L13FC: Voice-over Narration

Welcome back! It’s the thirteenth and time to talk about the movies.

Many movie buffs realize there are more bad voice-overs than good ones. Telling the plot of the story as if the audience can’t figure it out visually is insulting and detracts from the scene. The function of good voice-overs is to provide a contextual layer that enhances the themes of the story or magnifies a character in a way that is not seen with the visual narrative. If you ask for a top 10 list of best voice-overs in film, many would include classics by Billy Wilder, Kubrick, Coppola, Scorsese, Malick, Fincher, and the Cohen Brothers. Some have argued that Shawshank Redemption and Million Dollar Baby with Morgan Freeman‘s soothing voice is technically bad voice-over narration. I admit it’s true. Imagine the pair without his hallmark voice. Would the stories still be touching? Yes. Did the voice-over help us see the story on another level or reveal the principal character in a way that enhanced him? Nope. Did it complicate the point of view? Yes. (And still, I love both films anyway.)

The best voice-over narrations reveal the inner battles of the character. The tension and the eerieness catapults to great heights when the audience is bound to the mind of a maniac like Alex in Clockwork Orange. Better yet is when the layers unfold to reveal the unreliable narrator or one who speaks from the grave like Joe Gillis. That’s a dimension that enhances the story.

One Great Example 

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Apocolypse Now (1979) is a film with great voice-over narration. Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) journeys into the forbidden inner realm of Cambodia with orders to assassinate the Army’s fallen angel, Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando). Willard ruminates about Kurtz. He struggles with the morality of his mission. The jungle and the river and the motley crew who travel with him seep into his system. Without the voice-over narration, we would not be privy to the unusual relationship that grows between Willard and Kurtz even though they have never met. By the end of the film, no voice-over is necessary. Our anticipation of meeting Kurtz combined with the exoticism of the heart of darkness and fueled by the singing of Jim Morrison provided one of the more captivating climaxes in cinematic history. We have been primed to wonder if Kurtz is crazy and we are horrified to the extent at which war has pillaged the minds and landscape along the way.

One Bad Example 

Molly’s Game (2018)With a voice-over style that reminded me of The Wolf of Wall Street, the fast-talking, no-nonsense narration by the principal character Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain) interjects in and out of the film and shares her story as though she were giving an interview to a reporter.  Explaining the lingo of poker players with similar on-screen graphics used in The Big Short to simplify the concept of the game for audience members who might not know the culture of poker was debatably effective. Jessica’s voice-over was monotone. She’s smart and tough just like a man, but her narration lacked a personality. This is unfortunate since the story-line about the real-life Molly Bloom is fascinating.

The Molly Bloom voice-over narration didn’t help.  Especially when she shared scenes with her two leading men who gave the best performances–Idris Elba as her attorney Charley Jaffey, and Kevin Costner as her father Larry Bloom. Elba and Costner breathed life into their characters displaying them as smart and tough, but their human frailties and emotions were present throughout the film. Meanwhile, Jessica Chastain’s Molly hides behind a hard shell, but she comes across as a robotic doll. The best performance I’ve seen Chastain give was as Celia Foote in The Help. Ironically, she shines best as an actress when she’s not smart or driven.

Please, won’t you share your favorite voice-over and explain how the voice-over enhances the film or magnifies a character with dimension?  Or, what’s a bad example you’ve seen lately?  

53 Comments on “L13FC: Voice-over Narration

  1. I have to go with ‘Goodfellas’ as my favourite film with a voice over.
    “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster”.

    What a line, and Ray Liotta continues to put the events into context at various points in the film.
    “For us to live any other way was nuts. To us those goody-good people who worked shitty jobs for bum paychecks and took the subway to work and worried about bills, were dead. They were suckers. They had no balls. If we wanted something, we just took it.”

