There’s a new “ ’70s Retro Trailer” for Shane Black’s The Nice Guys, and it’s sort of fun, until you start thinking about its supposed provenance. The filmmakers denoted the 1970s by giving the trailer the magenta-shifted colors typical of faded Eastmancolor film prints, common in the 1970s—so far so good. But the colors mean this print is meant to have been sitting around fading for decades. And yet somehow in that entire time, it never got a speck of dirt or a scratch on it. What it did get was video tracking errors, so at some point after the colors had faded, it was transferred to tape, and then that tape was left to age long enough to develop its own problems. The weird thing about that is the trailer’s not pan-and-scan or even letterboxed; it’s HD. So what kind of analog tape is it meant to have been stored on?
Encyclopedia Brown would have a field day—even Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe’s inept private eyes could expose the trailer as a forgery in an afternoon. But what makes a real 1970s trailer? To answer this question, we’ve assembled five of the finest examples of the form to serve as references the next time someone tries to put one over on the audience. Authenticity guaranteed.
John Wayne turned down the lead in Dirty Harry before Clint Eastwood signed on; his regret over that decision led to him taking the role of “McQ: the cop nobody can stop. Not even the cops.” The chase scene is from Bullitt, the police brass are from Dirty Harry, and John Wayne is from about three decades earlier, but McQ’s trailer does show one of the great principles of 1970s trailers: Sell the stunts, not the plot. It costs a lot of money to roll a car on the beach, and trailer audiences want to see that money on screen—not least because the police department set clearly cost about $2.75.
Firepower takes the principle of showing the stunts to a ridiculous extreme. In its two-minute runtime, a building, a truck, a jeep, a car, and a boat all explode spectacularly, and that’s not even counting James Coburn straight-up driving a bulldozer through a house while shooting bad guys with a pistol. It’s not so great to have O.J. Simpson introduced as “the power of force,” but James Coburn’s introduction—“It would take a miracle to capture him. A miracle called … Jerry Fannon.”—makes up for it.
The Enforcer wins out over the other Dirty Harry films of the decade for the elegance of one cut: from postcard shots of San Francisco and a voiceover proclaiming the city “sprawling … picturesque … dynamic … eighth-largest cosmopolitan city in the United States” to someone blowing the hell out of a semi truck with a bazooka. It’s also a classic example of not having enough stunts to sell the film: Clint Eastwood drives the same car at a shotgun-wielding thief twice. But people come to a Dirty Harry film for one reason: to see Clint Eastwood put hippies in their place. And like Richard Nixon, The Enforcer’s trailer promises exactly the right things.
Every Which Way but Loose
Just as there’s no wrong way to sell Clint Eastwood punching hippies, there’s no right way to sell Clint Eastwood drinking beer with an orangutan. Still, this seems like an especially wrong way. So probably ignore this one, filmmakers of the future!
The Doberman Gang
This is not only the greatest trailer of the 1970s, it may be the decade’s greatest film. The key here is length—both the extraordinarily gritty and tense first act and the nearly-as-long ecstatic finale are given room to breathe. The Doberman Gang is a powerful reminder that the great trailers of the American New Wave told us who we were as a nation—and who we might become.
It’s too late for Shane Black to profit from these examples, but what larger lessons can filmmakers draw from real 1970s trailers the next time they want a retro look? As we’ve seen, there are three key elements that distinguish the genuine article: exploding boats, Clint Eastwood (or John Wayne trying to be Clint Eastwood), and dogs that rob banks. The Nice Guys, as far as we can tell, offers none of these—and it doesn’t even have an orangutan. Today’s iPhone-raised millennials may put up with this sort of thin gruel, but the audiences that fueled the art-house boom of the 1970s won’t be fooled. So let the “ ’70s Retro Trailer” for The Nice Guys serve as a grim warning: Filmmakers must do a better job of learning from the past if the cinema is to have a future.