To a cinephile, the scene is familiar – like a treasured childhood memory or a house where one has lived for many years. Colorado and Dude are singing ‘My Rifle, My Pony and Me’ while Stumpy accompanies them on a harmonica. We know what comes next – Stumpy will smile and say “That was real pretty. Y’wanna play some more? Why don’t you play something I can sing with you?” and the group will launch into ‘Cindy’. But this time, something else happens: like Brian O’Blivion (Jack Creley) in Videodrome (David Cronenberg, 1982), Colorado turns towards the camera and directly addresses the viewer, insisting “This has been one of the few peaceful scenes in the picture Rio Bravo. With John Wayne, Dean Martin and Walter Brennan. And a new girl, Angie Dickinson”. “Tell ’em about Ricky Nelson” demands an off-screen Martin, and Nelson obligingly adds “Oh, yeah, and that’s me. Come and see it”. This moment can be found not in Howard Hawks’ 1959 masterpiece Rio Bravo, but rather in that film’s trailer, a two-minute gem not listed in any Hawks filmography, although it was almost certainly directed by Hawks himself.
All of us, I think, love trailers, with their promises of pleasures yet to come, their tantalising glimpses of new works by favourite auteurs. And yet the assumption remains that a trailer is something ephemeral, to be disposed of once the primary text – the actual film – becomes available. Examined more closely, the use many trailers make of the material available to them is not far removed from the formal experiments carried out by such ‘found footage’ filmmakers as Martin Arnold (Alone. Life Wastes Andy Hardy), Rene Vienet (La Dialectique Peut-Elle Casser Des Briques?), Maurice Lemaitre (Positif-Negatif, Notre Film), Sergei Komarov (The Kiss Of Mary Pickford), Orson Welles (F For Fake), Woody Allen (What’s Up, Tiger Lily?), Jean-Luc Godard (Histoire(s) Du Cinema), Kirk Tougas (whose The Politics Of Perception itself draws on a trailer) and Dusan Makavejev. Even a seemingly unambitious trailer, such as that for The Gingerbread Man (Robert Altman, 1997), plays structural games which will not be apparent to anyone unfamiliar with Robert Altman’s film: a cop’s angry recollection of how lawyer Kenneth Branagh destroyed a fellow officer (“You put that guy up on the stand, you punched holes in a twenty-year career”) is juxtaposed with Branagh’s courtroom interrogation of Tom Berenger, making it seem as if the cop is referring to the latter event (and thus bringing to the surface one of this underrated film’s motifs – the impossibility of escaping the past). Then there is the trailer for Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point (1969), which runs only 45 seconds but nevertheless manages to pack in 54 shots, some of them just two frames in length. The aesthetic interest here is considerable, though the commercial motivation seems easy to grasp: as with the similarly rapid trailer for John Boorman’s Exorcist II: The Heretic (which crams approximately 175 shots into 1 minute 41 seconds), the intention is to disguise the film’s slow pace.
Few (if any) trailers take an explicitly critical attitude towards the films they are promoting – which is what distinguishes them from the experimental works mentioned above – but many critique the form of the trailer itself. The most obvious examples are those trailers by Jean-Luc Godard, which deliberately foreground and slyly deconstruct the usual promotional ploys: thus his For Ever Mozart trailer (1996) repeatedly displays the words “le film” and “l’actrice” at exactly the points where we would expect to find the title and the names of the stars. More obviously satirical in its intentions is Terry Gilliam’s hilarious trailer for Monty Python And The Holy Grail (1974), in which the typically hyperbolic opening commentary – “Once in a lifetime, there comes a motion picture which changes the whole history of motion pictures, a picture so stunning in its effects, so vast in its impact, that it profoundly affects the lives of all who see it” – is revealed to be part of an audition for voiceover narrators. The casting director eventually settles on a candidate who, despite having an appropriately bombastic voice, only speaks Japanese, thus necessitating the use of English subtitles which inform us that Gilliam’s film “has some quite funny moments, a fairly exciting story and some low-budget adventure, but compared to something like Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, it’s all rather silly” (the visual accompaniment being a brilliantly precise Bergman pastiche, with Death throwing a custard pie at the Knight). In a similar vein is Mel Brooks’ ten-second TV trailer for Young Frankenstein (1974), wherein the director declares “Hello, this is Mel Brooks. I’d like to tell you about Young Frankenstein, but I’m out of time!”, while the trailer for John Carpenter’s Escape From L.A. (1996) seems at first to be one of those public information films certain cinemas screen before the main feature: a female voice can be heard saying “Welcome to the theater. For everyone’s enjoyment, we’d like to remind you of the following rules. No talking. No smoking. No littering. No red meat. No freedom of religion. And remember, all marriages must be approved by the department of health. Failure to obey these rules will result in immediate loss of citizenship and deportation to the island of Los Angeles. Enjoy the show”. This toying with the audience’s expectations, as well as an undisguised contempt for authority, is very much in the spirit of Escape From L.A., and one suspects that this ‘coming attraction’ was supervised by Carpenter.
Alfred Hitchcock seems to have begun personally directing his trailers in the late ’40s. The earliest one I am aware of, that for Rope (1948), is particularly intriguing, since it forms a prologue to the film. Whereas Rope begins with David Kentley (Dick Hogan)’s death, the trailer shows him sitting on a park bench proposing marriage to Janet (in marked contrast to the film’s famous long-take technique, the trailer is quite conventionally edited, with establishing shots, close-ups and point-of-view shots). As David walks away, James Stewart appears, in character as Rupert Cadell, and declares “That’s the last time she ever saw him alive. And that’s the last time you’ll ever see him alive. What happened to David Kentley changed my life completely. And the lives of seven others” before introducing the main characters. It is pleasing to note that, in the trailer as in the film, Rupert strenuously (and hypocritically) denies having any responsibility for David’s murder, describing Brandon and Philip as “the two who were responsible for everything”. Hitchcock also enlisted Stewart as on-screen narrator for the trailers of Rear Window in 1954 (“Those are just a few of my neighbours. At first I watched them just to kill time, but then I couldn’t take my eyes off them, just as you won’t be able to”) and the 1955 remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much. But in the late ’50s, undoubtedly motivated by the public familiarity he had gained as host of Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-1962), Hitchcock (like Cecil B. De Mille) began appearing in his own trailers, a practice that continued until his death: in the North By Northwest trailer (1959) he played a travel agent selling the film as if it were a holiday; for Psycho (1960) he conducted the audience on a tour of Norman Bates’ house; for The Birds (1962) he delivered a sardonic lecture on man’s inhumanity to birds; in 1964 he sat on a camera crane and insisted that Marnie was “a very difficult film to classify…one might call Marnie a ‘sex mystery’ – that is if one used such words”; for Frenzy (1972) he starred in two very different trailers, first as a man attempting to buy a tie suitable for strangling women, then as a murder victim floating on the Thames; and for Family Plot (1976) he appeared as a gravedigger.
The most historically important ‘auteur’ trailer is that for Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941), directed (at the urging of Gregg Toland) by Welles himself during principal photography in 1940. Although perhaps the first trailer to be narrated by its director, the only part of Welles visible here is his right hand, which can be seen beckoning for a microphone before his voice (even then unmistakable, at least to radio listeners) says “How do you do, ladies and gentlemen? This is Orson Welles”. In typically playful fashion, Welles foregrounds the promotional nature of the task in which he is engaged (“what follows is supposed to advertise our first motion picture”) and toys with the language – that of the ‘hard sell’ – this context obliges him to use (“Citizen Kane is the title, and we hope that it can correctly be called a ‘coming attraction’. It’s certainly ‘coming’ – coming to this theater – and I think our Mercury actors make it an ‘attraction’.”). Obvious differences aside, the trailer is strikingly Godardian in its ambitions, and when Welles greets the sudden entrance of several young women by announcing “Speaking of attractions, these chorus girls are certainly an attraction. But frankly, ladies and gentlemen, we’re just showing you the chorus girls for purposes of ‘ballyhoo’.”, a connection is made with Le Mepris (1963), in which Godard included images of a nude Brigitte Bardot while foregrounding the commercial obligations that required him to do so. The rest of the trailer is divided into two sections: shots of cast members supposedly caught unawares on the RKO set; and a series of close-ups in which characters (some of them familiar from Kane, others not) express their differing opinions of Charles Foster Kane (“He’s crazy”, “He’s wonderful”) into telephones before Welles sums up what we have heard – “Ladies and gentlemen, I don’t know what you’ll think about Mr Kane. I can’t imagine. You see, I play the part myself. Well, Kane is a hero and a scoundrel, a no-account and a swell guy, a great lover, a great American citizen and a dirty dog. It depends on who’s talking about him. What’s the real truth about Charles Foster Kane? I wish you’d come to this theater when Citizen Kane plays here and decide for yourself”. Like Citizen Kane, Welles’ trailer emphasises the impossibility of ascertaining the ‘truth’ about Kane, but the section in which we are introduced to the actors approaches this theme from a somewhat different perspective, one that suggests Welles’ later work. The various cast vignettes are presented as ‘documentary’ footage, with the performers appearing genuinely surprised to find themselves confronted by Welles’ camera, something underlined by the director’s accompanying voiceover, which claims that “We’ve caught Ruth (Warrick) with her hair up” and repeatedly asks Joseph Cotten to smile. To use the title of another Welles project, ‘It’s All True’. And yet it seems logical to assume that these images have been carefully posed (some, such as the shot of Everett Sloane running towards his own reflection, were blatantly staged), and that, as Welles admits in F For Fake, “I’ve been lying my head off”. The search for truth, then, is undertaken on three different levels: ‘What is the truth about Charles Foster Kane?’; ‘What is the truth about this image?’; and ‘To what extent is truth determined by financial concerns?’. Jonathan Rosenbaum, in an indispensable 1991 text entitled “Orson Welles’ Essay Films and Documentary Fictions: A Two-Part Speculation” (originally published in Cinematograph Volume 4, but more widely available in Placing Movies), claims that a cinema “in which fiction and non-fiction merge, trade places, become interchangeable” has the potential to be either extremely progressive or extremely reactionary. Welles is, of course, listed among the progressives (alongside Marker, Rivette and Godard), and scholars studying his later discursive documentary fictions (which include such rarely screened works as Portrait Of Gina, Filming Othello and the TV series Around The World With Orson Welles) should remember that this important phase in the career of what Bill Krohn has called “the greatest filmmaker of the modern era” was inaugurated not by Citizen Kane, but by the Citizen Kane trailer (though, as Rosenbaum points out, the non-cinematic roots go back even further – at least as far as Welles’ War Of The Worlds broadcast in 1938).
Trailers can also be an invaluable research tool. While preparing a book on Abel Ferrara, I managed to track down a cassette of the director’s feature debut – a hardcore porn film entitled 9 Lives Of A Wet Pussy (1976) – in Canada, but the fact that the end credits listed actors playing characters – ‘Attacker I’ and ‘Attacker II’ – conspicuous only by their absence led me to suspect that this print had been cut, a suspicion confirmed when I saw a trailer (on Something Weird’s Triple XXX Movie House Trailers Volume 2) which included almost a minute of footage from the missing sequence (fortunately, I later found an uncut video of 9 Lives itself in America). Similarly, Monte Hellman once told me about a prologue he had anonymously directed for Francis Ford Coppola’s Dementia 13 (1963): but this sequence – in which hypnotist Dr William J. Bryan, Jr. (formerly Roger Corman’s ‘hypnotism consultant’ on Tales Of Terror) talks directly to the audience – was not in any transfer I had encountered. Video Watchdog editor Tim Lucas subsequently informed me that this William Castle-style prologue was indeed present in Dementia 13‘s original American theatrical release, but had mysteriously disappeared from all currently circulating copies. However, according to Tim, some of Hellman’s footage was used in the trailer, which contained shots of Dr Bryan describing the test he had devised to help viewers withstand the shocks of Dementia 13: “In 1960, I was consulted regarding the tragic case of a triple-murderer who strangled his victims immediately after viewing the movie Psycho. His fascinating analysis under hypnosis – now a matter of record in my book – came to the attention of the producers of Dementia 13, who asked me to devise a method of preventing a recurrence of this tragedy”.
Trailers tend to be prepared shortly after (and sometimes before) the end of principal photography, and when disputes concerning a movie’s editing arise, a trailer will often provide an important glimpse at what the director was prevented from including in her final cut. Thus the previews for such much-reedited works as Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), Dennis Hopper’s Backtrack (1988, released as Catchfire with the direction attributed to ‘Alan Smithee’) and Robert Aldrich’s The Angry Hills (1959) allow us to see material that would otherwise have remained on the cutting-room floor: indeed, the trailer for Mike Figgis’ Mr Jones (a 1992 film partly reshot by Jon Amiel in 1993) consists almost entirely of unfamiliar footage. Rumours abound that Tom Cruise, angered by preview audiences who rated Emmanuelle Beart’s performance in Brian De Palma’s Mission: Impossible (1996) superior to his, cut out as many of Beart’s scenes as possible: although De Palma denies this, there is a smoking gun, for the trailers contain shots of Cruise and Beart making love, something that never happens in the released film.