    Then right at the end, he sums up his view of ‘going straight’.
    “And that’s the hardest part. Today everything is different, there’s no action…I have to wait around like everyone else. Can’t even get decent food…right after I got here, I ordered some spaghetti with marinara sauce, and I got egg noodles with ketchup. I’m an average nobody…gets to live the rest of my life like a schnook.”

    How I love that film! 🙂
    Best wishes, Pete. x

  2. Some favorite voice-overs, just off the top of my head, would be the use of Addison DeWitt’s savage wit to tell the story of “All About Eve” and the collective shared voices featured in “The Thin Red Line”, with my least favorite being “Taxi Driver” which is florid and overwritten considering Travis Bickle is relentlessly portrayed as something of a semiliterate (“God’s lonely man”….really.). The most unnecessary is from Kubrick’s “The Killing”, which was a fine thriller without the docudrama affectation. I suspect “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” might be improved as well without the narration, and would be classically terrifying (not that anyone asked) without the dopey wraparound “let’s call the FBI!” bookending.

    • I’m glad you mentioned they buttery, snobby voice of Addison DeWitt–a film with his sardonic wit adding a layer and the complexity of the viperous industry.
      Many love “Taxi Driver” and the insights of an unlikely hero, but it worked for me. Nice call with “The Thin Red Line” and I agree with “The Killing” that it was unnecessary.
      What do you think of film noirs and their trademark voice-overs? Are you a Bogart fan?

  3. If it’s historical I don’t mind commentary – and it can even be necessary – but can detract from immersion. In my favorite movie Field of Dreams, it works very nicely.

    • Ahh, I love that film. Corny and sappy and utterly charming. I never tire watching it and I’ve seen it probably 10 times. It really strikes a cord.

  4. I think the voice over in Apocalypse Now made the movie while the voice over in Goodfellas was the movie.

    • That’s a fine way of stating it. And aptly true. I think of threads and AN needed Willard’s voice over to tie it all together. In Goodfellas, it was more–it’s one of the only times when the voice over was more powerful than the visual story itself. Excellent call.

    • OH, but it’s not about me. It’s about you! What do you think about voice overs? Any favorites? Most love Sunset Blvd, Bogart detective films, Trainspotting, The Big Lebowski, Saving Arizona, Fight Club, The Shawshank Redemption, The Princess Bride, Annie Hall, Stand by Me, oh, the list is endless. Do you think they distract or help a film? Do you as the audience like it when someone is talking to you as you are watching a film?

      • Well I think you covered that. The answer is depends. There are some movies where its interesting and acceptable. I talking about travelogues where you have a combination of voice over and interviews in real time. I know that’s different to movies you are specifically talking about but its a place where its good. Movies, I just accept when that’s done and it and haven’t found it irritating in any movie. I guess I’m not as focused on that aspect as you’d be as a teacher of the arts. 🙂

        • My favorite travelogue show is Anthony Bourdain. He goes to amazing places and writes his own script (I think he still does)bringing in the culture of the area and tieing it to food. He has my dream job.

  5. I like the voice over in The Shawshank Redemption and Million Dollar Baby. Sure they became clichéd and maybe you’re right they served no purpose but I still smile thinking about some of those lines “It’s the magic of risking everything for a dream that nobody sees but you. ” All the ones you mentioned Apocalypse Now, Goodfellas and A Clockwork Orange are great. I also like The Wolf of Wall Street, The Princess Bride, Fight Club, The Big Short, Memento, any Wes Anderson, Adaptation, American Psycho, Trainspotting, The Apartment, The Usual Suspects, Badlands, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Deadpool. But I am at a loss for which to say are best and why. I will say Blade Runner originally has that bad voice over that Ford and Scott were dead against but it does have a good line or two. “The report would be “routine retirement of a Replicant”, which didn’t make me feel any better about shooting a woman in the back.”

