ON DVD & BLU-RAY
The Passenger (1975) dir: Michelangelo Antonioni Blu Ray (Indicator)
A change of identity
Jack Nicholson plays David Locke, an American-educated British journalist who travels to an unnamed Saharan African country in order to make a documentary about a guerrilla faction. While he is staying in a hotel, he befriends a mysterious businessman named David Robertson (Charles Mulvehill). When he finds the latter lying dead on his bed, he decides to swap passport photos with him and appropriate his clothing and other belongings. By doing this, Locke becomes officially dead and can travel the world experiencing life under this new identity. Locke uses Robertson’s diary and keys to travel in what would have been his footsteps.
As his journey takes him to various European locations - London, Munich and Spain - he finds out more about Robertson’s life as an arms dealer. He also crosses paths with an enigmatically beautiful young woman (played by Maria Schneider) who soon becomes his travelling companion. Meanwhile, Locke’s estranged wife Rachel (Jenny Runacre) and a reporter colleague named Martin Knight (Ian Hendry) digest the news of his reported demise. On hearing that his “death” was reportedly discovered by Robertson, they attempt to track the latter down - thus creating major complications for Locke’s plans. To make matters worse, Locke has also inherited the various dangers which come with Robertson’s job.
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A reconfigured adventure movie
While Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger has elements of both the adventure movie and the thriller, in function it is something very different to what you might expect from either genre. There’s only a little in the way of traditional action or tension, be they the screw-tightening scenarios of Hitchcock’s best films or the elaborately exuberant scenes of peril from the Indiana Jones series. It might be more accurate to say that it encapsulates the spirit of leaving behind your own personal baggage (quite literally here, in that bug-infested hotel in North Africa) and experiencing the curious fascination of living a life quite different to your own.
The director, along with his kindred spirit - cinematographer Luciano Tovoli - positively dwell over the various multinational locations with a languid, sun-bleached fascination. That said, this is no tourist advertisement. True, there is a scene where Nicholson stretches his arms out of the open window of a cable car in front of a breathtaking ocean landscape, as if trying to soar to the heavens therein. True, Luciano Tovoli has a fine eye for painterly composition that reaches its apex with the devastatingly beautiful final shot. However, there’s also an emphasis on the banal and lived-in, of remote third world hotels with no soap, of sleepy Spanish villages where stray dogs hobble across the dusty ground and of the grey grot-encrusted surfaces Barcelona’s Gaudi architecture (this was during the days before it received its 1992 Summer Olympics facelift). Later on in the film, our protagonist chimes in with a monologue about the experiences of a blind man who regained his sight:
“The world was much poorer than he imagined. No one had ever told him how much dirt there was. How much ugliness. He noticed ugliness everywhere.”
Jack Nicholson may be the top-billed star here but, unlike most of his other films, there isn’t the sense that he’s the master of ceremonies. It’s not so much that his performance is half-hearted (it most certainly isn’t) as that it’s surprisingly restrained and unusually short on dialogue. There is there odd moment when he cuts loose - such as when he repeatedly hits a Land Rover with a shovel in frustration after it gets stuck in the burnt orange desert sand. Even these moments, however, have been shot at a mid-to-long distance by Antonioni, thus keeping the viewer’s attention on the vastness of the surrounding landscape more than our top-billed star. In many ways, Nicholson is even upstaged by euro actress Maria Schneider. While she’s a striking beauty, she also has a childlike sense of innocence in both her appearance and demeanour which perfectly reflects her unquenchable fascination in Locke’s escape.
There are also spiritual aspects here which are presented in their truest sense - that of consummation of the human experience rather than of adherence to tiresome religious dogma. In one scene, Locke meets his two contacts in a church. It becomes clear that it’s not the meeting itself that is the focus - it’s the surrounding celestial symbolism. There’s an undeniable sense of the astral plane in the vivid brightness and vastness of the landscapes here. One of the main climactic scenes is a lengthy continuous take which floats out of a hotel room into the street in the manner of an out-of-body experience. While Locke may only be officially dead, there is a pervasive sense that he may be also dead in the genuine sense, his ghostly form travelling the world in an attempt to finally come to rest.
Of course, there’s plenty of room for you to extract your own personal meaning from The Passenger. It’s a masterpiece in the truest sense of the word - a film to be openly discussed rather than criticised.
Runtime: 126 mins
Dir: Michelangelo Antonioni
Script: Mark Peploe, Enrico Sannia, Michelangelo Antonioni, Miguel de Echarri
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Maria Schneider, Jenny Runacre, Ian Hendry, Steven Berkoff, Ambroise Bia, Charles Mulvehill
Blu Ray Audio-Visual
It’s another awesome restoration courtesy of Indicator. The imagery remains impeccable throughout despite the huge variation in colour and contrast, one highlight being Schneider’s incredible flowery clothes. Sounds have a clear, three-dimensional feel that makes them seem very authentic.
Highlights amongst the extras
The Passenger by freelance film journalist Amy Simmons is a beautifully-written essay about the film’s themes and Antonioni’s stylistic motifs. The second chapter of the booklet features Antonioni’s production notes from filming. He describes it as focusing on a man having what he describes as “a personal revolution”. Antonioni on The Passenger features extracts from a 1975 interview. The most interesting snippets describe the climactic seven-minute tracking shot - which apparently took 11 days to complete as the wind made it difficult to keep the camera steady. Antonioni Speaks… and Listens features extracts from another 1975 interview, this time from Film Comment magazine. The final section of the booklet is taken from a 1974 interview with actor Jack Nicholson. He discusses his experiences of working with Antonioni on the production.
Audio Commentary with Jack Nicholson
There are three commentary tracks on this release, the other two being with screenwriter Mark Peploe and film historian Adrain Martin respectively (the last of which is new for this release). I opted for the Nicholson track for this review. He gives a soft-spoken, restrained and laconic voiceover about his experiences working on the film with director Antonioni. He confirms what is fairly clear from watching the film - that the legendary director was more interested in environments than actors - the latter of which he called “moving space”. There are also some enjoyable anecdotes about Antonioni’s predilection towards painting environmental features (some oranges seen on trees later on were painted because they weren’t ripe) and about Schneider nearly passing out when filming one scene due to her being on painkillers. He also lets us in on the technical secrets behind that classic climactic shot.
His relaxed style of commentary is a refreshing change to the information overload style that we so often get.
Interview with Jenny Runacre
The actress discusses her time working on the film. The most interesting part of the interview is related to the early section of the film which was shot in the Algerian desert. They were looked after by the local Tuareg people, who drove them across the desert for 3 days without stopping for food or sleep until they finally reached one of the shooting locations. The desert hotel where Nicholson’s character found Robertson’s corpse was purpose-built for the film. However, since Antonioni didn’t like the shade of blue it was painted in, he got an assistant to fly back to Rome to obtain the correct colour of paint. This delayed the production by a couple of days.
Interview with Steven Berkoff
Berkoff only appeared in one scene as Rachel’s new lover. Despite this, however, he’s a relaxed and engaging interviewee as he tells us the story of how he intended to bring his cat to use as part of the scene. However, as cats are wont to do, it refused to cooperate! He also mentions that the shot of him kissing Jenny Runacre involved hours of takes - to the point where their lips were sore by the end of it!
The other extras include three archive interviews with Antonioni, a theatrical trailer and an image gallery.
The Passenger has been given a Blu Ray presentation that truly does it justice. An absolute must for any serious film fan.