Review: ‘American Graffiti’

Charlie Martin Smith and Candy Clark

Of all the youth-themed nostalgia films in the past couple of years, George Lucas' "American Graffiti" is among the very best to date. Set in 1962 but reflecting the culmination of the 1950s, the film is a most vivid recall of teenage attitudes and mores, told with outstanding empathy and compassion through an exceptionally talented cast of relatively new players.

Of all the youth-themed nostalgia films in the past couple of years, George Lucas’ “American Graffiti” is among the very best to date. Set in 1962 but reflecting the culmination of the 1950s, the film is a most vivid recall of teenage attitudes and mores, told with outstanding empathy and compassion through an exceptionally talented cast of relatively new players. The Universal release, filmed in small towns north of San Francisco, is first-rate Americana which should strike its most responsive chord among audiences of 40 years of age and under, though older filmgoers certainly should enjoy it also.

Francis Ford Coppola was the nominal producer, and Gary Kurtz was coproducer. The superior original screenplay, in which the predominant comedy values are deftly supported by underlying serious elements of adolescent maturation, was written by director Lucas in collaboration with Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck. This is Lucas’ second feature; his first, “THX 1138,” was a futuristic socio-political drama, not quite the total fantasy many might have thought it to be.

“American Graffiti” occupies that very lonely ground between the uptight misunderstood teenage mellers of its era, and the beach-party fluff on which American International held the only successful patents. Its milieu is the accumulated junk and materialism of the Eisenhower years, an endowment of tin theology and synthetic values which, in younger generations, sowed the seeds of an incoherent unrest that would mature violently a decade later.

Design consultant Al Locatelli, art director Dennis Clark and set director Douglas Freeman have brilliantly reconstructed the fabric and texture of the time, while Walter Murch’s outstanding sound collage–an unending stream of early rock platter hits–complements in the aural department. “Visual consultant” (read: cameraman) Haskell Wexler has done an excellent job in capturing the mood, refreshingly devoid of showoff lensing gimmicks. Even the limitations of the now-rarely used Techniscope anamorphic process contribute an artful touch of grainy, sweaty reality.

Against this chrome and neon backdrop is told the story of one long summer night in the lives of four school chums: Richard Dreyfuss, on his last night before leaving for an eastern college; Ronny Howard, less willing to depart the presence of Cindy Williams; Charles Martin Smith, a bespectacled fumbler whose misadventures with pubescent swinger Candy Clark are as touching as they are hilarious; and Paul Le Mat, 22 years old on a birth certificate but still strutting as he did four years earlier.

Mackenzie Phillips, in real life the 12-year-old daughter of composer John Phillips, is sensational in film debut as a likeable brat whom Le Mat cannot shake from his car. Harrison Ford is a hot-rodder whose drag-race challenge to La Mat provides a discreetly violent climax to the story’s restless night. Bo Hopkins leads a gang of toughs, and longtime deejay Wolfman Jack is heard regularly on the sound collage, and appears briefly in a scene with Dreyfuss.

There is brilliant interplaying and underplaying, of script, performers and direction which will raise howls of laughter from audiences, yet never descends on the screen to overdone mugging, pratfall and other heavy-handed devices normally employed. Some petting scenes get their point across without the patronizing voyeurisms so often found in nostalgia pix. The filmmakers’ hearts obviously were with their characters all the way. Lucas has done a truly masterful job.

Murch’s sound track uses about 40 platter hits, not all of which were precisely contemporaneons but no harm done. Film opens with Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock,” which serves Lucas well now as it did Richard Brooks in 1955 in that never-to-be-forgotten whammo main title of “The Blackboard Jungle.” Karin Green was music coordinator. Kim Fowley produced the two original recordings for the film, done by Flash Cadillac and The Continental Kids, playing a local rock band engaged for a freshman hop.

In such a meritorious filmmaking ensemble, lots more people contributed: hair stylists Gerry Leetch and Betty Iverson; editors (to 109 minutes) Verna Fields and Marcia Lucas; operating cameramen Ron Eveslage and Jan D’Alquen; costume designer Aggie Guerard Rodgers; choreographer Tony Basil; production sound recorder Arthur Rochester; sound editor James Nelson; and casting supervisors Fred Roos and Mike Fenton.

Without exception, all players fit perfectly into the concept and execution, and all the young principals and featured players have a bright and lengthy future. And so does Lucas. “American Graffiti” is one of those rare films which can be advanced in any discussion of the superiority of films over live performances; the latter can vary from show to show, but if you get it right on film, you’ve got it forever.


[Pic was reissued in 1978 in a 112-min. version featuring three extra scenes.]

1973: Nominations: Best Picture, Director, Supp. Actress (Candy Clark), Original Screenplay, Editing

Related reviews:
More American Graffiti

American Graffiti


Universal. Director George Lucas; Producer Francis Coppola, Gary Kurtz; Writer George Lucas, Gloria Katz, WIllard Huyck; Camera Haskell Wexler Editor Verna Fields, Marcia Lucas; Music Karin Green (sup.) Art Dennis Clark. Reviewed at Directors guild of America, L.A., June 15, '73. (MPAA Rating: PG.)


(Color) Widescreen. Available on VHS, DVD. Original review text from 1973. Running time: 109 MIN.


Curt - Richard Dreyfuss Steve - Ronny Howard John - Paul Le Mat Terry - Charles Martin Smith Laurie - Cindy Williams Debbie - Candy Clark Carol - Mackenzie Phillips Disc Jockey - Wolfman Jack Bob Falfa - Harrison Ford Gang Members - Bo Hopkins, Manuel Padilla Jr., Beau Gentry Rock Band - Flash Cadillac and the Continental Kids Teacher - Terry McGovern Policeman - Jim Bohan Wendy - Debbie Celiz Blonde in Car - Suzanne Somers Vagrant - George Meyer Thief - James Cranna Liquor Store Clerk - William Niven
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