You must remember this, a kiss is just a kiss and audiences’ taste in film trailers evolves, just like movies do.
Take the recut trailer for 1944’s Oscar winning Best Picture, Casablanca, above.
Rather than using a narrator to deliver exposition, it’s supplied by dialogue, superimposed over moody shots of Humphrey Bogart‘s Rick, smoking, leveling a pistol, and surveying his bar. We’re given just enough of it to pique our interest.
When Ingrid Bergman makes her first entrance, halfway through, the composer pulls out the Pavlovian stops.
At seventy-five, Casablanca is such a part of the canon, even those who haven’t seen it can savor the modern trailer’s banquet of timeless lines, with the most celebrated saved for dessert.
By contrast, the original theatrical trailer took a maximalist approach, employing an urgent male narrator, hyperbolic title cards, and exotic travelogue. There’s heavy emphasis on danger, romance, and the presence of big name stars. The music is as thunderous as the sales pitch.
As Katie Kilkenny notes in a 2014 essay on movie trailer fatigue for The Atlantic:
In the 1940s and ’50s, previews tried to persuade the viewer of the movie’s superlative qualities with caps-locked placards and narration (“A mad adventure fraught with bold intrigue!” “The most exciting movie ever screened!” “The most memorable event in the annals of the motion pictures!”).
Directors talk about how it’s all about casting for them—when they get the right actors, their jobs are easier. For us, that’s true of music. Sometimes 70, 80 percent of the job can be trying to find that perfect piece. Trailers are all about rhythm, pacing, and feeling… I’ll watch the whole movie without sound, just looking for visuals—that little head turn, that glimpse, that spark of something. Then I’ll watch the movie just for dialog. I can get down to about 10 to 15 minutes and from there start crafting and making connections.
If you had zero pre-existing knowledge of Dog Day Afternoon and the more recognizable members of its cast — Al Pacino, the late Charles Durning, and the incomparable John Cazale, HBO Max’s trailer might fool you into thinking it’s a new release from a director who worshipped at the altar of the great, gritty NYC films of the 70s as an alternative to film school. They certainly got the period details right!
The modern trailer for The Exorcist, widely considered one of the scariest movies of all time, embraces a 21st-century promotional trope of horror films in which children play a central role: lean into the innocence before unleashing the hounds.
The disturbing original theatrical trailer by editor Bud Smith, below, was banned upon its release. Whether this is because its black-and-white flashes of a young Linda Blair and the demonic Pazuzu induced seizures, or because the studio was spooked by its arty sensibilities is up for debate.
Director William Friedkin, who called it “the best trailer ever made about The Exorcist,” reckons it was the latter.
***Photosensitive Epilepsy Warning*** (no joke.)
Smith’s disturbing vision was quickly replaced by the more conventional trailer, below. It gave away more shocks, but lacks the ability to burrow into your dreams, causing you to recheck the locks and go to bed with all the lights on.
Readers, do you have an all-time favorite movie trailer? Let us know in the comments.
Watch a playlist of HBO Max’s Modern Trailers here.
Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. She most recently appeared as a French Canadian bear who travels to New York City in search of food and meaning in Greg Kotis’ short film, L’Ourse. Follow her @AyunHalliday.