Don’t Look Back: Five Classic Wall-Breaking Endings

fourth wall nights of cabiriaIt’s not uncommon for characters to break the fourth wall in film. It’s usually implemented as a narrative technique and used throughout a work, most famously in Annie Hall (1977), Funny Games (1999), Netflix’s House of Cards (2013) and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986). These common uses seek to involve the audience more closely with the main characters. The five masters I’ve chosen restrained from using the technique until the final moments of their films, and the results are effective in very different ways. These look-back moments very often change the nature of the entire film and force the audience to consider themselves in the context of the story and the viewing experience. Here are five classic wall-breaking endings.

Caution: spoilers abound.


2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, Dir. Stanley Kubrick)

Some wouldn’t consider the final shot of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey a breaking of the fourth wall. I’d counter by saying that every frame of this film is mathematically organised and planned. The fact that a star child foetus is looking directly at us before the credits roll is no accident. Kubrick didn’t do things by accident. The final sequence sees the evolution of man, begun in the opening sequence, progress to bizarre and futuristic heights. The monolith, which seems to be an evolutionary force throughout the movie, prompts Dr David Bowman (Kier Dullea) to morph into a decrepit old man. Kubrick cuts to an in utero foetus, floating in space and looking down at Earth. The star child rotates and in the final moment, is seen looking at the camera. Kubrick’s theme of evolutionary development is handed over to the audience, who look into their future: a new generation of humanity.


Nights of Cabiria (1957, Dir. Federico Fellini)

This neo-realistic comedy-drama from Fellini sees his wife, Giulietta Massini, playing Cabiria, a prostitute who sells her home to marry an eligible bachelor. Oscar (François Périer), the man in question, deceives her and in an emotional climax attempts to throw her off a cliff and steal her money. Escaping physically unscathed but in emotional ruins, Cabiria walks down a road, where children dance around her. Crying, and smiling, she turns to the camera to grin in an optimistic final image. Neorealism was known for its strict adherence to bare cinematic techniques, but here Fellini shows a taste of what was to come. He went on to become the most extravagant director in cinema, and this little directorial flourish shows this artistic evolution. He later used the technique in La Dolce Vita (1960), to drastically different effect.


Magnolia (2002, Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)

Paul Thomas Anderson’s sprawling, Altman-esque epic is filled with audacious and ambitious moments. At every turn, Anderson shows off a directorial flair and surprises his audience. His ending, then, may be his most surprising decision. A quiet moment in a film that’s so often biblically loud, this subtle emotional finale is one of cinemas best. At its conclusion, most of Magnolia’s conflict remains unresolved. The kaleidoscopic ensemble cast are strewn across the San Fernando Valley, emotionally distraught. Jim (John C. Reilly) enters Claudia’s (Melora Walters) apartment. Off camera, we hear him saying, “I just wanted to come here and say something”. The rest is muffled and drowned out by Aimee Mann’s ‘Save Me’, and we only see Claudia’s reaction. In Magnolia’s final second, frail and red-eyed, she turns to the camera and smiles. Her reaction speaks optimistically as a metonym for the whole ensemble. They’ll all be okay. My heart jumps every time.


La Dolce Vita (1960, Dir. Federico Fellini)

Federico Fellini’s ending to La Dolce Vita remains an enigma. Much has been written about the final scene – in which the characters fish a bloated monster out of the ocean – but its final shot is a seemingly unlockable mystery. Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni) sees an angelic young woman in the distance. They exchange waves, and she yells something to Marcello that he can’t hear. He smiles at her and waves goodbye, before running back to his debaucherous crew. She continues to smile back, and then turns to the camera. She perhaps represents the opposite of the sea-monster—the salvation to the monster’s corruption. Marcello chooses to ignore his salvation, and her look into the audience perhaps suggests that we are given the option to choose otherwise.


The 400 Blows (1959, Dir. Francois Truffaut)

The 400 Blows counters Magnolia’s optimism. This bittersweet debut from Francois Truffaut begins the tale of Antoine Doinel, a boy who belongs nowhere. An innocent delinquent who isn’t given love or care from his parents, Antoine ends up at a juvenile detention centre after he attempts to steal a typewriter from his father’s office. He makes a brisk escape under a fence and runs. After a lengthy tracking shot, Truffaut shows us the ocean, which Antoine has never seen before. Hoping that the ocean will hold the mysterious power of sanctuary, it, like everything else, disappoints him. Stuck between land—full of uncompromising adults—and the sea, Antoine turns to the audience. Of course, all we can offer is empathy. Truffaut’s ending also questions the very nature of cinema. Upon out realisation that we cannot help Antoine, the fallibility of the medium to fully encapsulate reality is exposed. The shot can also be read as an autobiographical embellishment. Everybody knows that Antoine Doinel is an incarnation of Truffaut himself. When Truffaut encountered these similar troubles, he turned to cinema, just as Antoine turns to the camera.

