THE PASSENGER

Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni. 1975.



 
 

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When a film is withdrawn from circulation for several years, it often acquires a reputation which can prove a useful marketing tool when it eventually reappears. The most notable modern example was the emergence in 1983 of the five “missing Hitchcocks”, including two of his masterpieces, Rear Window and Vertigo, which the director had withdrawn in 1968.

The latest example is Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger which, a few years after its original release in 1975, its star Jack Nicholson managed to acquire the rights to and stipulated that it could only be screened in the presence of either the director or himself. A year or two back the National Film Theatre had an Antonioni season which was to include a screening of The Passenger in the director’s presence, but due to his illness the screening had to be cancelled. The BBC managed to screen it sometime in the 1980s, which I saw at the time, presumably before the restriction came about.

Anyway, the legal constraint has now been removed, and the film is available in a restored print for theatrical and DVD screening courtesy of the British Film Institute. It has been worth the wait. Generally considered to be easily the best of Antonioni’s English-language pictures, it features Nicholson as a world-weary TV journalist, stuck in an unnamed North African country, who would like nothing better than to leave his life behind. He grabs the opportunity to do this by adopting another man’s identity, but soon discovers that he is now a gun-runner for a group of rebels, and from then on he is pursued by a variety of characters, not least his wife back in London when she discovers from his false passport photo that she is not a widow after all.

On the surface, The Passenger may seem a conventional thriller of a distinctly un-Antonionian kind. Its plot is highly implausible (we are asked to believe that a man who would like to lose his identity just happens to be staying in a hotel room next-door to a lookalike with the same Christian name who suddenly dies of a heart attack) and it contains several minutes of car chases. But it has also been described as an “anti-thriller” and a “metaphysical road-movie“. Antonioni has always set great store by landscapes and cityscapes, and here they range from long-held vistas of desert reminiscent of Lawrence of Arabia, to close-ups of the extraordinary Gaudi creations in Barcelona, to where the action eventually moves via London and Munich. As in the director’s two masterpieces L’Avventura and L’Eclisse, The Passenger is essentially a series of landscapes into and out of which people wander.

Like several other notable films (Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice, Kiarostami’s Through the Olive Trees, Haneke’s Hidden) The Passenger is famous for an extended take at the end during which the viewer must watch and listen carefully. In an extraordinary penultimate shot lasting 7 minutes, but which apparently took 11 days to set up and (presumably) rehearse, the camera moves imperceptibly through the narrow bars of a window, then turns slowly on its axis to look in at the window again.

In most of his films Jack Nicholson, like Cary Grant, basically plays himself. Here he is under the control of a dedicated director who knew exactly what he wanted and who was prepared to re-shoot a scene over and over again if necessary. It is certainly one of his best performances. I’m not sure however about his co-star Maria Schneider, cast presumably because of her somewhat scandalous success in Last Tango in Paris. To me she does little more than say her lines and look pretty, though others rate her performance more highly.

Overall a most welcome re-issue, and dedicated enthusiasts will wish to study that penultimate shot many times over.

Alan Pavelin
 
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