Psych-Out's first shot, after a brief deluge of captivating boxes of stills and videos that lay the crucial cultural backdrop for the film's story, is a wonderful close-up—crafted with a harmonious tranquility by director Richard Rush and cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs— that is pleasingly overwhelmed by Susan Strasberg's sculptured beatific face and flowingly silky raven hair. Strasberg is Jenny, a deaf youth searching for her brother in 1967 “Summer of Love” San Francisco. Before the viewer knows that, however, all that matters is the adorably beautiful face, hair and comportment of Strasberg's Jenny. She is sitting on the seat of a bus, looking in no particular direction. Colorfully splashing against the auburn chevelure she sports—a purple flower, being held by a woman outside the bus, her arm stretched into the mass transportation vehicle. The nearly soundless moment serves as the springboard from which an awesomely mesmerizing credits sequence, which speedily commutes through the Haight District. Enlivened by the catchy and honeyed-sounding “The Pretty Song From Psych-Out” by the Strawberry Alarm Clock, the credits sequence is like a short movie by itself, striking a joviality and wonderment that is impossible to dismiss as anything but terrifically edited manipulation. If Point Blank from the previous year partly chronicled the debilitating rot under the surface of 1960s San Francisco, Psych-Out swims in some of the sweeter waters and walks down the happier trails of the City by the Bay.
Psych-Out was based on a screenplay by Jack Nicholson called The Love Children. American International Pictures studio boss Samuel Z. Arkoff restructured the script significantly, and gave director Rush a mere eighteen days and two hundred thousand dollars with which to make the film. Produced by Dick Clark, Nicholson was able to maintain certain creative control, particularly allowed as he was to star in the role he had written for himself, Stoney. Psych-Out, as it would come to be called, turned out to be a launching pad of sorts for the eventual Oscar-winning star of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, from which Nicholson shot to stardom in the next year's Easy Rider while being lit by Psych-Out cinematographer Kovacs.
Before too long in the film, Jenny finds herself in the company of Stoney and his friends and fellow band members in a Haight District cafe. Laying low, these fellows are concerned about “The Man” without being excessively paranoid about it. The band, called “Mumblin' Jim,” is comprised of actors such as Adam Roarke as Ben and Max Julian as Elwood and (future director) Henry Jaglom as Warren. The banter between these denizens of the Haight District is loose, and realistic, with just the right plausible mixture of agreement, laughter at one another's expense, kindhearted verbal comedowns and jokes. After being lost and almost being run over by a conservative-looking man behind the wheel, wearing a suit-and-tie with glasses (“Dope-fiends!” he bitterly castigates her before learning that her odd behavior comes from her deafness), Jenny finds comfort in the relatively peaceful environs in which her new friends frequently call a haunt.
The first moment in which Stoney is found allows the the viewer to listen in on his conversation. “That's life,” he says with some weariness but mainly confidence. “You spend it.” Lingering on this profound realization, Rush's camera pans and tilts about, finding an intangibly egalitarian form of conversation that continues apace. The humor is witty, and believable. When one friend requests a cup of coffee, the black Elwood remarks, “I'll get it. Serving is part of my racial memory.” Protecting Jenny from “The Man,” Stoney quickly becomes curious about her. That is most understandable. After unleashing the Strawberry Alarm Clock's “Incense and Peppermints,” a conversation between Nicholson’s Stoney and Strasberg's Jenny buoys the filmmakers' handling of their own “exploitation” picture's philosophy. Stoney's curiosity forces him to ask a couple of questions to Jenny about her past, about where she comes from. Jenny becomes immediately upset, however, by the questions. His response: “It's okay. No one has to answer anyone else—that's what it's all about.”
The phantasmagoria in which Psych-Out indulges is almost entirely endearing. One such soothing set-piece involves a web-like structure of bead necklaces, strung about a large room. Young men and women kiss beneath the shining beads; Stoney's valuation of the memorable spectacle memorably draws out critical character information. Stoney may not be the idealized flower child whose primary aim in life is to spread peace and love at no cost—a bandmate accuses him of being a potential sell-out, looking off at the tantalizing bottom line, and his response is to throw the dreaminess of the counterculture in his face—but within his troubled soul he yearns for solitude and comfort.
He may not know that himself, however. Stoney and Jenny predictably fall for one another. A psychedelically wrought sex scene between the two is bewitching; as their bodies tangle with one another, the rug carpet adjacent to them is transformed, through dissolve shots, into a wheat field, and vice versa. The scene is romantic, but is fundamentally interested in the moist, nebulous fog of mind-altering substances. The entire sequence plays out like an effervescent light show. Stoney and Jenny lay abed in this somewhat plotless meditation on the counterculture, not unlike the devastating conversational scene in John Cassavetes' look at the beatniks and blacks in the late 1950s. Jenny asks Stoney what purpose an agent for their band would serve. “To make us famous like the Airplane,” Stoney sighs out. Stoney has his eye on fame, fortune and glory, even if he is halfway still committed to the appealing harmony of remaining among his friends. Rush and Kovacs form a short, pointed analysis of euphoria, and then return to its complications.
And complications arise. Dave (Dean Stockwell) is the seemingly self-appointed “guru” of the group, dispensing little hippie gems of somewhat faux wisdom. The moment he sees Jenny he wants to have her for himself. The hypocritical hippie was something of a trope in counterculture exploitation pictures, and Dave is one of those, but Stockwell's likability cancels out some of the slightly queasier aspects of the character. Elsewhere, Jaglom's Warren suffers from a “bad trip,” and when Jenny asks Warren's friends, “Why does he take that stuff?” she is told, “Don't judge people.” Nietzsche is invoked as a justification for people to not judge one another.
The screenplay and Rush do sometimes lurch toward overly pat, easy iconography, though its harmlessness mitigates most of these errors in judgment. One such amusingly goofy scene has a woman telling what appears to be her husband, outside a Haight church through which the love children wander, “The pastor seemed like such a nice man. How can he tolerate these people and how they dress?” Rush pans his camera, framing (quite exquisitely, as usual) a group of hippies who look startlingly, distractingly like Jesus Christ and the apostles. An arguable misstep here and there may dot the line of the film, but Rush's technique is primarily interested in candor. Some of the more tenuously didactic pieces may not win over people whose knowledge of the era depicted is limited to films such as this made at the time, but they hardly help to confute Rush's sympathetic distillation of the time he, Kovacs and Nicholson were all attempting to capture in a cultural snapshot.
Rush's critical focus shooting technique, an invention for which he himself claims credit, brings many of Psych-Out's most emotionally charged moments to the forefront, and to life. This stylistic flourish, by which Rush briskly alternates between foreground and background figures, is given new, compelling meaning in Psych-Out, especially whenever it involves Nicholson’s Stoney, whose verbal comments to other characters are sometimes belied by his facial reactions. Jenny is appropriately treated as an angel of sorts—which is not to say that Rush places her on a pedestal. The character is in multiple ways the innocent babe in the woods, and the viewer is encouraged to share in her jejune wide-eyed wonderment. Stoney and David both find her brightness of spirit irresistible, and it is against the tender callowness represented by Jenny that the more jadedly aloof philosophizing and bickering between the two is cast. “David, the acid has curdled and turned you sour,” Stoney states in the film's most pointed and meaningful line. Psych-Out comes down on the love children it follows, though appropriately enough, the blow is almost dealt with flower petals, so softly it finally, gently lands.