With his career finally in the fast track, Jack Nicholson took a sideways detour to Europe to act for the celebrated Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni. Zabriskie Point had pretty much washed up Antonioni at MGM, or so it seemed: With Nicholson starring and the studio under new management the director was given another shot. 1975's The Passenger did a quick trip through the theaters and more or less disappeared. It resurfaced only last year in new theatrical prints and is now available at its original European length, seven minutes longer than the original American release.
High-culture film critics have kept a high polish on The Passenger's artistic halo. A cursory web search will uncover serious analytical studies by worthy scholars. The film continues themes from Antonioni's Monica Vitti trilogy (L'Avventura, L'Eclisse, Red Desert) while probing the possibilities available in the thriller format, as with Antonioni's big success Blow-Up.
The Passenger begins in familiar Antonioni territory with Nicholson's David Locke floundering alone on a desert assignment. His guides abandon him, one after another. The desert doesn't need special stylization to achieve Antonioni's minimalist effects. When we pan away from Nicholson sitting by his stalled vehicle, there's just nothing but sand and rock.
Locke starts losing things immediately -- vehicles, guides, possessions -- and the story wastes no time getting him into a complex identity-switch story. We spend much of the movie looking for the motivation behind Locke's existentialist attempt to escape and / or disappear. Previous Antonioni characters share the same undefined dissatisfaction and seek to change their lives. At the end of Blow Up, David Hemmings literally vanishes. The Passenger suggests that the missing girl in L'Avventura may have disappeared on purpose.
David Locke: I used to be someone else but I traded him in.
Mark Peploe's story leans heavily on established thriller conventions. Locke's improvised identity switch is a good match for the gimmick in 1948's film noir Hollow Triumph (The Scar): A criminal seeks to hide himself by changing places with another man but discovers that his adopted identity is more of a problem than the one he left behind. Alfred Hitchcock and Ernest Lehman touched upon a similar existential dilemma in their North by NorthWest, which also takes the form of a road picture. Locke finds himself unequipped to handle a binary identity. As Locke he couldn't find the African rebels, but as Robertson he encounters the exact same people in a gun running deal.
Locke wants to escape his past and his profession but both catch up with him. Antonioni takes pains to spell out why the reporter considers himself a failure. Locke's "widow" Rachel told him that he doesn't press dishonest interview subjects hard enough. One perceptive interviewee confronted him with the notion that his feeble questions reveal only his own Eurocentric prejudices.
Locke is also aware that he essentially destroys the stories he covers by warping them into a viewer-friendly format. Rachel teams up with her husband's old colleague Martin Knight (Ian Hendry) to eulogize Locke on film, a film that will have the same problem. It won't show the real Locke, but the one the makers want to see. Rachel's efforts to locate her husband will actually destroy him.
Locke's meddling impersonation will have a similar effect. In the middle of this puzzle Antonioni reminds us that the struggle in the African nation is real by showing authentic film footage of an execution. Locke's aimless desire to get involved in something 'real' will result in the extermination of the same rebels he wants to help.
Most of The Passenger functions like any conventional narrative picture. It's recognizable as a road film when Locke is asked, "What are you running from?" and he indicates the trees disappearing behind his speeding car. It's also a spy chase film that resorts to exotic locations for visual interest. The bizarre rooftop of a Gaudi museum in Barcelona is already associated with intrigue in European spy thrillers like The Unknown of Shandigor. Locke is surprised when he accidentally crosses paths with various people he wants to avoid, and foolishly remarks that he's now a strong believer in coincidence.
Antonioni uses conventional flashbacks to inform us of Locke's background. An 'unhappy marriage' flashback is juxtaposed with Locke soberly witnessing a wedding in Munich. The personal intrigues are just as predictable as in any other thriller -- Rachel is even carrying on with a lover who most certainly predated her husband's reported death.
Director Wim Wenders must have been influenced by The Passenger. His science fiction epic Until the End of the World presents a spy chase to catch a man with a complex double identity. David Locke tells a story about a blind man who recovers his sight only to become suicidal upon seeing how ugly and dangerous the world looks. The story is acted out verbatim in Wenders' film.
David is given a passenger in the person of Maria Schneider, another conventional device to allow him to express his confusion. In Last Tango in Paris Schneider's character is at least given a name, but here she's just "The Girl."
The Girl's identity may be a major narrative revelation hiding in plain sight. Critic Jack Turner points out that when Locke arrives at the final hotel, the manager tells him that Schneider's "The Girl" has a passport that identifies her as Mrs. Robertson! Turner suggests that this accounts for The Girl's encouraging Locke to keep some of Robertson's appointments, even if it might put him in danger. The Girl might actually be the "Daisy" written in Robertson's appointment book, the contact the gunrunner is supposed to meet in Barcelona ... right where Locke finds her.
Or maybe she's not. Turner's conjecture is based on the hotel manager's rather unusual statement that since "Mrs. Robertson" has already checked her passport at the desk, "Mr. Robertson" need not do the same. The manager's darting eyes are suspicious, as is his general behavior -- does he drop the window shade as a signal? It's altogether possible that he's been contacted by the African agents and is setting "Robertson" up for a hit. If that's the case, the manager would have been told what name to listen for, and to be on the lookout for the girl as well. This explains why the killers know exactly where they are going, and how they access Locke's room so easily. Still, theory #2 doesn't explain the emphasis given the tantalizing "Daisy" entry in Robertson's appointment book.
The Passenger ends with a familiar Art Film flourish, a final long take that lasts six minutes and 33 seconds and wraps up the show on an acceptably ethereal note. It's a major production effect tastefully done, even if it mainly provides film buffs with a peg on which to hang worshipful conversations about the remarkable Mr. Antonioni.
Sony's DVD of The Passenger is an excellent enhanced transfer of this existential travelogue thriller. The picture is clean and the colors appear to be accurate; Luciano Tovoli's creative cinematography looks very handsome indeed.
A reissue trailer is included but the hot attraction is a pair of absorbing commentaries from key creatives on the film. Jack Nicholson is obviously in awe of Antonioni -- you can imagine Jack the young actor joining some of his unemployed pals to see L'Avventura and being impressed. Nicholson's comments are sparse and he talks his way through a lot of the plot, but he relates many production anecdotes and amusing experiences with the director. He compliments Ms. Schneider's performance but says he had to prop her up in one scene because she was woozy from pills. Nicholson narrates the famous final shot with breathless reverence. The best observation he makes addresses Locke's apparent lack of emotion as he discovers the dead body of Robertson: "It's interesting how little "acting" people do at important moments, when there's nobody around to act for."
The second track is by screenwriter Mark Peploe assisted by journalist Aurora Irvine. Peploe says that he wrote the basic script several years before filming. Co-writer and major film critic Peter Wollen, author of the influential book Signs and Meaning in the Cinema is mentioned in passing but his specific contribution isn't spelled out. Peploe talks about his personal filmmaking background and clarifies a few of the film's more obscure plot points.
Both Nicholson and Peploe repeat a bewildering observation. They hear a gunshot in the big final scene and imply that it marks the moment of Locke's death. At that point in the picture the camera (our POV both visually and aurally) is still in Locke's room, where we've been hearing quiet sounds such as the door latch when The Girl exits. The "shot" sounds quite far away and definitely nowhere near us. It is fairly obviously a backfire from the engine of the little driving school car that keeps crossing in front of Locke's barred window. But try telling that to an angry mob of film fanatics!
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Passenger rates: