Sadly, American Graffiti represents a career path that George Lucas never chose to pursue. Four years after the release of this film, the albatross that is Star Wars would be permanently hung about his neck. By the time he finished the original trilogy, Lucas had turned his back on the sort of collaborative film-making that made Graffiti such a well-rounded success.
Although set in California in 1962, the film's premise is universal. The story takes place on a late summer night with several of the characters on the verge of life-altering decisions. All-star student Steve Bolander (Ron Howard) is gung-ho to leave town for university the following morning, to the point where he's willing to sever ties with his High School sweetheart Laurie Henderson (Cindy Williams).
Steve's best friend and Laurie's older brother Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) takes up the contrary view. Despite landing a respectable scholarship, Curt finds himself pondering the eternal conundrum: "It doesn’t make sense to leave home to look for home, to give up a life to find a new life, to say goodbye to friends you love just to make new friends." He spends the entire night prowling the town, looking for something to validate this stance.
Inter-spliced amongst this are the stories of several interesting supporting characters, including long-in-the-tooth greaser John Milner (Paul Le Mat), who gets stuck babysitting the prepubescent Carol Morrison (Mackenzie Phillips). We also witness the misadventures of resident nerd and community punching bag Terry "The Toad" Fields (Charles Martin Smith) who, after gaining custody of Steve's bitchin' car, finally has a shot at getting laid for the first time in his life.
The film's visual identity is immediately established with a gorgeous shot of the iconic Mel's Drive-In at dusk, virtually swarming with vintage cars. The beautifully-lurid nighttime cinematography really makes all of the ample neon lights pop. Everything has a hazy, dream-like quality to it. Throw in a massive back catalog of classic jukebox hits from the Fifties and early Sixties and you've got the makings of a nostalgia smart bomb.
I don't know how much of this was in the footage and how much of it was achieved by editors Marcia Lucas and Verna Fields, but all of the "cruising" scenes are dynamic and engaging. Particularly impressive are the many dialogue sequences involving two characters talking smack to one another while driving in two separate cars. This, of course, culminates with the high-speed drag race between John Milner and his obnoxious challenger Bob Falfa (Harrison Ford) at the climax of the film.
For a screenplay partially credited to George Lucas, the dialogue is actually quite clever. In all honestly, most of the credit should go to Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck for their contributions to the script. There's plenty of wise-assery, vintage references and, dare I say it, profundity to be found here. Witness this amusing exchange between John Milner and Carol:
Carol: [after John turns off the radio] Why did you do that?
John Milner: I don't like that surfin' shit. Rock and roll's been going downhill ever since Buddy Holly died.
Carol: Don't you think the Beach Boys are boss?
John Milner: You would, you grungy little twirp.
Carol: Grungy? You big weenie! If I had a boyfriend, he'd pound you!
John Milner: Yeah, sure.
Lucas and his casting director Fred Roos managed to assemble a ludicrous amount of talent for this film. Ron Howard, here in his proto-Ritchie Cunningham role, walks a very fine line. Initially it's kind of tough to sympathize with the guy after he drops such a blatantly repugnant proposal on Laurie. Fortunately he's redeemed by a palpable undercurrent of doubt and contrition which insures that the final act doesn't come as a shock.
An insanely youthful Richard Dreyfuss is stupendous as Curt. If you pay close attention you can detect a lot of interesting and subtle things that he does in this performance. Check out his impotent objections and barely-restrained anxiety during his encounter with "The Pharaohs", his sense of wonderment while investigating a local radio personality or his barely-restrained enthusiasm when encountering his dream-girl: the T-Bird Blonde (Suzanne Somers).
And then there's Paul Le Mat as John Milner. Like a fusion between Henry Winkler's Arthur Fonzerelli and Matthew McConaughey's David Wooderson from Dazed and Confused, John is desperate to suspend time and preserve the status quo. He's kind of a sad figure who's clearly too old to be cruising for High School chicks or defending his drag racing title against countless younger upstarts. Le Mat brings a tremendous amount of pathos to the role and the indignation he exhibits whenever someone mentions the concept of change reveals a lot about the character.
Charles Martin Smith's Terry "The Toad" Fields is surely one of the greatest early cinematic nerds. In spite of fender benders, armed robberies, grand theft auto, serial killers at large and borderline alcohol poisoning, nothing deters his quest to appease the lovely and flaky Debbie Dunham (Candy Clark). The amount of abuse he sustains in the film set the bar pretty high for nerds everywhere but though it all, Smith is awkwardly charming and relentlessly optimistic.
Equally charismatic is the adorable Cindy Williams. She does a stellar job playing a girl who's forced to act as if her world isn't in shambles. Her relationship with Ron Howard's Steve really encapsulates the fragility of High School romance, especially when it's threatened with distance and separation. She's invested and devoted while he's oblivious and ruled by hormones. Indeed, Williams plays "walking wounded" to perfection and her "revenge cruise" will have you yelling at the screen.
A host of tremendous minor players round out the impeccable cast. Candy Clark is gloriously blasé as Toad's dream girl *slash* Laverne & Shirley prototype Debbie Dunham. When she informs Terry that she "had a pretty good time tonight" you really get the impression that this is a typical evening for her. No less quirky is Harrison Ford's brief but memorable turn as Bob Falfa, who makes Han Solo look like Nelson Mandela. In fact, I'm pretty sure that Ford invented the concept of douchebaggery in much the same way Charles Martin Smith codified nerdism.
This film really represents the optimal equation for a decent Lucasfilm. George came up with a great concept, wrote a rudimentary script, let some infinitely more talented writers perfect the material and then he shot it on location and supervised a stupendous editing job. Throw in some great music, bitchin' rides and a cast of willful and talented actors and you have a winning formula that you wish Lucas had retained in the later stages of his increasingly-insular career.