    • You managed to list the heavy hitters. I am glad you added The Apartment to the list. Trainspotting is exceptional–Rent Boy’s maniacal commentary on society adds more to the film than crack-heads running around Glasgow. You mentioned “the good line or two” and while that’s always nice, I don’t believe it is enough to carry a film. Freeman plays that Negro Wise-Man stereotype and his personality brings comfort. He’d be a great father. I never tire of his face or presence in a film.
      As always, I love it when you stop by and share your thoughts, Lloyd.

      • Thanks Cindy and I certainly agree about a good line or two does not a voice over narration make. Just sharing the diamonds in the rough. 🙂

  6. Any Wes Anderson movie and Fight Club for sure. Something about Norton’s voice made it sound great. Or perhaps it was just cos it was hilarious ;D

    Seeing all these comments makes me realise how little I have seen. Gawd I have Apocalypse Now sitting 2 metres from me on BR yet I still haven’t watched it.

    The voice-over in Memento is pretty cracking cos of the pace, and also cos the movie would make little sense without it. I liked the narration in Deadpool 2 as well. I’m sure I have seen others but none are coming to mind. Like I said there is a freaking sea of movies I need to see and many classic directors I have never heard of.

    Oh! I just thought of one, its based on a book and the narration doesn’t really narrate the movie, more the mental state of the main character, kinda like how you said the best ones are used. Images by Altman, its a bloody good movie with more than a few wiffs of Repulsion.

  7. while i agree that the voiceover made goodfellas. i think the voiceover in Scorses Mean Streets is much better, and creates a level of characterization that ould not exist without it. The voice over in Goodfellss functioned primarily as entertainment. it didnt add a lot of depth to the character. Also, the film is infeior in every way to the Godfather trilogy. Apocalypse Now is another story altogether. It is a beautiful mess of a movie, and the narration gives it focus. I also like all Cindys examples, but disagree with her about Chastain in Mollys Game, which I believe was her best performance since her first movie. You mentioned bogard. The voiceover in Dark Passage wae s essential, since we didnt see Bogarts face for the longest time. I liked the voiceover cut of Blade runner better than the subsequent versions without it. One that wasnt mentioned yet is All That Jazz, another essential use of voiceover to deepen our understanding of the character.

    • Hi Bill. Great call mentioning All That Jazz and Dark Passage. I like that we disagree about Molly’s Game. Chastain is an interesting actress–I hope she accepts more roles that show her ability to diversify. I think she has been, as of late, put in the tough-broad box where she is trying too hard to be as tough as a man. It’s a turn off to me. I think she’s right up there alongside Charlize Theron with regards to talent,
      but unlike Theron, she loses her femininity when she’s playing it hard.

      • i think chastain is uber skilled and does exactly what her director tells her to do. when she has a good director, she is great, but when she has a bad director, she is terrible. as for theron, i have never seen any evidence of acting ability in her work.

        • Really? Wow. Theron? That’s quite a statement. Monster and North Country didn’t impress you, eh? I liked her in Mad Max Fury Road, too. While I didn’t care for her karate chops much, (not like Uma Thurman), Atomic Bomb was fun after drinking several beers for mindless escapism.

  8. after re reading the comments above, i had a few thoughts to share. The voiceover in film noir and detective films comes from the importance of the narrative voice in the literature. We cant read Chandler without hearing the voice of Marlowe, so it is apt that the voice be pervasive throughout the marlowe films. Taxi Driver bowed much of its voiceover narration from mickey spillane’s novel. One Lonely Night. Movies told in flashback need some kind of voiceover exposition, and Sunset Blvd is an excellent example, while Invasion of the Body Snatchers had it forced upon it because of the addition of a prolog and epilog that seiously compromised the film director Siegal is one to tell his story through action, not exposition. Malick was a slick user of voiceover narration from the beginning, with Badlands and Days of Heaven. His multiple voiced narration for the thin Red line, however, was heavily influenced by Kubricks first war picture, Fear and Desire. the funniest use of voiceover is the Creeping Terror. Much of the soundtrack for the film was lost or destroyed, so the whole story had to be told through voiceover narration, a crutch we find employed in many low budget movies that cant afford fixing sound problems in post sync.

    • You make an excellent point, Bill. I love the classic film noirs (Double Indemnity) and Raymond Chandler established the need for the narrator in his detective Marlowe. Bogart’s voiceover was perfect. I didn’t know about the influence of One Lonely Night on Taxi Driver. Another film that had that voice-over, the hard-boiled feel was Sin City. One could say it, too, was influenced by Spillane or Chandler.

      • sin city was a joke, an insult to the lexicon of noir. from one lonely night “some day a real rain is going to come and wash all the scum off the street”

        • Okay. It was a mashup that didn’t work for you. Got it. I’d like to see a good version of a film noir today. The last one I saw which grabbed me was L.A. Confidential. That was a long time ago. Did that one irk or work for you?

          • not at all, it was a GQ movie.. I didnt believe in any of the characters and the production was high gloss. If we are to approach cinema as an at form, is imperative that we be consistent with definitons of the esthetics regarding genre. It is as unlikely that a true film noir be made today as it is unlikely that a new master of impressionism emerges from France. But the term film noir hs been degraded to a marketing ploy to sell dvds of obscure crime films from the 40s and 50s, even though they may look more like episodes of televisions untouchables than the films of phil karlson, joseph h lewis, or edgar ulmer.

  9. I realize you are a traditionalist and “definitions of the esthetics regarding the genre” is an absolute idea–I’m presuming that’s what you think. Now I’m thinking about time and technology and the influence of the originals on subsequent directors and writers. They exist in a different generation and their twists and slants to the genre would seem to mutate or devolution of the genre, in your estimation. But what if their mutation is a part of the evolutionary process of filmmaking? Remember F. Scott Fitzgerald said to “write to the current generation” or something along those lines.

    I just finished watching the 1998 “Dark City”. Alex Proyas said in the Director’s Cut version that he got his inspiration from the Maltese Falcoln (1941), Metropolis (1927), The Twilight Zone(1959), and Akira (1988) as an influence on the film. The set pieces were sold to producers of The Matrix (1999). Alex Proyas got the idea for the buildings changing and growing while the crew was moving set pieces around during the making of The Crow (1994). Surely the directors and producers of Inception were inspired by Proyas?

    I’m suggesting and contemplating about the progression of filmmaking as the decades roll by. Is anything original? Isn’t art whatever you can get away with?

  10. After the laborious drudgery of enduring her exhibition as the astronauts wife, Charlize Theron became a name to avoid. I wouldnt see anything in which she participated. Until Monster. I was conned into seeing that one because of the luminous reviews. Her performance was phony as hell, in every aspect from her makeup to her vocal mannerisms, especially in light of seeing the real person in a documentary. The last things i saw her in were the road and mad max 4, but i have no memory of her in either one, for which i am grateful. Thereon remains one of the few actors who I cannot stand, and I am fortunate that she nearly always chooses material that I would not patronize anyway.

