Five types of voice-over in feature film storytelling

This article is for anyone who would like to have a better grasp of the five types of voice-over found in such classics as Wings of Desire, Rashomon, and The Third Man. An original model presented in plain, jargon-free language with plenty of stills, full transcription of thoughts and spoken lines, and no filler or mystification.

Sarah Kozloff’s Invisible Storytellers: Voice-over Narration in American Fiction Film (1988) remains the best comprehensive work on the subject. It was a great improvement over Gérard Genette’s earlier discussion in Narrative Discourse. An Essay in Method (1980) in at least two respects: 1) Genette’s work was designed for literary study while Kozloff focuses on film; and 2) Genette uses such terms as homodiegetic, heterodiegetic, infradiegetic, extradiegetic and autodiegetic, the meanings of which can be difficult to disentangle and which Kozloff aptly characterizes as “tongue-twisting and obscure to the uninitiated” (p. 42).

However Kozloff’s otherwise excellent work does not in my view leave the reader with a clearly delineated typology. And her definition of voice-over is too narrow and restrictive: “oral statements, conveying any portion of a narrative, spoken by an unseen speaker situated in a space and time other than that simultaneously being presented by the images on the screen” (p. 5). My own more inclusive definition is also more specific and though lacking in the brevity usually prized in a definition, it can actually serve as an overview of the new typology proposed here. 

Voice-over is here defined as consisting of either:

  1. inner thoughts of a character shown on screen with his or her lips not moving;
  2. lines spoken by one character to another, at moments when the events described are shown on screen rather than the act of telling about them; 
  3. lines spoken by a character looking back at earlier events that are shown on screen but who is not seen in the act of telling about them; 
  4. lines spoken by an unseen, anonymous narrator; or
  5. lines ostensibly spoken by the filmmaker, not visible in the act of speaking them. 

Each of these varieties of voice-over will be illustrated by two examples. The images accompanying each example should be viewed as representative rather than indicative of the number of shots seen onscreen while the cited narration is heard.

1. Inner voice

The unspoken thoughts of a character in the fiction’s here and now, not addressed to any other character and generally heard only by the viewer who sees the character thinking the thoughts – though in exceptional cases, such as Wings of Desire, angels are able to hear these inner thoughts. In all such cases, frontal close-ups are essential for the viewer to see that the character’s lips are not moving.

Example 1: Wings of Desire / Der Himmel Über Berlin 

Wim Wenders, West Germany/France, 1987. 

The inner thoughts which we hear going through Peter Falk’s mind in these and other scenes, were recorded in a sound studio in Los Angeles, with Wenders directing over a long-distance telephone line, months after those scenes were shot. Wenders had sent Falk some pages to use for these voice-overs, but they just didn’t work. Instead of reading the prepared lines, Falk then said, “Let me close my eyes,” after which he invented the material that would eventually be used in the sound track of the film. Almost all of his inner monologues were improvised by Peter Falk, including the memorable lines spoken at the film shoot, as he sketches the woman wearing a yellow star, with the angel Damiel (played by Bruno Ganz) hearing all the inner thoughts:

Fig. 1: FALK (to woman extra wearing a yellow star): Excuse me. May I draw you? Fig. 2: (the woman looks back). Fig. 3: FALK: Sketch you? It’s alright?
Fig. 4: WOMAN: Yes, please. Fig. 5: (Damiel). Fig. 6: FALK: Okay. Don’t move. (Inner voice) I wonder if she’s Jewish. What a dear face.
Fig. 7: (the woman smiles). Fig. 8: FALK (inner voice). Interesting. What a nostril. Fig. 9: FALK (off camera, inner voice): A dramatic nostril. These people are extras. Extra people. DAMIEL hears Falk’s inner voice.
Fig. 10: FALK (inner voice): Extras are so patient. Fig. 11: FALK (inner voice): They just sit. WOMAN (inner voice, in German): I would have liked to see. Maybe he’ll give it to me? Fig. 12: FALK (inner voice): Extras. These humans are extras. Extra humans.
Fig. 13: WOMAN: Very good. Very nice picture. Fig. 14: FALK (inner voice): Yellow star means death. Why did they pick yellow? Sunflowers. Van Gogh killed himself. This drawing stinks. So what. No one sees it. Fig. 15: FALK (off camera, inner voice): Some day you’ll make a good drawing. I hope. I hope, I hope. 

Example 2: For Whom the Bell Tolls

Sam Wood, USA, 1943

In the final scene of this film about the Spanish civil war, the main character – Robert Jordan (Gary Cooper)  – has been wounded and remains behind at a mountain pass with a machine gun to hold off the approaching fascists while his lover, Maria, and other members of his Republican group make their getaway. We hear his inner thoughts in these final moments of the film, based on the 1940 Hemingway novel with the same title.

Fig. 16-18: ROBERT JORDAN (inner thoughts): God, that was lucky I could make her go. I don’t mind this at all now. They’re away. Think how it would be if they’d got Maria instead of you. Don’t pass out, Jordan. Think about America. I can’t! Think about Madrid. I can’t. Think about Maria. I can do that, all right. No, you fool! You weren’t kidding Maria about that talk of “now”! Now they can’t stop us…ever! She’s going on with me! Yes! Right!

2. Character addresses character

In a given shot or series of shots, one character addresses another or two characters may address one another, while what we see onscreen is a setting evoked by the spoken lines and in which the spoken lines would not be heard. The audio would naturally be recorded independently of the camerawork.

Example 1: Hiroshima Mon Amour

Alain Resnais, director; Marguerite Duras, scenario and dialogues; France, 1959

In this film’s opening sequence, we see the intertwined torsos of two lovers and hear in voice-over what they say to one another, while images of Hiroshima are shown onscreen. Music is heard throughout this sequence. The male character speaks French with a Japanese accent. My translations from the French.

Fig. 19: HE (v-o): You saw nothing in Hiroshima. Nothing. SHE (v-o): I saw everything. Everything. Fig. 20: SHE (v-o): Including the hospital, I saw it. I’m sure. Fig. 21: SHE (v-o): The hospital exists in Hiroshima. How could I not see it?
Fig. 22-24:
Fig.25:Fig. 26: HE (v-o): You saw no hospital in Hiroshima. You saw nothing in Hiroshima. Fig. 27:

Example 2: Rashomon

Akira Kurosawa, Japan, 1950.

In this first Japanese film to win international recognition, four different accounts are given of the same tragic event involving the rape or possible seduction of a bride and the death of her samurai husband. The viewer is left to consider which – if any – of the four accounts is the one to be trusted. The film operates in three time-frames: 1) the present in which a woodcutter, priest and commoner are taking shelter from the rain in the ruins of a city gate; 2) the giving of testimonies at court earlier that same day; and 3) the scene of the crime that had occurred three days earlier. Kozloff was right to point out that “contrary to common recollection” the film uses “only the barest snippets of voice-over” (62-63). There are for example no uses at all of the device in the wife’s testimony, and only one in the bandit Tajomaru’s (“I had never seen such fierceness in a woman.”) Voice-over is used a bit more in the woodcutter’s account, and mainly – though still relatively little – in the dead samurai’s testimony as channeled by a medium and primarily in this group of shots:

Fig. 28: SAMURAI/MEDIUM: After the bandit attacked my wife, he tried to console her. Fig. 29: SAMURAI/MEDIUM (V-O): She sat on the leaves, staring down at her knees. The bandit was cunning. Now that her virtue was stained, she could no longer be with her husband. Leave the husband and why not marry him instead? He said he only attacked her out of his love for her. When she heard that, my wife raised her face as if in a trance. Fig. 30: SAMURAI/MEDIUM: She had never looked so beautiful.
Fig. 31: SAMURAI/MEDIUM (v-o): And what was my beautiful wife’s response to the bandit? In front of her helpless husband? Fig. 32: WIFE: Wherever. Take me wherever you want. Fig. 33: SAMURAI/MEDIUM: That’s what she said. But that wasn’t her only sin. Or I wouldn’t be suffering in the dark like this.

