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The Passenger (1975)

August 24th, 2007 · 3 Comments

After exploring the art of remakes, I’m embarking on a quest for some bona fide art cinema. Here’s the last of five articles on the films of Michelangelo Antonioni (1912-2007). I wrote this while sipping coffee product I can neither spell nor pronounce.

The Passenger poster.jpg

By Joe Valdez

David Locke (Jack Nicholson) arrives by Range Rover in an oasis in the Sahara Desert. He’s a documentary journalist searching for a war, but bottoms his vehicle out in the desert and finds little to report. Back at his hotel, he finds a fellow traveler named Robertson (Chuck Mulvehill) dead in his room. Locke observes how much he resembles Robertson physically, and decides to exchange identities with him.

Making his way to Munich, Locke inspects a locker belonging to his doppelganger. He discovers a catalog listing of weapons and is approached by two men he is in business of supplying arms to. Locke escapes to Barcelona, but learns that his wife (Jenny Runacre) is making overtures to locate Robertson to talk to him about her late husband.

At the Palacio Guell in Barcelona, Locke meets an unnamed architecture student (Maria Schneider) and solicits her to help him disappear. This proves just as impractical under his new identity as it was in his old, and the pair end up in a Spanish hotel where Locke meets his fate.

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Director Michelangelo Antonioni had been working on a project called Technically Sweet since the mid-1960s. This was part of his deal with producer Carlo Ponti to make three English language pictures for MGM. Jack Nicholson and Maria Schneider had agreed to star, but Nicholson dropped out when he learned Antonioni planned to shoot for 18 weeks in the Amazon. Donald Sutherland wasn’t interested either, and Ponti pulled the plug on the project.

The producer suggested a script he’d contracted Mark Peploe & Peter Wollen to write called The Passenger. It was a sort of thriller, based partly on Peploe’s experiences as a documentary journalist. Antonioni co-authored the shooting script, adapting the beginning and end to fit his sensibilities. He delivered a cut that ran 126 minutes, but MGM deleted two scenes to bring it under two hours. Antonioni condemned MGM’s version, and the film – at any length – was difficult to locate for years.

Jack Nicholson had long been interested in obtaining the rights to The Passenger and protecting it from further neglect. In 1983, he bought the negative, and purchased the global rights in 1986. It wasn’t until 2004 that the actor reached an agreement – with Sony Pictures Classics – to release the film on DVD. Nicholson provides his ever first audio commentary for the DVD and issues Antonioni’s 126-minute version of the film for the disc.

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There were things about The Passenger that stood out for me. The opening scenes – shot in southern Algeria – with their rocky vistas of the Sahara Desert and mysterious calm pulled me into the film initially. The characters were subordinate to the environment, but it was beautifully rendered environment. The film’s premise of a man trading his identity in for a new one appealed to me as well.

Once the story leaves Africa, the film maxed out my endurance and never repaid it. The pace is so excruciatingly slow and the film so devoid of any meaningful human interaction, it’s impossible for me to recommend. Watching this movie was like watching paint dry. There may be deeper meaning here for some, but I’d be more partial to attributing that to paint fumes.

Neither Nicholson nor Schneider are permitted to do or say much of anything interesting. The virtual absence of music gradually pushed me away from the images instead of pulling me toward them. Even an audacious seven-minute shot that concludes the film amounts to little more than fodder for film students to mull over. Released in Europe as Professione: reporter due to a copyright infringement there, I am not recommending this under either name.

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“Even with its dreaded ambiguity, there is much to admire in The Passenger, particularly in the artfulness of Antonioni’s editing and Luciano Tovoli’s camerawork,” writes Leo Goldsmith at Not Coming To A Theater Near You.

Matt Cale at Ruthless Reviews calls The Passenger, “a frustrating, difficult, outrageous, pretentious, yet captivating mess that had me storming the exits, yet returning to my seat time and time again to see how it all came out.”

View most of the famed seven-minute tracking shot that concludes the film.

Tags: Ambiguous ending · Cult favorite · Road trip

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Klaus // Aug 25, 2007 at 11:42 am


    great blog you have there! unfortunately, there is no contact form or any way of contacting you, so I’ll just leave my comment here, hoping you’ll find it.

    The thing is, your homepage is about 4 MB large! Simply because of the huge screenshots, which are mostly about 700 or 800 pixels wide and far over 100 Kb large. I’d recommend you to downsize them to about 500 Pixels (appr. width of your main content) and to use a higher compression rate for the jpegs. This way you should be able to cut the data transfer down to below 1 MB and the homepage would look almost exactly the same.

  • 2 Joe Valdez // Aug 25, 2007 at 9:51 pm

    Thanks for your approbation and your technical support, Klaus!

    The site should be much cleaner in terms of data transfer now. If further difficulties present themselves, clicking on my by-line will send you to my Facebook page and you can contact me there.

  • 3 mario // Dec 10, 2013 at 6:52 pm

    I respect your naive vision of the film. I am 54 years old and had seen The Pasenger 32 years ago. I reviewed it yesterday and I became fascinated with the movie. Probably there are two differences between your attitude and mine: I am from italian origin and years of philosophical research have developed in me the ability of enjoying meditation. Of seing not necesarily action but processes. Believe, it is the same case as in jazz: if you don`t feel the swing, you can not be explained. But I promise to write a full essay about this film, the most intricate I have ever seen (and believe me I have seen thousands, includin the relativy more plain Bergman). The Pasenger is a masterpiece, not of cinema, but of reflection on identity and the way of living. The idea is taken from Heidegger: someone who live like a Pasenger is someone who simple adopt a mecanical canon of living, in order to simulate a personality. The key question you must do to yourself is: Am I like Locke or like Robertson? The Pasenger is not merely a film for entertainment: is the exploration of the foundation of a social personality. Our masks for living and for dying.

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