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Movie Reviews the Passenger

The Passenger (1975) Starring Jack Nicholson, Maria Schneider, Ian Hendry, Jenny Runacre, Stephen Berkoff, Ambroise Bia, José María Caffarel, James Campbell, Manfred Spies, Jean-Baptiste Tiemele, Ángel del Pozo, Charles Mulvehill, Narciso Pula, Miquel Bordoy, Jaime Doria, Joan Gaspart, Gustavo Re.

Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni.

Running Time: 125 minutes.

Rating: PG

“I used to be somebody else but I traded him in”

Journalist David Locke (Nicholson) is in Africa attempting to cover the civil war there. His leads dry up and he is stuck without the final part of his story in a desolate and lonely place.

At his hotel he discovers mysterious English businessman David Robertson (Mulvehill) whom he had befriended has died suddenly of a heart attack. The death is not shocking to Locke even though the two men had occupied suites on the same floor and drank together just the evening before.

What is of some interest, evidently from the moment he laid eyes upon Robertson is the remarkable physical resemblance they bear to each other.Locke, after but a little time to mull it over, assumes the man’s identity, initially perhaps out of some journalistic angle, then maybe to see how far he might take the ruse.

As he continues to get away with it he elects to go on with it finding a kind of exhilaration in the whole charade.Like any red-blooded heterosexual male he welcomes the opportunity to include an intriguing female (Schneider) on his new excursion. It is the type of thing that could lead to his waking up in a bathtub full of ice with a kidney missing or a series of penicillin shots in the posterior to ward off unexpected VD.

But Locke is feeling lonely. As a journalist Locke managed to slip by if only because he stuck to the rules of his profession. He was, as we see, an utter disaster as an interviewer with absolutely no curiosity behind his questions and an equal lack of interest in the answers he might get.

It is no wonder that his wife (Runacre) and he have difficulty as the man is so distant and uncomfortable in his own skin that he can make no real connection with anyone. But that changes when he becomes Robertson, whom it turns out was an international arms dealer.

Robertson, though inconspicuous, is a man of some importance and severity. In the African locale where he meets Locke he is supplying the rebels and is probably the main reason there is a war at all there. In such a place one begins to know the answers to the questions before they are even asked. Locke, like many journalists, felt like a passenger up until he assumed Robertson’s identity. He was bound by the rules that bind any responsible journalist; not a player nor even a referee but merely an obsessively accurate scorekeeper.

This narrative is a dramatization of the theme of mid-life reinvention played out amidst a melodramatic backdrop. Locke in becoming Robertson is instinctively embracing that which is not safe as an escape from his normal passive existence – something that overrides his fear of consequence including death.

There are very few directors who were able to glean benefits from the calculated ambiguity of theme and staging than Michelangelo Antonioni. But his approach was never entirely successful in films which had to rely upon dialogue more than action.

As a director whose first language was not English there were also inevitable miscommunications with English speaking actors (most infamously with Sarah Miles on the set of Blow-Up in 1966). I’m pretty sure that is what happened here with Nicholson at times but more obviously with the supporting cast and specifically Jenny Runacre who seems utterly lost, and not in a way that serves the telling of the story.

The leading lady (Schneider), whose first language was not English either doesn’t look like she understands much of the dialogue she is speaking and fights our clunky, confusing, obtuse, imprecise language throughout her turn in the film.