3. Character looking back

A character now situated at a later time than the events shown, looks back on those events. We never see narrators of this kind in the process of telling their stories. They speak only to us, not to any other character in the film. This distinguishes this form of voice-over from the previous one described, in which characters speak to one another in the film’s here-and-now.

Example 1: Laura

Otto Preminger, USA, 1944

Laura opens with a voice-over in which Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Web) – who will turn out to be the film’s culprit  – looks back on an important moment in this murder mystery, positioning Laura (Gene Tierney), his own role and that of his clock and of the detective in the story (Dana Andrews).

Fig. 34-35: WALDO (v-o): I shall never forget the weekend Laura died. A silver sun burned through the sky like a huge magnifying glass. It was the hottest Sunday in my recollection. I felt as if I were the only human being left in New York. For with Laura’s horrible death, I was alone. I – Waldo Lydecker – was the only one who really knew her. And I had just begun Laura’s story when another of those detectives came to see me. I had him wait. I could watch him through the half-open door. I noticed that his attention was fixed upon my clock. There was only one other in existence and that was in Laura’s apartment in the very room where she was murdered.

Example 2: Sophie’s Choice

Alan J. Pakula. USA. 1982. 

At the start of the film, before the first image of Stingo (Peter MacNicol) sitting in a bus is faded in, we begin to hear his voice-over. Whenever we see him on screen, it is in the past. We never see him in the present in the act of telling his story.

Fig. 36: STINGO (v-o): It was 1947, two years after the war, when I began my journey to what my father called the Sodom of the North: New York. Call me Stingo, which was the nickname I was known by in those days, if I was called anything at all.

4. Anonymous unseen narrator

a) Framing the story, an impersonal voice not belonging to a character and in no way self-referential, sets the stage for the viewer at the film’s start. Frequently used in 20th century documentaries where it is sometimes called “the voice of God,” it was far less commonly used in fiction films.

Example: Casablanca

Michael Curtiz, USA, 1942.

The opening voice-over in Casablanca is probably the best known example of an anonymous unseen narrator in feature film history.

Fig. 37-42: NARRATOR: With the coming of the Second World War, many eyes in imprisoned Europe turned hopefully, or desperately, toward the freedom of the Americas. Lisbon became the great embarkation point. But not everybody could get to Lisbon directly, and so, a tortuous, roundabout refugee trail sprang up. Paris to Marseilles, across the Mediterranean to Oran, then by train, or auto, or foot, across the rim of Africa to Casablanca in French Morocco. Here, the fortunate ones, through  money, or influence, or luck, might obtain exit visas and scurry to Lisbon, and from Lisbon to the New World. But the others wait in Casablanca – and wait — and wait — and wait.

b) Framing the story, an unidentified but more personal and self-referential voice sets the stage for the viewer at the film’s start. 

Example 1: The Third Man

Carol Reed, UK, 1949.

As a British-American coproduction, with Alexander Korda in charge in the UK and David O. Selznik representing the Hollywood interests in the film, two versions of The Third Man were initially made, with the main difference lying in the voice-over that opens the film. In the UK version quoted below, the narration is spoken by director Carol Reed, but without presenting himself as filmmaker This is the only surviving version. In the defunct American version, it was Joseph Cotton who spoke the voice-over, ending with the words: Anyway, I was dead broke when I got to Vienna. A close pal of mine had wired me offering me a job doing publicity work for some kind of a charity he was running. I’m a writer, name’s Martins, Holly Martins. Anyway down I came all the way to old Vienna happy as a lark and without a dime. 

Fig. 43-51: NARRATOR: I never knew the old Vienna before the war with its Strauss music, its glamour and its easy charm. Constantinople suited me better. I really got to know it in the classic period of the black market. We’d run anything if people wanted it enough – mmm – had the money to pay. Of course a situation like that does tempt amateurs. But, well, you know, they can’t stay the course like a professional. Now the city, it’s divided into four zones, you know, each occupied by a power, the American, the British, the Russian and the French. But the centre of the city, that’s international, policed by an international patrol, one member of each of the four powers. Wonderful. What a hope they had, all strangers to the place, and none of them could speak the same language, except a sort of smattering of German. Good fellows on the whole, did their best you know. Vienna doesn’t really look any worse than a lot of other European cities, bombed about a bit. Oh, I was going to tell you, wait, I was going to tell you about Holly Martins, an American. Came all the way to visit a friend of his. The name was Lime. Harry Lime. Now Martins was broke and Lime had offered him some sort, I don’t know, some sort of a job. Anyway, there he was, poor chap, happy as a lark and without a cent.

This final version, spoken by an unidentified Carol Reed, fits in perfectly here as an anonymous yet self-referential voice, while the discarded Joseph Cotton version would have been listed as spoken by a character looking back and not visible in the act of speaking the voice-over.

Example 2: A Matter of Life and Death (aka Stairway to Heaven)

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, UK, 1946.

Widely considered one of the greatest films ever made, A Matter of Life and Death (called Stairway to Heaven in the U.S.) was originally intended to improve Anglo-American relations. The film opens with a galactic perspective as we hear an anonymous voice first tell about the heavens and finally shift focus to the planet earth during the Second World War. 

Fig. 52-54: This is the universe. Big, isn’t it? Thousands of suns, millions of stars, separated by immense distances and by thin floating clouds of gas. The starlight makes the gas transparent. Where there are no stars|it appears as dark, obscuring clouds, like that great black cone over there. Hello, there’s a nova. A whole solar system exploded. Someone must’ve been messing about with the uranium atom. No, it’s not our solar system, I’m glad to say.
Fig. 55-57: Ah, those are called|a globular cluster of stars. Rather fine. Down here in the right-hand corner, see that little chap rather like a boy scout’s badge? It’s a mass of gas expanding at thousands of cubic miles a minute. Ah, here we are, we’re getting nearer home. The moon, our moon, in the first quarter, and here’s the Earth, our Earth, moving around in its place, part of the pattern, part of the universe. Reassuring, isn’t it?
Fig. 58-60: It’s night over Europe.The night of the 2nd May, 1945. That point of fire is a burning city. It had a thousand-bomber raid|an hour ago. (explosions) And here, rolling in over the Atlantic, –(foghorn) – is a real English fog. I hope all our aircraft got home safely.- Even the big ships sound frightened. – (Morse code signals) Listen to all the noises in the air. (Churchill on radio)|”This was their finest hour. ” (German voices on radio) Listen… Listen. (German radio messages)

Images of two characters are then faded in – first Air Controller June (Kim Hunter) in her control tower, and then Squadron Leader Peter Carter (David Niven) in the cockpit of his burning Lancaster bomber. As their dialogue continues, we are treated to what may well be one of the most memorable scenes in film history.

Fig. 61-63: JUNE: “Request your position. Request your position. Come in, Lancaster. Come in, Lancaster.” PETER (off): “Position nil. Repeat, nil. Age 27. 27. Get that? That’s very important. Education interrupted. Violently interrupted. Religion.  Church of England. Politics: Conservative by nature, Labour by experience. What’s your name? JUNE: I cannot read you. Cannot read you. Request your position. Can you see our signals? PETER (off): “Oh give me my scallop-shell of quiet, My staff of faith to walk upon, My scrip of joy, immortal diet, My bottle of salvation, My gown of glory, hope’s true gage, And thus I’ll take my pilgrimage.” Sir Walter Raleigh wrote that. I’d rather have written that than flown through Hitler’s legs.”
Fig. 64-66: JUNE: I cannot understand you. Hello, Lancaster. We are sending signals. Can you see our signals? Come in, Lancaster. Come in, Lancaster.
Fig. 67-69: PETER: But at my back I always hear “Time’s wingd chariot hurrying near. And yonder all before us lie Deserts of vast eternity.” Andy Marvell. What a marvel! What’s your name?

