The Passenger stands alone in Jack Nicholson's filmography as his one starring vehicle which could truly be described as an art film. Though from his early B movie days films like Ride in the Whirlwind and The Shooting could be seen as minor art detours, they were firmly in the western genre. That said, Jack rarely crossed over into far-out territory as a famous movie star. Admittedly, Easy Rider was in every sense an art film, one which pushed boundaries and created new ones at the same time, but he took the part before stardom came his way, and even then it was a supporting role. Films like Five Easy Pieces and The King of Marvin Gardens, both directed by Bob Rafelson, were small, personal films, character studies that were very peculiar, but also typical of that special era in American film.
The Passenger, made by the Italian master Michelangelo Antonioni, is off to one side completely; a slow, careful travelogue; a soothing mystery dressed up as a globe surfing odyssey. And not entirely coincidentally, it features Jack's most measured, subtle and technical performance, matching his efforts in The King of Marvin Gardens. He does not rely on the "Jack" character, or his wide grinning, arched eye-browed charisma; he is quiet, understated, cool, collected. Basically, he is very unlike the clichéd Jack Nicholson character most casual movie goers would know. The wicked devil persona is a gift to cinema, and has been for decades now (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was surely the turning point and the birth of the Jack who stunned in Batman, shocked in As Good As It Gets and charmed in almost everything that followed), but it's truly special to observe Nicholson giving the kind of muted effort he gives in The Passenger. The perverse aspect of all this is that it sits alone in his canon of films, and one cannot help but wish there were more of the same. But indeed, if there were more films like The Passenger, then The Passenger would cease to be so singular and special anymore
In the film Jack plays a reporter called David Locke, who while stationed in Africa covering a Civil War, switches places with a dead man and takes on his identity. The deceased man, however, Robertson, harboured more secrets and controversy while alive than Locke could ever have guessed. When Locke's wife Rachel (Jenny Runacre) - who has been having an affair - hears of her husband's apparent death, she also learns of Robertson's existence and the fact that he may have been the last man to see Locke alive. Unbeknownst to her, the man she believes to be Robertson is in fact her husband, who she trails across Spain through various exotic and rather breathtaking locations. Locke, living as Robertson, meets a student (played by Maria Schneider), who, without realising so, helps him flee his wife and fulfil the various shady duties of Robertson. Locke realises he is in way over his head, as the police and his past relentlessly pursue him, resulting in devastating consequences.
Antonioni had already made what many believe to be his best work by the time he filmed The Passenger in the mid 1970s, and a lot of fans feel he peaked over a decade earlier. Films like L'Avventura, La Notte and Red Desert established his style, while 1966's revolutionary Blow Up made him a worldwide icon. After the disappointing Zabriskie Point, released in 1970, he embarked on what too few a number of people see as his ultimate film, The Passenger. For me it is his true masterpiece. It is perfectly filmed, with each scene featuring lovingly realised shots fit for a gallery wall, and the pace of the "plot", with its slowly unravelling mysteries and low key interactions, is satisfyingly well considered. Not a word is wasted, nor is a single frame, and The Passenger stands as, quite possibly, the finest movie Jack Nicholson has or will ever appear in. Films like The Shining and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest are immeasurably more iconic, while many would much prefer the angry vitality of his performances in such films as Chinatown, Five Easy Pieces, and maybe even the Last Detail. Yet The Passenger, certainly his most beautiful film, is right up there with his most fully realised pictures, and definitely his most accomplished performances.
"Jack Nicholson and I wanted to make a film together, and I thought he would be very good, very right for this part," Antonioni said of his star. "He’s very competent and a very, very good actor, so it’s easy to work with him. He’s intense, yet he doesn’t create any problems – you can cut his hair (I didn’t), he’s not concerned about his ‘good’ side or whether the camera is too high or too low; you can do whatever you want."
On the simplest level, this is a film about identity, of a man running away from himself, but not really being able to do so. The fact is, we must all face up to who and what we are, and there is truly no escape, no matter how hard we try. Of course there are many more levels and facets to the film, and I am not sure everyone could or should attempt to fully grasp them all. But for me, the subject of identity, or the lack hereof, is what sticks out and speaks most personally. The idea of not knowing who you are runs through the whole picture, right until the closing reel. Even Locke's wife, at the very end of the movie, says she never knew the man; and he, it needs to be added, never really knew himself either. You may ponder on the political aims of the movie, the subtext, the meaning of the English title (the alternate title is Profession: Reporter), the significance of Gaudi's buildings being so prominent throughout; but at the end of the day, the film is a visual treat. Though the rather pretentious "review" of the film on Sense of Cinema, written by Theodore Price, suggests that anyone who does not pontificate over the afore mentioned issues is "bluffing" in their understanding of the movie, The Passenger really can be enjoyed, quite simply, as a weaving mystery and meditation on the meaning of identity. As entertainment, even at the shallowest level, it's unmatched in the art film category.