Feel free to share your interpretations and contribute other wall-breaking endings in the comments below!


About the Author

Jaymes Durante is the founder and editor of  He is currently completing his BA in film studies at Curtin University and is a member of the Australian Film Critics Association. Jaymes panics regularly at the thought that he may never reach the end of his ‘to watch’ list. Read his reviews here.


8 thoughts on “Don’t Look Back: Five Classic Wall-Breaking Endings

  1. Great article, Jaymes. There are strong arguments for and against whether or not these moments serve to break the fourth wall. But I think it’s the subtlety of these examples that makes them interesting, and, at the very least, they do utilise and highlight that space between fiction and reality to interesting effect.

  2. A Passion may be the most intriguing example of this, but the purest example of breaking the wall that I know of comes from Mel Brooks. I think it was High Anxiety where he actually has the camera track through a wall, but he did that kind of thing so often I may be remembering wrong. Of course, that was a comedy where you find direct address far more often, and it was done for pure farce. This does get me thinking of the way final images can alter meanings, whether they break the wall or not. Probably a good area to study. Thanks for raising the idea.

    • That’s a brilliant scene you’re referring to, Jon, in High Anxiety–I think the camera, as I remember it, breaks through a window as it’s trying to film Mel Brooks, Harvey Korman, Cloris Leachman & Co. at dinner at the institute (for the Very, Very Nervous!), and they all stare at the camera as it moves sheepishly away. Vintage Brooks.

      There was one other moment that I can think of off the top of my head in film where a silent breaking the fourth wall occurred, and that’s where Raymond Burr’s Lars Thorwald looks directly at the camera after noticing Grace Kelly showing the ring behind her back to Jimmy Stewart. So brilliant … Burr is looking at Stewart, but he’s also looking at us, the audience, accusingly, as we voyeuristically watch his private moments and accuse him as well. Just totally superb, layered filmmaking.

  3. This is a really interesting post, Jaymes, because it brings up the question of whether the fourth wall can be broken without speaking directly to the audience. In most, if not all of these cases, the characters are looking at the audiences … is the recognition there? I’d say it is. This unspoken technique has also been used in movies like Trading Places, where Eddie Murphy looks at the camera after being given an idiotic definition of pork bellies in relation to a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich (I always found this scene hilarious) and in Family Plot, in which Barbara Harris winks at the camera. I’ve always felt that Antoine Doinel is looking at the audience for help, rather than at some nonexistent offscreen object, so that example is particularly interesting. It’s really a question of whether these characters are looking into the camera deliberately rather than at something else with the camera just capturing their facial expressions. In the cases you’ve brought up, I think you’ve succeeded in showing that.

  4. I have to agree with Bill to a large extent about the examples you show here Jaymes. I have seen all the films (albeit a long time ago, in some cases) and I think the last moments you describe could also be seen in context of the plot, or particular scene. I tend to like the concept of breaking this wall though, whether in character, or not. I enjoy Michael Caine doing this in ‘Alfie’, chatting to the audience as if to a friend and confidante.
    Did you see this article by Niall McArdle in April?
    He gives the example of the rewind scene in ‘Funny Games’; surely the definitive breaking of the wall. Thanks for adding to the debate on this topic.
    Best wishes from England, Pete.

  5. I don’t believe the fourth wall is actually broken in these examples. The final shots are quite consistent with the movie as a whole. At the end of the 400 blows, Antoine Doinel is trapped in that final freeze frame, forever imprisoned in the film. As for the Fellini’s, a final gesture toward the camera doesn’t not break any wall between the world of the film and the world of the spectator. In order to break that barriar, the character should either break character or directly address the audience, preferably both. I think the purist example of this is Bergman’s A passion (aka The Passion of anna) in which each character has a scene where the actor describes his or her characters. and, at the end of the film, the narrator states, “This time his name was Andreas,” which asserts that Bergman’s films are all really about himself, using assumed names. In alfie, Michael Caine frequently addresses the audience directly, but remains in character. perhaps the most extreme breaker of the fourth wall is godard, whose entire ouvre is the reflection of movies upon themselves. A Woman is a Woman, for example, pretends to be a musical, but the director has neither the skills nor the resources to make a real musical, so the film emerges as his reflections of the genre more than a true example of the genre itself. Then there is the last half hour of maidstone, in which director Norman mailer, after completing the shooting of the film, leads a therapy session with the cast, and is later attacked with a hammer by one of the cast members who feels the movie is fraudulent and needs such an ending. Unless one is a Brechtian, breaking the fourth wall is serious business, and i really dont think it was Fellini ot Truffaut’s intention to pull his characters out of the context of the film and into the real world at the climax of the mentioned film. You do have a fascinating point, however, with 2001, but it is a kind of reverse breaking of the fourth wall. Instead of the movie entering the reality of the spectator, the spectator enters into the reality of the movie.

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