  11. Art is the highest and noblest pursuit of mankind. Not something to get away with, although thats what the posers of contemporary film have been doing since the 90s, when the history of American cinema was reaching its end. The early directors weren[t copying anybody. They were searching for a way to tell stories in a new medium. As long as the studio system was still the primary mode of film making, their innovations were handed down through the generations, but always there were new factors to be dealt with, beginning with sound. Of all american directors, the greatest is John Ford, and much of what Peckinpah and Eastwood did was a continuation of fords explorations of the medium. to make a western without following Ford’s rules is to make a lousy western. That one you liked about the Indians was a prime example of what you get when you imitate Ford without understanding him. One of Fords worst movies, Cheyenne Autumn, was a work of genius compared to that film. for the first half, nearly every shot was a failed imitation of ford. So when our contemporary directors say they were inspired by Fritz Lang or some other classical innovative director, you can be pretty sure their work will have only a repulsive resemblance to that of the imitated director. Eastwood may be the last of the living directors with an aesthetic connection to the past. possibly because he learned his craft from don siegel, one of the most classical of American directors. Once the studio system collapsed in the seventies, there was a burst of maverick innovation that redefined the role of the director. They became individual artists, sometimes for the better but mostly for the worst. In the end, they either failed or sold out to mainstream concerns. Today movies do not exist. They have been replaced by digital files and truly, are comprised of whatever their manufacturers can get away with. They show little or no connection to any past. John Ford, William Wellman, Vincente Minnelli, Howard Hawks, Phil Karlson, Donald Siegel, Budd Boetticher, Alfred Hitchcock, Elia Kazan, Sam Peckinpah..those are the masters of American Cinema, and we are unlikely to see their kind again.

        • True, true. While the great ones you mentioned will always be the grand fathers of the industry, I can think of a few directors working today I admire and I’d like to think there will be up-and-coming directors who find a way and create interesting films that would please your discriminating tastes. But I won’t hold my breath.

        • Oh, before I forget, thank you for stopping by and spending some time with me today talking about the movies. You’re awesome.

  12. regarding your quote from fitzgerald. since we live in a timespan of roughly four generations, to which of these should we address our writing? i believe that it is unwise to write for posterity because those who enjoy posthumous fame will never know who their fans are.

  13. I agree that some voice overs are completely useless and do not contribute to the movie, while others even enhance them. It is all about story-telling and I guess some voice overs are essential so that the audience knows how a character was feeling internally when certain scenes are presented too. I guess some voice-over was used in “Catch Me If You Can” and maybe even in “Forrest Gump” (I cannot recall that well), but I was happy with them. I agree with you though on Molly’s Game voice-overs.

    • Welcome back! Oh, good, I’m glad you agree with me on Molly’s Game. What a cold character who shouldn’t have been. Forrest Gump is a classic because of the voice over. I think for that film it worked well because what he said was more than what the audience was looking at. It was a reflection about the time period and his evaluation of it, often with humor, albeit he wasn’t aware he said anything ironic or that he was satirizing the time period. That made him all the more child-like and endearing.

  14. American Beauty. Spoiler alert: it kinda had to be a voiceover since, you know, it was an afterlife retelling. Are we allowed to like Kevin Spacey movies? Well, I will regardless of the zeitgeist. Though his best work is clearly Usual Suspects (also a great voice over example). He might be a monster IRL but he’s got a cutting voice.

    • I feel the same way about Spacey. I won’t let him babysit, but he plays corrupted so well, why are we surprised when it spills over IRL?
      Anyway, I don’t judge people. I love his characters. Usual Suspect is a perfect example. Liked him in Seven and L.A. Confidential and Baby Driver and Beyond the Sea and House of Cards. He was one of my favorite actors. Is he dead? Will he be forgiven? I don’t know. His personal demons are his own and I’m not his God or his mother.
      I am glad you dropped around to comment, Shark.

      • I’m sure you’ve read some essays or articles on how multitudes of horrible people have created amazing art. The Woody Allen shit tested me but I rewatch Annie Hall and Manhattan all the time. They still make me LOL. I have boycotted giving money to some artists I find repugnant (Orson Scott Card for example). I wish I could say I uniformly do or don’t judge. But I’m crazy and that just is too sane.

  15. How do you feel about the Kubrickian style of voice-over narration? Kubrick claimed the following “Voice-over, on the other hand, is a perfectly legitimate and economical way of conveying story information which does not need dramatic weight and which would otherwise be too bulky to dramatize.” His voice-overs tend to be omniscient more often than not (which is rare), and I must admit that I’m not a fan of this. I admire Kubrick but his voice-overs always feel like what it is: I’m being told something instead of seeing it. Then again, who am I to argue with Kubrick?

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