That said, Antonioni did intend it as a political film, stating on one occasion that it fitted "with the dramatic rapport of the individual in today's society." But more importantly he made the film about atmosphere, and the look and feel comes across as more important than any subliminal meanings or political intentions. He decided to shoot totally on location for the sake of realism, stating that "reality is unpredictable. In the studio everything has been foreseen." Antonioni's choices make the film feel more vivid and multi dimensional, while it has an energy and electricity missing from most manufactured Hollywood films done on the rigid soundstage, "The location is the very substance of which the shot is made," he said. "Those colours, that light, those trees, those objects, those faces. How could I leave the choice of all this to my assistants? Their choices would be entirely different from mine. Who knows the film I am making better than me?"
Though Jack is the star in name, he does not dominate the movie in anyway; nor does he mind, of course, not always being the centre of attention. He very often stands aside for Schneider, the film's "passenger", and more often the stunning locations. Spain has never looked so amazing, and it has to be said that the early scenes in Africa are so eerie they seem otherworldly.
To the LA Times in 2005, Nicholson recalled the exciting shoot, and said the film was his biggest cinematic adventure. Of the movie's African scenes, Jack said "I've never been that far from civilization, before or since. We lived in thatched huts out in an oasis in the middle of the Sahara desert. It wasn't unusual to have these huge sandstorms where everything would be covered with this fine pink sand. I can still see Michelangelo walking in the sand, with the wind blowing, picking out shots that he wanted to get."
At the time of release, the movie did not set the world alight. Antonioni had been struggling to get financing until Jack, then fresh off Chinatown, came on board. Still, the movie was overshadowed by other cinematic experiences of the day. Reviews have been glowing though, and as the years have passed its reputation seems to grow, though not as much as the film itself deserves. Critic Derek Malcolm wrote about the film in the Guardian in 2000, commenting that he found it Antonioni's best picture, much better than his earlier, more celebrated classics. "It's unorthodox to prefer the far later Passenger and the fact I do probably says more about me than about the film," he wrote. "But it too is a remarkable work and a major return to form after the incoherent, shallow Zabriskie Point. It is a bit like a heavily intellectualised Graham Greene story, partly because of its screenplay, by Mark Peploe and structuralist critic Peter Wollen (who was once a political correspondent in foreign parts) and partly because Antonioni was concerned with spiritual values."
Boston.com thought the film had aged remarkably well. "What's most shocking about 'The Passenger 30 years later?" they considered. "Seeing Jack Nicholson at the lean, sardonic height of his youthful powers? Finding a Michelangelo Antonioni movie with an actual plot? No, the shock is how very good this movie is. Released in 1975 to mixed reviews and audience indifference -- if you went to see a Nicholson film that year, it was One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest -- The Passenger now looks to be one of the deepest, most rigorous, and most rewarding films of its era. In a post-'60s culture increasingly obsessed with the self, the movie pulled the rug out from under its main character's very identity, asking us to consider whether a man's name or his actions outlast him. This may be the first existentialist star vehicle, and it is mesmerizing."
As we know, Nicholson is a passionate art collector, and some might say the fact that he bought the rights to The Passenger and then limited its distribution for years so no one could see it was his way of bagging a cinematic work of art, possessing and owning it as he would a Picasso. It wasn't until 2005, thirty years after its making, that Jack decided to let it out and give it a proper release. Now, it's clear to see perhaps just why Jack wanted to hide it and keep it from us for so long. Being its star, to him it must have felt like a piece of treasure, a thing of beauty, too beautiful in fact to share with anyone else. Thank God he decided to loosen the leash, is all I can say.
In his LA Times interview, Jack went on some more about the state of cinema, and how The Passenger stands as the antithesis to modern tastes. "My friends and I would go to the art houses expecting to see a masterpiece every week -- and we did," he said. "Whether it was Antonioni, Kurosawa, Godard, Fellini, Satyajit Ray, Truffaut or Bergman, we knew we were in good hands." Asked why those films spoke to his generation, Nicholson explained: "Because they took risks -- it was the breaking of the form that excited us. Today we have cheap, smart indie movies, but it's not the same thing. Antonioni didn't feel that he needed to get every single point across right away. Today we're just slaves to melodrama."
I watched The Passenger like a hungry film buff starved of genuine cinema. As a teenager I had read about it in old books on Nicholson but obviously found it hard (impossible in fact) to obtain a copy. When I first viewed it on DVD it was almost like some kind of ritualistic experience. It started so slow that I found it soothing, and as Jack said in the interview, the shot of the camel just passing him by was weirdly hypnotic, like a gentle ripple of water compared to the vast, wild tide of modern movies. That Jack should see The Passenger as an antidote for anyone who's had enough of superhero movies and sci-fi actioners, as fun as they clearly are to some people, is very fitting. The Passenger proves that one can take it easy, lean back and let the visual and existential wash gently over you; and in return, the film can move slowly, without worrying about the patience and attention span of the viewer, making for a completely satisfying and mutual film viewing experience. The Passenger is a prime example of a film that doesn't move fast for the sake of it - to keep the interest of blockbuster lovers perhaps - but moves at its own pace, in its own time, and in its very own, exclusive category. As stated earlier, I wish there were more films like this, but in a way, I am glad that there aren't. As it is, The Passenger remains a true masterpiece in every way.
The book on Jack is available at Amazon: