niall McArdle, County-Level Playboy and sometime Warrior Poet, is an Irish writer. Born and raised in Dublin, he is currently at large in Canada. His debut novel, Clay Bodies, will be published this year. When he’s not whining about the arts at silence, cunning, exile … maple syrup, he spends his time collecting rejection letters from The New Yorker. He is still waiting for Uma Thurman to return his calls.

9 thoughts on “Breaking the Fourth Wall: From Alfie to The Wolf of Wall Street

  1. Hi Niall, I enjoy your posts and your well-rounded knowledge of films. Hhmm. I’m not sure how I feel about the 4th wall and the breaking of them. It’s an interesting ‘rhetorical device’ for directors to employ. With your examples, they give the film an edgy, confidant quality–Wall Street and Fight Club in particular, it was cool to be privy to their insane world.

  2. One of the more serious examples of this is when the actors explain their characters to the audience in Berman’s “Passion.” Of your picks, I especially liked “Alfie.”

  3. Thanks Niall. Shirley Valentine did an interesting take on this, adapting from the stage play, having Pauline Collins speak repeatedly and by name to her kitchen wall. But my favorite example is from a musical, a genre which breaks 4th, 5th, and 6th walls as a matter of course. Charles Gray’s criminologist repeatedly breaks into the “Time Warp” production number in Rocky Horror to give instructions, getting more and more involved each time.

  4. Great theme Niall. I still rate Michael Caine as the best ever ‘to camera’. He is just so natural, and it feels conversational. The ‘Funny Games’ scene endures as well, partly because Haneke’s film was so disturbing, and the video trick such a surprise.
    Regards from Norfolk, Pete.

  5. Fun list, Niall! I especially love the Top Secret! and Airplane! clips–thanks for including them! May I add one of my own–I think it was The Road to Morocco where the camel says something like “This is the screwiest picture I’ve ever been in.” Ya gotta love talking camels. 😀

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