One of the most enjoyably warm, evocatively atmospheric – and maddeningly frustrating – of all films. Frustrating because, thanks to its enormous success, director Lucas was able to retreat forever into Star Wars, a grim cul-de-sac masquerading as a boundless universe. American Graffiti suggests Lucas’s retreat was as much a tragedy for US cinema as Michael Reeves’ early death was for the UK – here was a bold young film-maker with the skill and verve of peak-form Robert Altman, but none of Altman’s bracing sournes: Lucas instead aims relentlessly upbeat in his recreation of one night in his home town of Modesto, California, in the early 60s. Perhaps there’s too much incident for one night, but this is forgivable excess: multiple plot strands fan out and criss-cross as the camera tracks the dozen or so principal characters, most of them teenagers on the verge of adult responsibility. Interestingly, the biggest impact is made by the oddest couple – underage thrillseeker Mackenzie Phillips and jaded twentysomething hotrodder Paul LeMat, thrown together by force of circumstance but turning out to be an unforgettably well-matched platonic duo – two great performances. Don’t look for subtlety or depth – this is a closed circuit of shimmering, nocturnal, neon surfaces, held together by a patchwork of rock standards, and only the closing moments, telling us (against our will) what happened to all these people, rings at all false. Modesto, 1962 – you are there: pure adrenaline, pure cinema.

. 9/10
US 1973, dir. George Lucas, 110m

this review written approx 2001. Rating upgraded to 10/10 after viewing on Betamax, 3rd January 2014.