Classic Corner: American Graffiti

“Rock n’ roll’s been going downhill ever since Buddy Holly died,” snarls Paul Le Mat’s hot rod hero John Milner, angrily shutting off that “surf shit” all the kids seem to be listening to these days. With a pack of cigarettes rolled up in his shirtsleeve and an impeccable greaser’s pompadour, John’s a couple years older than the teenage protagonists of American Graffiti, who idolize this avuncular local legend –  even though these days he seems to be running on fumes. 

It’s 1962 in Modesto, California. But the ‘60s haven’t made it out to these small towns yet, where kids still listen to doo-wop and drink milkshakes in their muscle cars while cruising the downtown strip. Director George Lucas’s sophomore effort is a wistful picture about the twilight of American innocence, set on the precipice of the Kennedy assassination and Vietnam. American Graffiti was the unexpected blockbuster hit of 1973, a massively entertaining crowd-pleaser credited with kickstarting a 1950s nostalgia craze that dominated the rest of the decade. But it’s a melancholy celebration, full of characters clinging to a time in their lives that’s already passed them by. 

It’s the last night of summer, in more ways than one. Richard Dreyfuss’ nattering, wannabe writer Curt Henderson and his best friend Steve Bolander (Ron Howard) are set to fly out to an unnamed college somewhere “back East” in the morning. This evening is supposed to be their final hurrah in the old town – a chance to say farewell to friends and maybe hit the freshman sock hop for old times’ sake. It’s also an opportunity for Steve to dump Curt’s sister Laurie (Cindy Williams), the cheerleader with whom he’s been going steady. Deftly played by Howard as a guy realizing he already peaked in high school, Steve’s the sort of fellow who suggests “seeing other people” without realizing this means that she gets to date other dudes, too. 

And now Curt’s getting cold feet about leaving. Especially after a blonde goddess (Suzanne Somers) driving a white T-Bird whispers “I love you” at a stoplight and sends our frenzied, hormonal young man on an all-night quest to find her. Could there still be this kind of adventure right here in his backyard? More likely is the darker vision of his future Curt sees when sneaking cigarettes behind the school with one of his favorite teachers, who confesses that he washed out of Middlebury College after a single semester and slinked back to work at his alma mater and have what looks like an awfully inappropriate relationship with one of his students. Maybe you can’t come home again.

Steve has entrusted the care of his precious ’58 Chevy Impala to their adorably dorky sidekick Terry the Toad (Charles Martin Smith). With such a bitchin’ set of wheels, the bespectacled goofball finds himself picking up a dreamboat named Debbie (Candy Clark) who’s way out of his league. She’s a sucker for tuck-and-roll upholstery, and the film’s funniest scenes come when she tasks her ineffectual suitor with scoring them some liquor. Meanwhile, Milner gets stuck babysitting a 12-year-old brat played by MacKenzie Phillips and I don’t know where to begin explaining how Curt finds himself being inducted into a gang of Latino hoods, improbably led by middle-aged Peckinpah favorite Bo Hopkins. Circling the strip is a mysterious man in a cowboy hat, played by a then-unknown carpenter-to-the-stars and future big-screen archeologist. His name is Bob Falfa and he’s looking for a race. 

American Graffiti admittedly doesn’t have much in the way of a plot. It’s more a tapestry of incidents and anecdotes weaved together over the course of a long night’s journey into day. What’s magical about the movie is its offhand sense of enchantment, the feeling of when a late summer evening opens up in front of you and for a few hours its possibilities seem to stretch out forever. Lucas and his co-writers Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck all went to nearby high schools at the same time, so these stories come from their own memories or tall tales passed around the malt shops and backseats of their teenage years. (They even named Milner after their screenwriter friend John Milius, a similarly larger-than-life character.) 

Lucas shot the picture documentary-style, allowing his insanely talented cast of unknowns to block their own scenes and improvise away while sending two camera operators chasing after them to catch whatever they could. At first, he assumed he could do this without hiring a cinematographer. But after early footage came out unusably dark, Lucas called in his USC buddy, the legendary Haskell Wexler, to the rescue. Credited as a “visual consultant,” Wexler would sneak around the location stashing lights in retail storefronts and car ashtrays and anywhere else he could get a brighter image without compromising the movie’s run-and-gun spontaneity.

All of these separate scenes and storylines are stitched together beautifully by the music. Lucas had the brilliant idea that instead of a traditional movie score, everyone should be listening to the same radio station. Wild man disc jockey Wolfman Jack serves as a Greek chorus to their travails, like a semi-mythical voice in the night. The endlessly innovative sound designer Walter Murch took it a step further, re-recording the soundtrack of jukebox oldies in the physical spaces where they’re played in the picture. Depending on our perspective at the moment, the songs are either echoing in the streets or up close on crummy car radio speakers. It unifies the picture, making us feel like the characters are sharing the same space even when they’re on the other side of town.

Executives at Universal hated the movie, and for a time considered sending it directly to television. At one point during the contentious post-production period, producer Francis Ford Coppola took out his checkbook and offered to buy the film back from them for its full $775,000 budget. That sounds like a very Francis thing to do, but he would have gotten a hell of a deal. American Graffiti went on to gross $115 million at the box office.

“American Graffiti” is streaming on Netflix.

Back to top