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The third of Antonioni's English-language films for MGM after Blow-Up (1966), and Zabriskie Point (1970). All three divided critical
opinion while containing scenes and technical innovations which have become part of movie history and popular culture. With its slow pace and
meandering plot, The Passenger (ludicrously titled Professione: reporter in its original version), is perhaps truer to Antonioni's
Jack Nicholson (The Missouri Breaks) is David Locke, a foreign correspondent in the Sahara seeking a rebel army to interview. After wandering aimlessly in the stunning landscape, Locke returns to his hotel to discover that the only other apparent guest, Englishman Robertson, has died in his room. Noting their similarity Locke doctors their passports and assumes Robertson's identity. In a sequence of flashbacks Robertson reveals that he has a weak heart exacerbated by heavy drinking, and the pair reveals something of their personal philosophies. It is not particularly clear why Locke switches his identity for that of Robertson. Despite subsequent reveals about Locke's life, his actions as Robertson, although complicated by the latter's profession, do little except suggest a desire for anonymity, a total negation of self within society to become the 'passenger' of the wholly more appropriate English title.
Locke travels to Germany on the basis of entries in Robertson's diary, where he is approached by two of the latter's clients. Locke realises that Robertson was an arms dealer and accepts a substantial payment from the pair for a shipment. Robertson's contacts are representatives of a rebel army and they reveal that Robertson was something of an idealist who believed in their cause. These two are later apprehended by agents of the African state that they oppose and it is obvious that Locke as Robertson will become their next target.
Back in London, Locke's wife Rachel (Jenny Runacre, The Final Programme) and his colleague Martin (Ian Hendry, Get Carter) look at old footage of Locke's interviews, and Jenny suggests that her husband didn't engage with anything or question what he was being told, he was too accepting. Rachel is having an affair, and clearly the Locke marriage was in trouble, but when she receives her husband's effects, and discovers the doctored passport, she travels to Europe to try and find her husband and determine what has happened.
Hiding from Martin, who is pursuing Robertson in Barcelona, Locke becomes involved with an architecture student played by Maria Schneider (Last Tango In Paris). While Rachel pursues her husband the agents of the African state are also in attendance. The girl, who Locke has already mysteriously spotted in London which prompts a growing belief in coincidences, urges him to keep the appointments in Robertson's diary. Pursued by the police who are aiding Rachel, Locke urges the girl to leave him promising to meet with her in Tangiers. In fact they meet up in Seville where Locke tells her a tale about a blind man who regained his sight and, after the initial wonderment had worn off, found the world small, dirty, and disappointing. The girl leaves Locke to sleep, and in an extraordinary tracking shot through the bars of his bedroom window we see various incidents, including the African agents arrive, and while one distracts the girl the other enters Locke's room and out-of-shot kills him. On the commentary track Nicholson 'reveals' that Antonioni setup the entire complicated sequence because he could not bring himself to shoot Locke's death scene.
Beautifully shot and lit by Luciano Tovoli the film contains three standout sequences. The opening shots of the Sahara are sumptuous, the final long single shot is obviously one for the film students, and an earlier scene where Locke leans out from a cable car, appearing to fly over a stretch of water, is an evocative piece of symbolism for the character's desire for freedom. The film is carried by the wonderful playing, or down-playing. Nicholson is always watchable and Schneider's pouty concern is a perfect foil. Hendry and Runacre are a little more earnest.
The DVD extras include a commentary track by Nicholson - slyly mischievous, informative and revealing, delivered in that wonderful drawl; and another by screenwriter Mark Peploe, and Aurora Irvine.