5. Filmmaker’s voice 

The narrative voice belongs at least implicitly to the filmmaker, for example in a trial-and-error process of writing the screenplay with Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue playing loudly in the background, as at the start of Manhattan where the narrator will turn out to be the main character, Isaac Davis (Woody Allen); or with the producer – who will never be seen – helping to introduce the film at the start of Naked City and to close it at the end.

Example 1: Manhattan 

Woody Allen, USA, 1979.

Fig. 70: ”Chapter one. He adored New York City. He idolized it all out of proportion.” Uh, no. Make that “He romanticized it all out of proportion. To him,no matter what the season was, this was still a town that existed in black and white and pulsated to  the great tunes of George Gershwin.” Uh… no. Let me start this over.
Fig. 71: “Chapter one. He was too romantic about Manhattan, as he was about everything else. He thrived on the hustle, bustle of the crowds and the traffic. To him, New York meant beautiful women and street-smart guys who seemed to know all the angles.” Ah, corny. Too corny for a man of my taste. Let me try and make it more profound.
Fig. 72: ”Chapter one. He adored New York City. To him, it was a metaphor for the decay of contemporary culture. The same lack of individual integrity to cause so many people to take the easy way out was rapidly turning the town of his dreams.” No, it’s gonna be too preachy. I mean, face it, I wanna sell some books here.
Fig. 73: ”Chapter one. He adored New York City although to him it was a metaphor for the decay of contemporary culture. How hard it was to exist in a society desensitized by drugs, loud music, television, crime, garbage.”  Too angry. I don’t wanna be angry.
Fig. 74: “Chapter one. He was as tough and romantic as the city he loved. Behind his black-rimmed glasses was the coiled sexual power of a jungle cat.” I love this. “New York was his town and it always would be.”

Example 2: The Naked City

Jules Dassin, USA, 1948

Fig. 75: Opening shots. Producer’s v-o: Ladies and gentlemen, the motion picture you are about to see is called “The Naked City.” My name is Mark Hellinger; I was in charge of its production. And I may as well tell you frankly that it’s a bit different from most films you’ve ever seen. It was written by Albert Maltz and Malvin Wald, photo–graphed by William Daniels, and directed by Jules Dassin. As you can see, we’re flying over an island, a city, a particular city and this is the story of a number of its people, and the story also, of the city itself. It was not photographed in a studio. Quite the contrary. Barry Fitzgerald, our star, Howard Duff, Dorothy Hart, Don Taylor, Ted de Corsia and the other actors played out their roles on the streets, in the apartment houses, in the skyscrapers, of New York itself…. This is the city as it is, hot summer pavements, the children at play, the buildings in their naked stone, the people without makeup. Fig. 76: Closing shots. Producer’s v-o: There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them.

Overview of the five types of voice-over

  1. inner thoughts of a character heard while his or her lips are shown to be unmoving
    Wings of Desire
    For Whom the Bell Tolls
  2. lines spoken by characters to each other, with the act of speaking not shown onscreen when the voices are heard
    Hiroshima Mon Amour
    Rashomon
  3. lines spoken by a character looking back and not visible in the act of speaking
    Sophie’s Choice
    Laura
  4. lines spoken by an unseen, anonymous narrator
    a) Impersonal voice
    Casablanca
    b) Personal voice
    The Third Man
    A Matter of Life and Death
  5. lines ostensibly spoken by the filmmaker
    a) in the process of developing the screenplay, with the narrator/screenwriter turning out to be the main character
    Manhattan
    b) with the producer – never visible – opening and closing the film
    Naked City

Conclusion

A personal motivation for writing this article was to counteract a bias against voice-over by re-examining masterful uses of the device in films I love. Though beginners often resort to voice-over when they are unable to tell their stories cinematically, that doesn’t mean that there is anything wrong with the device itself when skillfully used by experienced storytellers. Perhaps the reader has also welcomed an opportunity to appreciate a narrative device that is often unfairly dismissed as uncinematic. 