Of course, the presence of unique trailer footage doesn’t always mean that the feature’s director lost control of the editing. Another Mike Figgis film, Internal Affairs (1990), originally ended with a lengthy fight, and although Figgis eventually persuaded Paramount to let him substitute a more meditative finale, we can sample the first climax in the trailer, which also rescues another segment dropped from the final cut: a strip-club scene with some philosophical dialogue from Richard Gere (“I think most people want to be bad…a cop’s the guy who wants to do it worst of all”). Vincente Minnelli’s Some Came Running (1958) may begin with Frank Sinatra arriving home nursing memories of the previous night’s drunken festivities, but the trailer provides evidence that Minnelli once planned to show the events Sinatra recalls so vaguely, while the trailer for Blake Edwards’ Son Of The Pink Panther (1993) reveals that this film originally opened with a pre-credits sequence depicting the death of Inspector Clouseau. The work of Francis Ford Coppola – a director famous for shooting excessive amounts of material – proves a particularly rich hunting ground: trailers for The Cotton Club (1984), Tucker: The Man And His Dream (1988), New York Stories (1989) and The Rainmaker (1997) all contain additional shots and scenes. Particularly interesting is the trailer for The Godfather Part III (1990), which includes more of Michael Corleone (Al Pacino)’s meeting with Archbishop Gilday (who now utters the memorable line “The Corleone family, partners with the Pope! They may cry blasphemy”) and some extra dialogue from Michael during the dons’ Las Vegas meeting (“If every drug peddler in this room were to drop dead, I would be the only one alive”). Most intriguingly, the scene in which Michael passes on the Family’s power to Vincent (Andy Garcia) while ordering him to “give up my daughter” appears with essentially the same dialogue in both film and trailer: but whereas the former has this conversation take place in a dark office, the latter makes use of alternate takes in which it occurs outdoors, with Vincent framed against a tree and Michael (in reverse shot) dominated by an enormous mansion in the background. A comparison of these two quite different variations on the same material reveals a great deal about Coppola’s art, helping us to better understand the choices he made.
And then there’s the Sea Of Love (1989) trailer, which includes shots of Lorraine Bracco, whose part was entirely removed from the film (though her scenes were restored to censored television prints). And the True Romance (1993) trailer, in which we can see Christopher Walken striding down a corridor shouting “Find out who this wing-and-a-prayer artist is and take him off at the neck” (the trailer also contains a close-up of Val Kilmer, though the film itself avoids letting us see his face too clearly). And the trailer for Michael Mann’s Heat (1995), which includes alternate takes from Robert De Niro’s restaurant confrontation with Al Pacino, as well as shots of a doctor asking for more money because “it’s double the risk”, only to be told by De Niro that “You’re wrong. It’s four times the risk, and I’m double the worst trouble you ever had” (a line I’m sure was in the film when I saw it theatrically, though it has vanished from the video and TV prints). The trailer for Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear (1991) contains a unique shot of Jessica Lange saying “This town is so very nice and everything is just so very, very nice”, while that for Casino (1995) has Robert De Niro telling Joe Pesci “I tried to do everything for you, even though I knew, deep down inside, you would bury me”, to which Pesci responds “I buried you? You buried yourself!”
And I haven’t even had time to mention the trailer for John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon (1941), in which Sydney Greenstreet, silhouetted against a black background and apparently adopting a persona familiar from one of his radio shows, asks us to “Come closer”, at which point the camera obediently tracks in for a close-up as the actor continues “I want to talk to you. I’m gonna tell you a fantastic story. The story of the Maltese Falcon”. Or the Humphrey Bogart-directed trailer for Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep (1945-1946), in which Bogart walks into the Hollywood Public Library and asks for “a good mystery yarn, something off the beaten track, like The Maltese Falcon” (of course, the librarian hands him “Raymond Chandler’s latest bestseller The Big Sleep – and what a picture that’ll make”). Or the trailer for Budd Boetticher’s Bullfighter And The Lady (1951), which reportedly includes 16mm footage shot by Samuel Fuller. Or those trailers that are so awful, so ludicrously overblown, they take on a certain charm. The subject, seemingly minor, is bursting with riches – too many to exhaust in a single article. So just think of this as a few rough notes – a trailer if you like – for a more thorough exploration to be undertaken at a later date. Coming soon?