Filmmaker Firsts: Richard Rush

#13: Psych-Out (1968) – dir. Richard Rush

Director Richard Rush is probably best remembered for his 1974 action-comedy Freebie and the Bean and the 1980 drama The Stunt Man, but he started out in the 1960s and early 70s with a series of psychedelically-minded flicks. Wait, you mean you haven’t heard of Hell Angels on Wheels (1967) or The Savage Seven (1968)? What about the more mainstream Of Love and Desire (1963) starring Merle Oberon or Getting Straight (1970) starring Elliott Gould and Candice Bergen? Well, no matter. Psych-Out might be a good starting point for getting to know the small but interesting output of Richard Rush. Besides, it can’t be all bad if Strawberry Alarm Clock makes an appearance.

Susan Strasberg plays a deaf woman who escapes from her institution (it’s never explained how) and wanders the Haight-Ashbury area of San Francisco in search of her brother. Why, you ask, is Strasberg’s character deaf? The film explains it, but I don’t think it was really a necessary plot element. The main point is that her character starts out not being a hippie and gradually sort of becomes one. Anyway, at least Strasberg has much more to do here than in her previous counterculture film, The Trip (1967).

Jack Nicholson is the hippie who helps Strasberg on her search, they develop romantic-type feelings for one another, etc. It’s pretty obvious that Nicholson’s ponytail is fake, but I think that’s part of the fun.

…he’s also the lead guitarist of a band. Gnarly.

Don’t tell me you don’t love Bruce Dern’s gloriously weird mop of hair (another fabulous wig). His character, the boringly named Steve Davis, prefers to go by the more exciting (or just more pretentious) moniker “The Seeker” on his high-as-a-kite quest for God. Dern’s not in the film for long, but it’s worth sticking around to see his unique brand of oddness. It’s always amusing to me that Dern often played these kinds of drugged-up nutcases since he’s famous for not dabbling in substances – not even coffee.

The other main character, a hippie guru who’s sweet on Susan Strasberg, is played by Dean Stockwell. Sporting long hair (of course – and I assume it’s another wig), bushy eyebrows (even more so than usual, in Stockwell’s case) and Native American-style clothing, this spiritually-inclined pill popper makes such wise remarks as “reality is a bad place” and “it’s all just one big plastic hassle.” Stockwell’s digs at commercialism and mass culture show up in the dialogue of The Trip and Easy Rider too, but Psych-Out is easily the most entertaining of the three. It must be all the long hair. Add to that the good cinematography by László Kovács (also the DP of Easy Rider) and you get an enjoyable little film. It’s not quite a classic, but it’s enjoyable all the same.

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