Reviews and notes
To be unspecific has become second nature in a complex world. And the point, often illustrated by Antonioni, is made again in The Passenger
in a charming yet strangely breath-catching little sequence when Locke (Jack Nicholson) is driving a car and behind him sits a girl he has met and loved by chance (Maria Schneider) who asks him, 'What are you running away from?' All he says in reply is, 'Turn your back to the front seat.' She does so. It is an open car and her blouse riffles in the moving air. A reverse shot carries us very swiftly down an avenue of trees. The Spanish locale would be tranquil were it not for the heady sense of speed. The implication - presumably, since the answer has not been specific - is that for Locke the experience of going 'away' is enough. There is in existence a tape of his voice clearly expressing the urge to 'get away', but the girl in the car knows nothing of that. He offers her the sensation of flight, which has an exhilarating detachment about it: even beauty; and yet for all the beauty in The Passenger
there is an equal measure of apprehension.
Environments, however beguiling in themselves, are imbued with a disquiet that springs partly from the story and partly from Antonioni's technique. In the midst of many stunning locations, Locke is ill at ease: hovering far above Barcelona in a cable car, trailing among the bird markets of the same city's Rambla promenades, or taking note of other eloquent sights, whether, in Chad or Munich or London or Algeciras, we simultaneously admire Antonioni's most natural and yet most sensual use of colour photography (camera: Luciano Tovoli) and respond to the counteraction of the irritants that fill Locke's world. In the desert a fly drones, in a downcast hotel a tap dribbles and an overhead fan nags the ear, at an outdoor cafe the bright umbrellas are tortured by the wind. Locke is attempting to assume an identity that is not his own, but the penalty is fear and the only real escape is likely to be death.
Constructed with a neatness uncommon in the plots of Antonioni films, The Passenger
assumes, more emphatically than any of his previous works, a thriller element. This builds up rather slowly yet with constant intensity. One is drawn to Locke, curiously at first, later compassionately. Flashbacks and scene-switches are very tidily edited. The touch of mystery is followed up untypically by 'explanations'. And yet, all the time, one has that quintessential feeling of the unspecified thought, the aura that disturbs, the intangible factor which in a more romantic age would have been acknowledged as destiny.
The subject of a wishful change of identity has proved engrossing often enough in the cinema, and with considerable variations: for example, Stolen Life
(a vehicle for Elisabeth Bergner in 1939 and for Bette Davis in 1946), Lawrence of Arabia
(1962) or Seconds
(1966). Antonioni's variation resembles nobody else's, conventional though it might sound in terms of plotting. Locke feels dishonest and disenchanted in his work as a TV reporter, and when a man who looks a bit like him dies he manages in near-Hitchcockian fashion to swing the changes. His wife grows increasingly puzzled and begins to investigate. He picks up the girl and travels with her as he plunges ever deeper into the unexpected lifestyle of the dead man, a gun runner. Internationally involved, a victim of his own reckless wishfulness, he becomes increasingly helpless as events build up to a thriller's climax. The difference, however, is that abiding lack of the specific: a feeling of life going on quite waywardly, uncontrollable, so that the actual orderliness of the tale is rendered more real by the style.
Antonioni has surely never been better. In the African heat he causes Locke to bash at his broken-down Land Rover with a shovel and weep on the sands as the camera pans away to a scene at one and the same time beautiful and lonely. In London he causes Locke's wife (Jenny Runacre) to let her hands shift uncertainly around the nearest object, which happens to be an inkwell, as she tries to make up her mind about pursuing the somewhat pointless quest she has set for herself. Small details of behaviour are seemingly instinctive, maybe some of them are improvised, like the way Locke rubs his chin against his sweaty shoulder while he goes about the careful work of substituting passport photographs. Certainly Jack Nicholson as Locke is at his very best, and Jenny Runacre is exactly right as his wife. Of the girl we could perhaps have seen more to make the character as full as could be wished, but Maria Schneider gives her scant material an appropriate trace of sex fairly easily gained but not to be depreciated on that score.
The penultimate shot is already celebrated. It is very long and covers an extraordinary field of camera movement, beginning inside an Algeciras hotel room, holding a fixed position while people and a car move about beyond a barred window, then advancing through the bars (which are to be compared; if you like, to the wild walls of Hitchcock's Rope
) and manoeuvring around the area outside the hotel before returning to gaze back in through, the (restored) bars. One is reminded how the best things to be savoured in Antonioni's pre-Avventura
career were mainly technical, how much value he could gain from a tripod on an outdoor location turning a full 360 degrees but not all in one suave circle. It would be true, maybe, to remark that such things are not entirely relevant thematically, and that they indicate a fondness for the medium which might in some minds distract from the subject. The alternative argument would doubtless be that the second-last shot of The Passenger
sustains tension by avoiding cuts. I am not entirely sure that the defence would be valid, but I hardly care. The effect is magnificent cinema of the first order. And the theme throughout is admirably served anyway. I cannot think of a leading Antonioni figure who has gripped my heart and mind as thoroughly as Locke.
- Gordon Gow, Films and Filming, August 1975.
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