33: THE PASSENGER (Italian: PROFESSIONE REPORTER): 1975. Director: Michelangelo Antonioni. Italian (English language). Neo-noir Drama. Jack Nicholson. Maria Schneider. Steven Berkoff. Ian Hendry. Jenny Runacre.
Producer: Carlo Punti. Screenplay by Michelangelo Antonioni, Mark Peploe, and Peter Wollen. Music by Ivan Vander. Cinematography by Luciano Tovoli. Edited by Franco Arcalli. Distributor: United Artists. Screen time: 126 minutes. Box office takings: $619,700. Filming was in Algeria, Germany, England, and Spain.
Geoff Andrew, in the Time Out Film Guide, obviously didn’t like Jenny Runacre – oh, come on, was she really that bad? – but he does appreciate this is one of those quiet, unflashy little gems, almost ignored and forgotten in the froth and noise before and since. “Despite the burdensome presence of Runacre in a relatively minor role, this is Antonioni’s finest film for years. With a tense, imaginative script by Peter Wollen (betraying both his interest in structure/structuralism and his past experiences as a political correspondent abroad) that delves in Graham Greene-ish territory, it concerns a TV reporter (Nicholson) who exchanges identity with an acquaintance he finds dead in a North African hotel room, only to find himself hunted not just by mystified wife and friends, but by some rather threatening strangers. At times obscure, the film certainly sags in the middle, while the relationship Nicholson strikes up with Schneider in his bid to escape to a new life seems both a little perfunctory and gratuitous to the central theme. But the film’s opening, charting the burnt-out journalist’s progress through an endless desert, and the final twenty minutes – including a virtuoso seven-minute single take – are stunning.”
Tim Pulleine, in a more general article in Movies of the Seventies, remarks on the links between Antonioni’s earlier, successful, Blow-Up (1966), and the less successful Zabriskie Point of 1970, to finally The Passenger, the last of the three-film contract he had with MGM. Again, as in the previous two films, escape from reality is an illusion. “The locales this time are principally North Africa and Spain, and the framework like that of a mystery thriller. The hero, Locke [Nicholson], is a prominent television figure but a casualty of material success and a man at the end of his tether. Grasping at the chance to start again, he assumes the identity of a man he finds dead in the next room of a shabby hotel in Chad. But this attempted regeneration ultimately proves to be a death sentence: the person he has become is an arms dealer with enemies to spare, and Locke winds up a corpse in another shabby hotel in Algeciras. The extraordinary shot, seven minutes in duration, in which the camera seems to float out of the hotel window and around the little town square outside, serves to encapsulate the impulse behind the entire work, fatalistic yet transcendental…”
Again, I’m not otherwise a fan of Jack Nicholson, but he is very restrained here as a man already losing control of his life, attempting to escape by faking his own death (it was quite a fashionable thing in the 1970s), swapping his identity with that of an unknown stranger, David Robertson. This is not the usual Nicholson – ‘Jack-the-lad’, arrogant, or cocky, or womanizing. Instead, he is a loser, stressed out, his marriage on the rocks, in a much more nuanced role. Both Nicholson and Schneider thought highly of this film – quite rightly. It is a “study of existential alienation”. Initially, I didn’t make the immediate association with Blow-Up, but, in retrospect, the motif is the same – the main protagonist is drained and empty, seeking the futility of escape from a dreary damming reality. But, in the Wollen/Antonioni story, there is no heavy drama. This isn’t the conventional dramatic spy thriller, with shoot-outs and car chases – as some critics seem to have wanted. Even Locke’s assassination is low key, barely more commotion than David Hemming finding the body in Maryon Park. But this is what actually makes this movie so special, rather than just yet another same old, same old. To want an unique piece of film-making to be like everything else out there, is both bizarre and pointless. Blow-Up could have been a detective story with policeman tramping all over Thomas’s studio and Maryon Park. It wasn’t, and more memorable for it. Likewise The Passenger, which is more about the human condition, identity, alienation, and isolation.
