Voice-Overs in Film

“…and God help you if you use voice-over in your work, my friends. God help you. That’s flaccid, sloppy writing. Any idiot can write a voice-over narration to explain the thoughts of a character.” -from Adaptation by Charlie Kauffman. It occurred to me many of my favorite movies have a common denominator. They contained excellent voice-overs. It is one reason I admire Martin Scorsese. If done correctly, voice-overs are an effective way to give a new layer to the character, accentuate the setting, thread plots which move forward and backward in time, and link the visual narrative with the auditory narrative. It helped define film noir

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There’s a danger with using voice-overs. Many bad films use an open narration to tell what should be shown instead. Or, when a long film needs to be edited, a voice-over bridges a gap. We see faster than we hear. With bad voice-overs, the pacing is affected because action is faster than verbal description. The visual has to slow down and “wait” for the oral description to catch up. When a film uses voice-overs, there should be a sensory balance between eyes and ears. Consider two classics with effective voice-overs. In Trainspotting, the punk-rock score, the revved up narration by “Rent Boy” Renton (Ewan McGregor) matches with the frenzy of a heroin user. In this case, the craziness of the exterior contrasts with a calmer interior narration. The opposite occurs in Goodfellas.  Character Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) provides the inner trauma of his character through narration while the exterior world sees a hard mask. He shares the private world of the mob and the audience is privy to a subculture. By the time of Henry Hill’s devolution, we feel empathy. Scorsese just did this last year with The Wolf of Wall Street. In fact, Martin Scorsese implements voice-overs in most all his movies.  The Age of Innocence contains a  favorite voice-over. The luscious language of Edith Wharton from her Pulitzer winning novel about the Gilded Age, for me, accentuates the beauty of the cinematography and the élite world of high society in New York City.

I respect filmmakers who challenge audiences by making us active participants. You’ve seen Terrence Malick, Wes Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, and Orson Welles use the trope. As a genre, a characteristic of the Film Noir is the voice-over. The Maltese Falcon and Sunset Boulevard among fifty others made the voice-over famous.  If you would like to learn more about voice-overs, I recommend this four-minute video about Malick’s use of the voice-over.

The Coen Brothers love voice-overs. Which one is your favorite? The Big Lebowski? I found Réka Kassay, Levels of Narration in Coen Brothers Movies fascinating.

 

The most popular example is Morgan Freeman’s voice-over in Shawshenk Redemption. I have my favorites, but I’d be interested in knowing yours. What are a few of your favorite voice-overs?

52 thoughts on “Voice-Overs in Film

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  1. My favorite voice-over work is from Scorsese’s CASINO. Sam ‘Ace’ Rothstein’s and Nicky Santoro’s differing voice-over perspective (via De Niro and Pesci) covering the last days of The Mob’s Vegas, as they bounce off each other throughout the film, is simply wonderful. Right up until Nicky is interrupted, that is, when his rather brutal end arrives.

    1. right up to the “aaawwwkkk”. A fine example, of course. Just the little scene you sent over. One. only DeNiro could be cool wearing a tangerine suit. Two. Love Scorsese’s scores. Three. The bombing of the car was beautifully shot. Four. It’s brutal. Thanks, Michael!

  2. An excellent topic Cindy!! I also love voice-overs, esp when they are used as a way to break the fourth-wall (when you mentioned The Wolf of Wall Street, I thought that was a highly effective and unusual blend of the narrator’s voice suddenly switching to such an instance — e.g. whenever Jordan was telling us what was going on in his mind in the office itself, I thought these led out of the overlaid narrative so well it was crazy). Shawshank Redemption, definitely an obvious pick. So well done. And Morgan Freeman’s voice is just classic.

    I actually recently saw Paul Thomas Anderson’s ‘Inherent Vice’ and I loved the voice over in that one.

    1. Thank you, Tom–that fourth wall. It seems to work well when the pace is fast and if it’s consistent. There are so many varying examples. I think of Sunset Blvd, for example, and our narrator is dead, floating in the pool. Then your example, when the narrator looks right at you as in Wolf. I haven’t seen PTA ‘Inherent Vice’, but since it’s a film noir, I would not only expect it, I would be disappointed if the trope were not included. 🙂

    1. I think great books that are adapted, the language is beautiful and the adapted screenplay may want to pay homage to the book form. I think this is scary because adaptations often fail to recognize the film is it’s own form of art.

      1. If I see a movie that’s made from a book, I’m usually interested because it means that the movie makers were ‘inspired’ – and the movie has something to say. Both are often factors for great movie making. I hope.

