Film review – American Graffiti (1973)

American GraffitiAt first glance American Graffiti appears to be a nostalgia trip back to the early 1960s, the teenage years of its now legendary filmmakers – producer Francis Ford Coppola who at the time had just directed The Godfather and writer/director George Lucas who would go on to create the Star Wars franchise. Made in 1973 and set over one summer night in a small town in California in 1962, American Graffiti depicts the adventures and misadventures of a group of teenagers on the brink of adulthood. Upon closer reflection American Graffiti casts a bitter/sweet shadow over a time of perceived innocence, suggesting that the ideal of a simpler way of life was just a front for a far bleaker and cynical reality. It’s one of the all-time great feel good films, but its sly cultural commentary is what makes it the masterpiece that it is.

In many ways American Graffiti set the template for the coming-of-age teen film. The characters are all distinctive types and the film is set over just one night, where the revelations that the characters experience have a profound impact on how they view themselves and their place in the world. The four main characters are the nice guy Steve Bolander (Ron Howard), the tough drag-racing guy John Milner (Paul Le Mat), the awkward nerdy guy Terry ‘The Toad’ Fields (Charles Martin Smith) and the slightly whimsical Curt Henderson (Richard Dreyfuss).

American Graffiti: Curt Henderson (Richard Dreyfuss)
Curt Henderson (Richard Dreyfuss)

Over the course of the night all four characters are either revealed to the audience in a new light or see the world around them in a new light. Steve’s treatment of his high school sweetheart Laurie Henderson (Cindy Williams) suggests that under the small-town politeness and boyish good looks he is not such a nice guy, while John is shown to be a bit of a softy. More importantly John realises that by becoming the king of the road he faces a future of either being eventually usurped by a young challenger or forever being a big fish in a small pond. While Terry learns the more conventional lesson that being himself is enough to impress a girl, it is Curt’s story that is most interesting.

Curt has the most reason and opportunity to break free from the path set out for him. Unlike Steve, who was presumably always destined for college, Curt seemingly would have been destined to remain in his childhood town with John and Terry if he hadn’t earned a college scholarship and therefore his ticket out. On the eve of his departure he is nervous and anxious about leaving, making his night a journey of self-discovery to assess what he should do. While hankering for the past and developing an impossible and intangible obsession with a mysterious blonde woman in a Ford Thunderbird, Curt finds fewer and fewer reasons to stay. Like Truman in The Truman Show, Curt sees behind the scenes for the first time and it changes his entire worldview. His teenage years are over now that he can see that the world is much less glamorous, noble and exciting than it once seemed.

American Graffiti: John Milner (Paul Le Mat)
John Milner (Paul Le Mat)

The car has long been a symbol in American cinema for freedom and status, and in American Graffiti cars play a very important role in the lives of the characters. Cars are status symbols to admire, they are used to assert dominance when revved at traffic lights and they can take the characters out of town to secluded spots for make-out sessions. As the cynicism begins to creep into the film images of car crashes increasingly become a fixture in the film in dialogue, setting and storyline to once again indicate a dying mythology for both youth and America in general. As the lyrics ‘We’ve been having fun all summer long’ by The Beach Boys fades over the film’s final credits, it is difficult to shake off the sad feeling that now that summer is over the fun is over too. It won’t ever be the same again and now the characters have little to look forward to other than mediocrity or worse.

American Graffiti functions as a final farewell to childhood dreams before reality steps in. The main sting in the tail is that the film also signifies the end of the post-WWII American Dream. It is especially telling when Curt is teased about his ambition to one day shake hands with President John F Kennedy. Audiences now and in 1973 will recognise that Curt will never fulfil that ambition as a year later Kennedy would be assassinated.

American GraffitiFor the most part American Graffiti is a joyous and frequently very funny vicarious night in the life of a likeable group of characters. The film’s multiple intersecting narratives and exhilarating constant use of diegetic music (heard by the characters in the film as well as the audience) create a wonderful sense of time and place. American Graffiti has lost none of its charm or energy, making it one of the many great masterpieces of the New Hollywood era.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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  1. Your interesting review of this film moved me to get a copy from the local library–a 2003, region 1 from Universal, the studio that released the film. I first saw it in 1973 and had not had a complete viewing since then. I completely had blanked that it was in 2.35.


    In ’73, the release year, the U.S. was still bogged down in the Viet Nam war, which was drafting men of the film’s era and later in great numbers. The country was extremely divided. In the epilogue biographies at the end of the film, we learn that Terry dies in the war, and Curt lives in Canada, to avoid the draft most likely, As you observe, in 1962, John Kennedy was still alive; it was an era of hope. Also, rock music had yet to enter the era of the Beatles and the British invasion, which would later help underscore the anti-war movement (“All You Need is Love”).

    I really appreciated your contrast of John (Paul Le Mat) and Steve (Ron Howard), who both reveal themselves to be different from what they initially seem.. I loved the interaction between Le Mat and McKenzie Phillips in his characters car, some of the most endearing moments of the film that helped to fully develop and reveal his character.

    The film negative format for Grafitti was a non-anamorphic 2.35 format called Techniscope that put that ratio on half an academy frame, so it was only two perfs in height. It saved money, since you used less film with the smaller frame, which the producers must have liked, since this film was on a tight budget. The release print was optically enlarged to full frame anamorphic, which is grainier than proprietey anamorphics like Pananvision.

    Wikipedia indicates there’s an Australian connection! A company there called MovieLab (owned by Kelvin Crumplin) is attempting a revival of the format as an alternative to Super16 with the same cost saving. They call the format MultiVision 235. It should compete with Super35 as well, which for the 2.35 ratio has the same resolution, yet uses twice the film stock. Still, the ever-increasing use of digital may have changed the economics of a lot of these alternative formats.

    This DVD release includes a lengthy “making of” documentary that has a wealth of production and technical information and some wonderful screen tests of the actors, as well as fairly recent interviews.

    As your review reveals, this film has a pivotal position in cultural and film history. You were fortunate to see a new theatrical print. It never made it to my part of Florida that I’m aware of, or I missed a short run.

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