Jack Nicholson (born 1937, prominent of that new generation of young, post-studio era actors who came to the fore in the 1960s) played the Anglo-American journalist David Locke, initially attempting – without much success – to contact rebel fighters in Chad. Nicholson’s filmography was from 1958 to 2012. Many of his roles were rather over the top, much like some of his skirt-chasing antics off-screen, with friends like Warren Beatty, Marlon Brando, or Hunter S. Thompson. French actress Maria Schneider (1952-2011) played the unnamed Spanish architecture student Locke meets in Barcelona. She was just credited as ‘The Girl’. Born as Maria-Hélène Schneider, she is probably still best known for her role in the 1972 Bertolucci movie Last Tango in Paris, but which left her emotionally traumatised and, thereafter, hounded by unsavoury publicity. She declined any further nude scenes and acquired a reputation for walking out midway through productions. This, perhaps together with her being a strong advocate for improving working conditions for women in the film industry, blighted her career. Her upbringing was chaotic and fractional, with no proper family life, and she became caught up in the drugs culture of the time, with overdoses and even a suicide attempt. She came out as bisexual in 1974 – again something not really that unusual in Hollywood if you look at the infamous (but secretive) ‘sawing circle’ of female luminaries from the 1940s – but, in the then macho, man-dominated world of the time, was still regarded by many as shocking. Her acting career steadied in the 1980s, and when she died – still too young at the age of 58 from breast cancer – she had gained respect and reverence in the French film world and beyond. Looking at her life, two things are apparent. One is that she, and other actress in Europe and America, were often lone voices calling for the end to sexual exploitation of women in the movie industry. Others, like Cybill Shephard and Kathleen Turner, were deemed trouble-makers or ‘awkward to work with’ because of their demands for gender equality and women’s rights. Sadly, fifty years on, in the 2020s, despite the outing of Weinstein and the MeToo movement, this fight is still on-going, with entrenched money and powerful men still determined to stem the revisionist tide flowing against them. The second point was just how introvert and incestuous the film world was – and probably still is. Maria Schneider and Sylvia Kristel, for instance, and a handful of other young, 1960s/70s actresses whose careers were defined by the new sexual freedoms in moving making, moved in the same circles when it came to be considered for film roles. So we see Jenny Agutter, Jenny Runacre, Linda Blair, Ursula Andress, although Kathleen Turner would eventually win control of appearing nude, and being able to review scripts. The English co-scriptwriter of The Passenger, Mark Peploe (born 1943) was actually the brother-in-law to Bernardo Bertolucci, who had conspired with Brando in the sexual degradation of Schneider’s character Jeanne, in Last Tango in Paris.
The rest of the movie’s principle cast are British – Steven Berkoff, playing Stephen; Ian Hendry playing Locke’s friend and television producer at the BBC, Martin Knight; Jenny Runacre playing Locke’s wife, Rachel Locke, at first guilty about cuckolding him, then discovering Robertson’s photograph in Locke’s passport, and realising her husband is still alive, the real Robertson having been buried in his place. The Spanish hotel was said to be in Osuna, but was actually in Vera, a small town (population of less than 16,000 in 2018) between Cartagna and Almeria, just inland from the Mediterranean coast. Nicholson said Antonioni actually built the hotel, facing into the town square. Certainly the window bars of Locke’s ground floor room were hinged to allow the camera to pass through unobstructed in the continuous shot, which was also carried out in the later afternoon, to minimise the lighting contrast between the room interior and the exterior sweep of the square, there being no opportunity to adjust the lens.
I think I probably saw it on late-night television back in the 1980s, when so many films were being broadcast at that time. Apparently, later, following a dispute with MGM, Nicholson acquired the film rights, meaning it never passed to Warner Brothers following their acquisition of the Turner Entertainment archive. Nicholson subsequently kept the film out of circulation until Sony Pictures Classics tempted him with an offer to restore it.