In the pantheon of automotive films, a select few stand out as being above the rest owing to their quality, artfulness, or iconic status. Previously in this series, I have covered a few of them, such as Two-Lane Blacktop, Bullitt, and Vanishing Point. But there is one that I’ve saved like an ace up my sleeve for a while, as it is not just a high quality, artful and iconic film, but it happens to be one of my favorite movies of all time. So without further ado, I am pleased to give you my examination of American Graffiti in this month’s edition of Rob’s Car Movie Review!
Produced in 1973 by The Coppola Company and Lucasfilm, and released by Universal Pictures, American Graffiti was the sophomore writing and directing effort of George Lucas, following his less-than-auspicious debut film, THX-1138. Taking up the producer’s mantle was Lucas’ close friend, Francis Ford Coppola, and their mutual colleague, Gary Kurtz, who would later join Lucas in changing the world, producing the original three Star Wars movies.
The film’s cast is a truly startling ensemble of future Hollywood A-list actors and mega-stars at the beginning of their careers, including Ron Howard, Richard Dreyfuss, Harrison Ford, Cindy Williams, Candy Clark, Paul Le Mat, Mackenzie Phillips, Kathleen Quinlan, and Suzanne Somers, augmented by a cameo performance by legendary D.J., Wolfman Jack.
American Graffiti focuses on a group of Northern California high school graduates on the last day of summer in 1962, before they set out on the next chapter of their lives. Sweethearts Steve and Laurie (Howard and Williams) struggle to keep their love alive, with Steve leaving for college the next day, and Laurie staying behind in their small provincial town.
Intellectual Curt (Dreyfuss) deliberates whether or not he wants to go to college, in spite of having won the town’s prestigious scholarship.
Greaser drag-racer, John (Le Mat) ponders his go-nowhere future, as well as his buddies’ impending departure. Together, with a smattering of friends, they all try to assuage their concerns and fears with one last night of acting like reckless youths.
American Graffiti drove 1973 audiences wild with its nostalgic depiction of the wholesome America of the late fifties and early sixties; a time before Vietnam, political assassinations, race riots, drugs and Washington scandals stole away with America’s innocence. Combined with fantastic performances, and perhaps the greatest movie soundtrack of all time, which eschewed scoring for over forty period pop songs by The Beach Boys, The Flamingos, Frankie Lymon, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Buddy Holly, and countless others, the film became an instant classic and a financial blockbuster.
American Graffiti was also a technical masterpiece, with evocative cinematography, masterful editing and superb dialogue, all serving to enhance the multiple point-of-view, stream-of-consciousness plot progression. None of this was lost on Hollywood, which chose to give American Graffiti thirteen award nominations, including Academy Award nods for Best Picture, director, film editing, and Supporting Actress for Candy Clark.
Obviously no discourse on American Graffiti, certainly not on this website, could be complete without discussing the cars of the film, which almost take on characters of their own.
The apex vehicle in the movie is John’s ride, a heavily modded, Canary Yellow ’32 Ford Deuce Coupe. A classic hot rod chosen by Lucas himself because it reminded him of a car from his youth, the Ford featured a 1966 327 Chevy motor with fuelie heads, Man-A-Fre intake manifold, a quartet of Rochester 2GC two-barrel carbs, a Super T-10 four-speed manual with 4:11 gears and a Sprint Car style header-exhaust system. Keen observers will spy the car’s license plate, which reads THX-138, an in-joke referencing Lucas’ aforementioned debut film.
Another key car from the movie is the black, 1955 Chevy coupe driven by Harrison Ford. A fiberglass-bodied car, the Chevy packed a 427ci motor coupled to an M-22 Muncie transmission and 4.88 Olds rear-end. Car film fanatics will love to learn that this was the very same car driven by James Taylor and Dennis Wilson two years earlier in Two-Lane Blacktop!
Other fabulous cars in the film include Steve’s luminous, white ’58 Chevy Impala Coupe, a candy red, chopped 1951 Mercury custom driven by a street gang known as the Pharoahs, Laurie’s turquoise and white 1958 Edsel Corsair, and Suzanne Somers’ iconic, white ‘56 T-Bird with porthole hardtop and Continental Kit.
It is hard to overstate what a fantastic film American Graffiti is, and what an effect it had on audiences in America. Even if one did not live through the era of greasers, poodle skirts, sock-hops and hot rods, the film manages to evoke a strong feeling of nostalgia for an era gone by, and a yearning to get back to simpler times. A strong argument can be made for American Graffiti being the single greatest car film ever made, and every gear head must see it at least once in their life. I give American Graffiti nine out of ten pistons.
About The Author: Rob Finkelman is a freelance writer for Street Muscle Magazine. He attended and graduated from New York University’s film school in 1992, and subsequently worked in the movie business for twenty years as a documentarian and screenwriter. Combining his two great passions in life – films and cars – and writing about them is a dream job for him. He will be bringing us a Car Movie Review each month, and he’s open to suggestions so list yours below.