'American Graffiti': THR's 1973 Review
On August 1, 1973, George Lucas brought his nostalgic film American Graffiti to the big screen at the Avco Cinema Center in Los Angeles. The Hollywood Reporter's original review is below:
Good movies about being young in America, like East of Eden, Bonnie and Clyde and Easy Rider, sometimes receive such gigantic commercial and critical acceptance that they single-handedly create new directions in filmmaking. American Graffiti, produced by Francis Ford Coppola and directed by George Lucas from a screenplay by Gloria Katz, Willard Huyck and the director, is certainly the freshest American movie in years and may well prove to be a watershed film of major importance.
American Graffiti takes place in Modesto, California, in the early '60s, the twilight of American innocence, before drugs, Vietnam, assassination and political protest. During one night the town's teenagers cruise the city streets in their fancy cars, fighting, dueling, arguing, falling in and out of love.
The ingeniously structured screenplay by Katz, Huyck and Lucas offers up a load of wonderful characters who whirl about in ducktail haircuts and shirtwaist dresses, lost in the obscenity of American culture. Thanks to some of the most spirited, daffy dialogue since Lubitsch, their sweetness is deliriously funny. No matter how high the dramatic stakes become, the movie never loses its sense of humor, and although it has a lot to say, it's gloriously free of pretensions.
Lucas' great accomplishment is that the proceedings don't look like camp. Instead, the movie is a comic poem which celebrates the past but also catalogues its textures with telling precision. American Graffiti looks like no other movie, an achievement which is always the best measure of a truly gifted director.
The casting by Fred Roos and Mike Fenton is astonishing, down to the least important extra. Richard Dreyfuss plays the movie's hero with humorous self-possession, a feeling of sanity which makes him a born survivor.
Ronny Howard plays the good, responsible kid, the class president in love with head cheerleader Cindy Williams, who gives the movie's best performance as an engaging slip of a girl who probably doesn't know she's destined to a dreary, housewifey existence.
Paul Le Mat is the tough guy who wears his cigarettes rolled up in the sleeve of his T-shirt; he picks up feisty MacKenzie Phillips, a subteen too young to be seen with. Soon, they're at each other's throats but find, almost in spite of themselves, something together.
The comic duo is Candy Clark, a bleached blonde looking for liquor, sex and cheap thrills, and Charlie Martin Smith, a small guy who wears glasses and tries to pretend he's not insecure. Clark and Smith are blessed with the best characterizations, and they take the movie away with their dizzy but warm bubble-headedness.
Harrison Ford is excellent as the king of the road in his fine car, a man destined to be dethroned because he's too old to be playing such games. Bo Hopkins is the arrogant leader of the local street gang; Manuel Padilla Jr. and Beau Gentry are his followers.
The smaller parts, and there are dozens of them, are as affectionately observed as the major ones. The performers who stand out are Kathy Quinlan, Terry McGovern, Jana Bellan, Jim Bohan, Scott Beach and Al Nalbandian.
The intricate, provocative soundtrack created by Walter Murch and Lucas is one of the film's highlights. Throughout the movie disc jockey Wolfman Jack speaks through car radios, announcing an endless stream of '50s and '60s hits which create a parallel dramatic subtext.
The film's steady technique serves the story with disciplined control. The fine photography by visual consultant Haskell Wexler, Ron Eveslage and Jan D'Alquen is light years from superficial gloss. The film editing by Verna Fields and Marcia Lucas manipulates the sometimes hectic pace without assaulting the audience.
The art direction of Dennis Clark is superb, and the costumes of Aggie Guerard Rodgers look authentic without being grotesque, no mean feat given the way teenagers used to get themselves up. — Alan R. Howard, originally published on June 19, 1973.