        1. They sure hope so! Both authors and filmmakers do. Unfortunately for the filmmaker, their work infrequently surpasses the book’s story. There’s something about words on a page and the inner imagination and the time it takes to read a story vs. watch a two hour film that allows written narration to root in the heart. I like both!

  3. Bull Durham, A Shock to the System come to mind. If on screen narration counts, Peachy Carnahan does a great job leading into and out of the story in The Man Who Would be King.

  4. Interesting article Cindy. The two I like best have already been mentioned (GoodFellas and Casino) but I really liked the one in Fight Club; I think it really adds to the flavour of the film and being ‘inside the mind’ of a character was never more relevant!

  5. What an incredible post, Cindy! I’m right with you on voice overs. They need to be perfect, otherwise they can distract from a perfectly fine film. I think one of my favorite examples of perfectly used voice over was Nicholson’s in About Schmidt.

    1. Welcome, Andrew, thank you. Never thought of About Schmidt, but I think it works. Since the character is a botched-up and can’t communicate well, his internal narration helps us understand the crippled man. I once had a neighbor across the street who had Cerebral Palsy. He lived with a brother and got about town on his bike and was alert and “just fine” on the inside although it was virtually impossible to have a conversation with him. I thought it very cruel (Hawkins another example) where external and internal parts of the human are out of synch. My point, I think in films, the voice-over can help show what’s on the inside.

  6. Great topic once again Cindy! I think the use of voice-over is tricky, but like you said, if done correctly, it can be VERY effective. All About Eve and Shawshank Redemption are both great examples. Abbi mentioned Fight Club and I think that’s one of the best use of an unreliable narrator on film.

      1. Oh right, one of my fave Blindspots of the year (#2 spot in fact). I forgot to mention that I adore Cate Blanchett’s narration in the beginning of LOTR, sooo mesmerizing and it always made me want to be transported to Middle Earth!

  7. A really original approach to film. I think “The Big Lebowski” would be my favourite, but I am a little biased because of Walter Sobchak, one of the cinema’s greatest characters.

  8. I agree that some of my favorite films use t voice over to excellent effect. Mean Streets, goodfellas, Blade Runner, Sunset Boulevard, Farewell My Lovely. Apocalypse Nlearlyow and inummerable others. Sure, it is sometimes used as a bridging device in cases where there us insufficient usable footage to tell the story clearly, but Charlie Kauffman, who I have little regard for as a writer, is full of it when he condemns its use outright. It’s like when some director says than anyone who uses a zoom lens is an amateu

    1. I agree it’s subjective. You mentioned Bladerunner and I’ve read both lovers and haters of the voice over. I think of Spielberg who uses Zoom effectively and Hitchcock, obviously, with his Dolly Zoom. What do you think of that shot where the world spins but the camera is focused on an object or person? For example, in Titanic when Jack and Rose are dancing on the table in the immigrant quarters and you see Rose’s reaction to spinning around in a circle. I don’t like it.

      1. i didnt like that shot in titanic either. but im not against any shot or lens if it solves whatever problem the director is facing. the biggest offender in the overuse of zooms may be michal winner, but i get a kick out of his excesses, especially when he goes from a low angle in a valley to charles bronson atop a mountain peak. visconti, on the other hand, is a master of the zoom. the one shot i always hate is the overhead shot of two heads on pillows with the girl’s hair spread out and the guy facing her in profile. i also hate it when a guy and a girl rush into an apartment and heave themselves at each other, gnawing faces like they are half-starved.

        1. Very interesting, Bill! I like Zwick’s use of the overhead to exaggerate the power and pattern of architecture such as in Elizabeth 1 & 2. I don’t mind the sensation of feeling like a bird moving in and out and up and down. I think of the CGI Beowulf in particular. I agree with cannibalistic and hair spread on the pillow. Hey, what’s the western film, it might be Clint Eastwood (The Good, The Bad, The Ugly?) where people are on a train and they are eating food and the close up is their lips as the eat. I remember as a girl watching that and it has stuck with me for decades….

  9. Hi, Cindy:

    Cool topic and dissertation! 🙂

    I’ll go old school with Trevor Howard’s opening brief voice introduction of Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton) in ‘The Third Man’. A great little thumbnail of Holly’s naivete entering a strange land. Also, the matter of fact narration throughout Roger Corman’s ‘The St, Valentine Day Massacre’. Still one the best films around pertaining to the mechanics and build up to that fateful day!

