Jack Nicholson is David Locke, a British-born, American-raised journalist, working in Africa, covering a bourgeoning rebellion. Despite the fact that Locke was respected and successful in his profession, his heart was never into it. Unsuccessful in his attempts to make contact with the rebels on his current assignment, upon return to his hotel, he finds the corpse of fellow Briton, David Robertson (Chuck Mulvehill). Locke had a brief but affecting conversation with Robertson a few nights before and Locke has decided to literally trade places with the dead man. Locke will assume the identity of Robertson, and as far as the world is concerned, the corpse of Robertson will become the corpse of David Locke. With his new identity, Locke, now Robertson, locates to Europe where he casually pursues the future appointments of the dead man. Hoping to create a new life for himself, Locke, now Robertson, becomes embroiled in the drama of the dead man's life; and the past which he desired to escape is now becoming impossible. Michelangelo Antonioni "was revered by [Dennis] Hopper and [Jack] Nicholson," and "he was one of the first outsiders invited to see" Easy Rider (30). It was during this time that Nicholson agreed to be in a film for Antonioni, and Nicholson "owed" a film to the Italian director "on a handshake." (245). Likewise, Antonioni owed MGM the final picture of a three-picture deal with the previous two being Blowup (1966) and Zabriskie Point (1970). (245) Producer Carlo Ponti backed out of the original feature that was to star Nicholson and Maria Schneider to be helmed by Antonioni entitled Technically Sweet. (246) Instead, Antonioni took some ideas from the failed project and from a story sketch by Mark Peploe, and The Passenger (1975) was born. (246) Author Patrick McGilligan astutely relates the following facts, prominently evinced in the finished film: "MGM gave Peploe's treatment the green light. Cast and crew arrived on location in Algeria, however, without a finished script. This was preferable to Antonioni and only one of the unorthodox aspects of his working method...¶The director prided himself on being 'the outside pole of filmic idiosyncrasy,' in Nicholson's words. MGM was under the impression that Peploe's treatment augured a suspenseful thriller. But in Antonioni's hands The Passenger would become antidrama, a pseudo-thriller, 'a very long and elaborate and elusive chase,' according to Nicholson." (Jack's Life: A Biography of Jack Nicholson, W.W. Norton and Company, New York, 1995. p. 246. This is also the source for all previous parenthetical notations and all future ones.)
Michelangelo Antonioni is indisputably one of cinema's masters. Despite the wealth of intellectual ideas and accompanying artistic creativity with those ideas, I have always valued Antonioni first and foremost as a divinely gifted creator of images and one of the most sensual filmmakers that history has ever seen. Some of the most affecting and beautiful and powerful compositions that I have ever seen have come from Antonioni. From L'Avventura (1960), for example, my mind always hearkens to the image of the young woman's legs, tickling the paper bills at her feet with her toes. His cinema is seductive and emotionally infectious. I could care less that the following sounds pretentious, but I cannot say that I haven't been changed and affected in a monumental way by seeing Antonioni's cinema.The Passenger is dialectical. Most of the substance and the overwhelming themes of the film are in a tape-recorded conversation between Locke and Robertson that Locke plays while he sits in front of two passports about to make the symbolic gesture of swapping the two photos. (Not surprisingly, critic and theorist Peter Wollen, author of the Signs and Meaning in the Cinema, contributed to the script of The Passenger. (246)) In addition to its dialogue the Locke-Robertson recording affords Antonioni the opportunity to deliver one of the film's most heartfelt sequences. The Algerian imagery, which begins the film almost in silence, as Locke attempts to make contact with the rebels, informs the loneliness that brings Robertson and Locke together. Robertson, during that fateful evening, offers Locke a drink and from all appearances, Robertson only wanted some temporary and intimate company for the evening. The two did achieve an intimacy and a strong bond, but not quite what Robertson wanted. Both are "globe-trotters," and each remarks upon their mode of travel: Robertson believes that everywhere is essentially the same with the same formalities despite the outsider; whereas Locke believes the opposite--the individual traveler is the one who is the same and is constant, and his worldview is what clouds his surroundings. Hidden in this dialogue is Locke's impetus, and Antonioni's whole rendition of the sequence is masterful. A spiritual connection is forged between the two, and the viewer can actually feel it while watching. When Nicholson has a "chance" meeting with Maria Schneider, who is known only as "Girl" in the credits, about halfway into The Passenger, Antonioni quietly invigorates like Locke's character. By far my favorite portion of the film, beautiful Schneider steals the remainder of The Passenger. Gorgeous Antoni Gaudí architecture introduces the two, and the rooftop meeting where Locke enlists the help of Schneider's character is memorable. One of the most famous sequences from the film comes when Schneider asks Locke, now as Robertson, "one question": What is he running away from? He responds to her by asking her to turn around in their convertible where she sees the road behind them speeding past. In less adept hands, it wouldn't seem as affecting and beautiful. The Passenger is an Antonioni mystery, and anyone familiar with the filmmaker's work knows how Antonioni treats mystery and what he values. The Passenger was lensed by Luciano Tovoli, and it is a triumphant achievement in his acclaimed career. Like most of his cinema, there are more questions at the end of The Passenger than there are answers, but like most of his cinema, The Passenger is always worth revisiting, as Antonioni is always revealed as a true and affecting artist. Essential.