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"American Graffiti" chronicles one night during America's last age of innocence

American Graffiti


American Graffiti (1973)

Paul LeMat stars as dragster John Milner
Universal Studios/Lucasfilm

Directed by George Lucas

Written by George Lucas, Willard Huyck, and Gloria Katz

Starring: Ron Howard, Paul Le Mat, Charlie Martin Smith, Cindy Williams, Richard Dreyfuss, Mackenzie Phillips, Candy Clark, Harrison Ford, and Wolfman Jack

Before George Lucas created the “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones” franchises for which he is best known, he was a struggling writer-director with two feature films on his resume.

Lucas’s first film, 1971’s “THX-1138,” was a polished version of his award-winning student film “THX-1138-4EB.” It was a dystopian science-fiction film set in a future where the government controls people’s thoughts and suppresses all emotions. Though it was technically innovative and co-starred Donald Pleasance, Robert Duvall, and Maggie McOmie, it lacked box office appeal.

Lucas’s second feature, “American Graffiti,” fared better because it was, as he calls it, “a warm, fuzzy comedy.”

“American Graffiti” is a bittersweet yet comedic look at "America's last age of innocence" and the cruising culture of the early 1960s.

In the summer of '62, JFK was in the White House, the Beatles were still unknown in this side of the Atlantic, and drive in diners and movie palaces were popular hangouts. The Cold War was still ongoing, though the Cuban Missile Crisis was months away in the future. Few people knew where Vietnam was. There was no Internet or even Studio 54 just yet, so kids went cruising, The guys drove around at night, looking for girls to pick up or rivals to race in their souped-up hot rods.

The movie's then-innovative "overlapping stories" structure juggles several plots involving a group of recently graduated Northern California high school seniors on their last night before going to college. Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) is fretting about going to college in the East with his friend Steve (Howard). Wracked with indecision, he spends his last night in town searching for The Blonde in the White Thunderbird (Suzanne Somers in her first screen role). His misadventures cause him to step out of character, especially when he crosses paths with The Pharohs, a gang of troublemakers.

Steve Bolander: I thought, maybe before I leave, we could agree that... that seeing other people while I'm away can't possibly hurt, you know.

Laurie Henderson: You mean dating other people?

Steve Bolander: I think it would strengthen our relationship. Then we'd know for sure that we're really in love. Not that there's any doubt.

Curt's sister Laurie (Williams) must not only cope with her brother's last minute bout with "cold feet" but with the fear of losing Steve. In what may be a typical situation for couples who are "steady" but are going to be separated by circumstances, she's devastated by Steve's suggestion that they "see other people" while they are in school. "I can't expect you to be a monk," Laurie says with false bravado, but in "The Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" sequence, it is obvious that she is hurt and angry.

“American Graffiti’s” other two subplots center on Toad (Charlie Martin Smith) and John (Paul Le Mat). Toad is the car-crazy, girl-deprived nerd that we either knew in school or that we recognize in ourselves.

Debbie Dunham: Get out of here.

Terry Fields: You seem to know a lot of weird guys.

Debbie Dunham: That creep's not a friend of mine, he's just...horny. That's why I like you, you're different.

Terry Fields: I am? I mean, do you really think I'm intelligent?

Debbie Dunham: Yeah, and I bet you're smart enough to get us some brew.

[she puts her arm around him, leans over and kisses him]

Debbie Dunham: Yeah.

Terry Fields: Brew?

Debbie Dunham: Yeah.

Terry Fields: You mean liquor. Yeah, yeah right, liquor. Yeah, this place is too crowded anyway.

[starts the car, backs up and pulls out of Mel's Drive-in]

His attempts to impress the lovely Debbie (Candy Clark) are hilarious. Toad tries hard to get her attention, only to discover that Debbie likes him for who he really is. John, on the other hand, is the Han Solo of this bunch, the high school dropout who loves fast cars and even faster women.

He, too, discovers a tender side as he is saddled with 12-year-old Carol (a pre-One Day at a Time Mackenzie Phillips). Not only must he learn patience while driving around with Carol, but also he is being challenged as the top drag racer by Bob Falfa (Harrison Ford).

Bob Falfa: Hey man, I'm sorry if I scared ya!

John Milner: You're gonna hafta do one hell of a lot more than that to scare me!

Bob Falfa: Hey I've been lookin' all over for ya man. Didn't nobody tell ya I was lookin' for ya?

John Milner: Man, I can't keep track of all you punks runnin' 'round here backwards.

Bob Falfa: Hey you're s'posed to be the fastest thing in the Valley, man, but that can't be your car. It must be your mama's car! I'm sorta' embarrassed to be this close to ya!

John Milner: Yeah, well I'm not surprised, drivin' a field car!

Bob Falfa: Field car? What's a field car?

John Milner: A field car runs through the fields, droppin' cow shit all over the place to make the lettuce grow.

Bob Falfa: Ha ha! That's pretty good! Say, I like the color of your car there, man. What's that s'posed to be? Sort of a cross between piss yella' and puke green ain't it?

John Milner: Well, you call that a paint job, but it's pretty ugly. I bet you got to sneak up on the pumps just to get a little air in your tires!

Bob Falfa: Well, at least I don't have to pull over to the side just to let a funeral go by, man.

John Milner: Oh ho, funny!

All these stories will converge in a climactic, winner take all race, and several Lucas touchstones will resurface in his “Star Wars” series. These themes include the choice to either take or reject a certain path, the relationship between young men and their machines, and the quest for either love or adventure.

Serving as a unifying thread to all these subplots is Wolfman Jack, mostly heard on the radio but seen briefly in a cameo as a hip mentor for restless Curt.

Lucas uses music here very effectively. Each song (and there are over 40 here, ranging from “Rock Around the Clock” to “The Great Pretender”) was chosen to provide emotional context, not just period atmosphere. He envisioned “American Graffiti” as a musical "with no singing or dancing."

This film is fun to watch and definitely deserves having been votes as one of the American Film Institute's top 100 Films of All Time. Watch it with a friend or alone, and if you were of age in the 1960s, answer the movie's famous log line: "Where were you in '62?"

Universal has released “American Graffiti” on DVD and Blu-ray at least twice since 1998’s 25th Anniversary Special Edition. The most recent release is the 2012 Blu-ray/DVD/Digital Download two-disc set issued as part of the Universal Studios 100th Anniversary series. This edition has a plethora of extra features, including several documentaries by Laurent Bouzerau, a French-born director who specializes in behind-the-scenes materials and making-of documentaries for DVDs and Blu-ray releases.

2012 Universal 100th Anniversary Special Edition Blu-ray Specifications

  • Format: Color, Widescreen, Multiple Formats
  • Language: English (Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo), English (DTS-HD 2.0), French (Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono), French (DTS-HD 2.0)
  • Subtitles: French, Spanish
  • Subtitles for the Hearing Impaired: English
  • Region: All Regions
  • Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
  • Number of discs: 2
  • Rated: PG (Parental Guidance Suggested)
  • Studio: Universal Studios
  • DVD Release Date: January 10, 2012
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