In the examples discussed above, we have seen how beautifully voice-over can be used to bring us into the mind of one character while illustrating the mind-reading abilities of another (Wings of Desire); or to give a main character the final word when there is no one there for him to address (For Whom the Bell Tolls); or to enable the viewer to see what characters describe (Hiroshima Mon Amour, Rashomon); or to position characters and sneak in backstory painlessly (Sophie’s Choice, Laura); or to establish a larger framework before bringing the main characters into play (Casablanca, The Third Man, A Matter of Life or Death); or to weave into the cinematic experience an acknowledgement that it is just that (Manhattan, Naked City).

The five types of voice-over described here may not be the only ones that have ever been used in feature films. But they are arguably the most important ones and well worth the closer look they have just been given.

* * *

Bibliography

  • Aspen, Peter (2007). “A Matter of Life and Death”, Financial Times, 4 May 2007.
  • Billson, Anne (2013). “Do voice-overs ruin films?” The Telegraph, 24 May, 2013.
  • Chion, Michel (1999).  The Voice in Cinema. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.
  • Genette, Gérard (1980). Narrative Discourse. An Essay in Method. New York: Cornell University Press.
  • Kozloff, Sarah (1984). “Humanizing ’The Voice of God’: Narration in The Naked City.”  Cinema Journal , Summer, Vol. 23, No. 4 (Summer), pp. 41-53.
  • Kozloff, Sarah (1988). Invisible Storytellers. Voice-over Narration in American Fiction Film. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Raskin, Richard (1995). “What is Peter Falk doing in Wings of Desire?” Nordisk Film Forskning 1975-1995. En bibliografi & 10 essays in anledning af filmens 100 år, ed. Peder Grøngaard. Aarhus: Nordisk Dokumentationscentral for Massekommunikationsforskning, 1995, pp. 115-120.
Richard Raskin
Født 1941. Ph.D. og Dr. Phil. lektor emeritus ved Afdeling for Medievidenskab og Journalistik, Aarhus Universitet.  Blandt hans bøger: The Functional Analysis of Art (1982), Alain Resnais’s Nuit etBrouillard (1987), Life is Like a Glass of Tea: Studies of Classic Jewish Jokes (1992), Kortfilmen som fortælling (2001), The Art of the Short Fiction Film: A Shot-by-Shot Study of Nine Modern Classics (2002) og A Child at Gunpoint: A Case Study in the Life of a Photo (2004), Seven Minutes in the Warsaw Ghetto og With Raised Hands - En filmbog og DVD (2013), Life is Like a Glass of Tea. Studies of Classic Jewish Jokes. New expanded edition (2015), Making Things Happen: On Casablanca and Other World War II Icons (2017), Seashell Beauty and the Concept of Nature at Play (forthcoming). Hans artikler er blevet udgivet i en række internationale tidsskrifter såsom Zeitschrift fürKunstgeschichte, Film History, Folklore, Canadian Journal of Film Studies, Journal of Media Practice og Minerva: An Internet Journal ofPhilosophy. Han har været jurypræsident ved internationale kortfilmsfestivaler i bl.a. Frankrig, Belgien, Holland, Indien og Danmark, holder tit foredrag ved filmskoler og festivaler, og er grundlægger og redaktør af p.o.v. – A Danish Journal of Film Studies og Short Film Studies (Intellect Press).