50 Greatest Movies – American Graffiti (1973)

A, Movies, Reviews

Where were you in ’62?

George Lucas has really only directed 3 movies, THX1138, American Graffiti, and Star Wars. Two are science-fiction and one is historical*. Very recent historical, for when American Graffiti was filmed, it was only going back 10 years. But what a decade! Possibly no decade in history has endured the kinds of cultural changes wrought in the years between 1962 and 1972. Music, fashion, and social mores, are all pretty much divided into pre-Beatles and post-Beatles eras.

Most of what we call “the Sixties” began in November 1963 with the assassination of President Kennedy followed almost immediately by the arrival of the Beatles.

American Graffiti follows four friends during their wanderings through one August night in Modesto, California in 1962. Two of the friends are due to leave the next morning for college back East. Steve (Ron Howard) can’t wait to leave this “turkey town” while Curt (Richard Dreyfuss), even though the more intellectual of the pair, is more hesitant to make such a drastic change.

The other two friends, Terry (Charles Martin Smith), aka Toad, who’s kind of a nerd (in the old sense of the word), and John Milner (Paul Le Mat), the cool cat who drives a yellow Deuce Coupe that’s the fastest car in the Valley and has been as long as anyone can remember.

Terry is fairly content, he just wishes he were more popular. But John is sore that his friends are leaving while he’s stuck being a “perpetual teenager.”

Overseeing the whole affair via the omnipresent radio is the omniscient Wolfman Jack (Wolfman Jack).

Steve leaves his customized 1958 Impala to Toad while he’s gone to college. Toad can’t believe it! “Tonight, things are going to be different,” but he still doesn’t seem to get much respect. However, Toad does get a chick because of the car, and they have some wild adventures.

Curt sees a beauty (Suzanne Somers) in a white 1956 Thunderbird who seems to mouth through the window of her car “I love you” just as she takes off. Curt can’t believe this dazzling beauty claims to love him and sets off to find her while he tries to find himself. He ends up spending most of the night with a bunch of hoodlums culminating in one iconic scene involving a police car.

Steve and his girlfriend Laurie (Cindy Williams) try to figure the immediate future out. He wants to agree to date other people, “just to be sure… not that there’s any doubt!” but she wants him to stay and marry her.

John goes cruising trying to find a girl to ride around with him. A car full of girls asks if he wants “Judy’s little sister” he assumes she’s around the age of the girl he’s talking to. She gets out and the car takes off before the girl gets into Milner’s hot rod. Too late, he realizes he’s stuck with a 13-year-old girl, which is not only bad for his reputation, it can land him in jail. While trying to figure out how to get rid of her without leaving her in danger, there’s a new hot-shot looking to race him, Bob Falfa (Harrison Ford) in a black 1955 Chevy.

The stories intertwine and separate and intertwine and separate all to come back together again at the end.

My pedestrian attempt at plot summary does not begin to expound on the beauty of this film. The entire film is populated with fully rounded characters, and the struggles they are going through feel very real: the jealousies, the rivalries, figuring out what do with next in life, how to get out of this tight spot, the cowardice, the bravery, the bravado, the humor, the pathos. After showing this film to people I’ve been asked a surprising number of times if it’s a true story. That’s how real the film is.

The music is killer. I have listened to the soundtrack for many years and as a teenager in the early ’80s we listened to it while cruising in my 1963 Impala. Of course, American Graffiti‘s got great cars. As a true car guy, I love that. My current ride is a 1958 Bonneville, very similar in body style to the 1958 Impala in the movie, just the tail section is a different.

*I know Star Wars was “A long time ago,” but that doesn’t count as historical.

P.S. I’m still watching this on VHS, if anyone wants to buy me the Blu-ray, I will be forever in your debt!

Pictures cribbed from around the net. You know, since I only have the VHS. I know, I’m cheap. I won’t upgrade until I have to.

American Graffiti. Directed by George Lucas. Written by George Lucas, Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck. Starring Ron Howard, Richard Dreyfus, Paul LeMat, Charles Martin Smith, Cindy Williams, Mackenzie Phillips, Candy Clark, Bo Hopkins, and Harrison Ford. PG. 112 minutes.

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