    M. Emmett Walsh’s brief vocal work at the start of ‘Blood Simple’ kind of says it all. Likewise, Jean Shepard’s occasional vocal asides and add ons in ‘A Christmas Story’.

    High marks for Martin Sheen’s asides throughout ‘Apocalypse Now’. And their letting the audience glimpse at the tortured soul of Capt. Willard. And his slow understanding of his quarry, Col. Kurtz. Also agree with Michael regarding ‘Casino’. And a surprisingly human and heartfelt piece of voice work by usually annoying Richard Dreyfuss in ‘Stand By Me’!

    1. Hi Kevin. Yes, to Richard Dreyfuss in Stand by Me. I thought about Martin Sheen’s son in Platoon. I like Charley’s voice over to his grandmother…. Great call on ‘The Third Man’.

  10. I typically think voiceovers can often be a lazy excuse to tie up a movie together, but when used properly can really better a picture. Hell, my two favorite movies (Apocalypse Now and Barry Lyndon) utilize narrations to the maximum level to add more than plot points.

  11. Interesting post!

    I think there should be a distinction between classic voiceovers, the thoughts of an onscreen character spoken out loud as the thoughts are taking place; and narration, a person telling the story who sometimes is and sometimes isn’t a character in the movie. In Barry Lyndon, for example, the narrator is a third person (Thackeray, presumably) who never appears. Amadeus is rather unique in that most of movie is actually Salieri’s confession to the priest who visits him in the asylum. The start of the movie is the present and has no narration. Once Salieri begins his confession, we see what he describes took place in the past, and at several points we are returned to the present, in the asylum, to hear Salieri’s additional comments and see the priest’s reaction. After Salieri’s confession is over, the narration ends, and so does the movie, with Salieri oddly absolving the priest rather than the other way around.

    One of the funnier spoofs of film noir voiceovers was in Firesign Theater’s “Nick Danger, Third Eye,” when Danger interrupts his narration of a detective story to ask, in a tinny voice, “How had she gotten involved with that slimy weasel Rococo, and how do I make my voice do this?”

    1. Ha Ha! Nice John. Yes, there are many variations, aren’t there? Distinctions made between a narrator and a voice over is a jumbled filled box, yes? There’s ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ with Clarence and God referring from time to time George Bailey or the grandfather reading a story in ‘The Princess Bride’ or Stingo’s narration in ‘Sophie’s Choice’. To counter, there’s ‘Double Indemnity’ and ‘The Third Man’. The distinction for you in classic voice over is the voice over happens as the story is taking place. It’s slippery, the delineation between black and white definitions when so many modern films do a bit of both.

      1. Oh they may do both, all right, but I note Kassay’s essay is titled “Levels of Narration,” rather than “Levels of Voiceovers,” so I think a distinction can be made. Maybe another way to look at is that a voiceover tells the audience what is happening when nothing visible is happening. Some of the corniest examples are those in which the protagonist is paralyzed, tied up, or trying to perform some sort of telekinesis. Nothing is happening on screen except perhaps their eyes rolling around, and we hear them think out loud, “Must…reach…my…power bands…” or some such nonsense. 🙂 I recall Dune (1984) had some particularly horrid examples; the movie was so bad that the director ran for cover and eventually didn’t even appear in the credits.

  12. I do enjoy the voice-over in Trainspotting, but I’m not sure if that’s based on actual merit or because I have such admiration for Irvine Welsh’s original prose and it’s a connection to that. I’m happy the screenplay kept close to the original though, I can’t imagine it being anywhere as near effective without it.

  13. watching “Little Big Man” right now. dont know if ill make it to the end, Dustin Hoffman’s incessant voiceover in that annoying old-man voice is driving me crazy, making me hate the movie.

  14. I really adored this post. It is a topic of interest to me, because I am working on a project that employs voice over. I have always had a “love it or hate it” attitude towards voice-over. When it works, I love it. However, it seems live very few films make it work. It is interesting that you mentioned Scorsese and Kubrick. I tend to think of both of these directors when I think about voice-over. Scorsese is an extremely efficient storyteller, and his voiceovers seem to add layers of meaning that dance perfectly with his visuals. Stanley Kubrick also uses voiceovers in interesting ways, but they seem much more straightforward (with a few exceptions). It is a testament to his genius that they work.

    1. I really love your posts in general. They are so informative! In Cold Blood, the book, Capote, and the case are fascinating. Thank you so much for stopping by today. Voice overs. In general, avoid them! However, good luck with your project 🙂

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