The set up for the Passenger is great. Nicholson is on assignment in Africa to film a documentary when a British man rooming next door dies. Nicholson discovers this and decides to switch places with him, only to discover the dangerous nature of his occupation. Antonioni borrows from Kubrick's 2001 in a great scene showing Nicholson slip into the other man’s life. Antonioni’s cameraman, Luciano Tavoli (who also shot D’argento’s Suspiria) uses controlled camera moves that give the narrative some momentum. The camera leads you through the story rather than merely keeping up with the story. In this way it is similar to Blow Up. You feel as though something is orchestrated or always happening off screen.
The passenger was changed from "Fatal Exit" to "The Reporter" to "The Passenger". In the context of the film, the change is subtle but the newest title gives more insight into the theme. It was made in 1975 with Jack Nicholson coming off of Cuckoo's Nest and Chinatown the year before. In other words, he was a big star. Yet his performance in The Passenger shows how much he trusted Michelangelo Antonioni. He’s very reserved, and understated and almost unrecognizable. It's nice to see him this way in contrast to his larger than life performances of late.
Antonioni can be really good at getting to an interesting idea but seldom has much to say about it. Sometimes this is a good thing. I have seen Blow Up 5 times and each time I think I have discovered something new about it. L'Vventura on the other hand didn’t hook me at all.
Along the way Nicholson manages to link up with a hot young French girl who is willing to help him out of a jam. They become partners in a strange way and Maria Schneider’s performance is fun to watch. It’s almost as if she walked onto the set and started improvising dialogue. Why she is willing to help him out is never really clear but it is charming. The screenplay addresses this by having Nicholson asks her on two occasions “why the f*** are you still with me?”. She never really has an answer...and it's great that way.
The genius of this film is the structure. Intercut with Nicholson's story is another involving his wife and producer. Both think he is now dead and begin trying to make a film that sums up his work. This tribute film becomes a revealing convention for Nicholson's character. We learn more about him and his career and maybe even why he would give it up for another life. One clip shows Nicholson on a past assignment covering a story of the execution of a prisoner. It is so unusual that I was compelled to check it out online. Turns out it is actual footage of a real execution.
The end of the film has one of the best shots in Cinema. It manages to be interesting cinematically, technically accomplished, and gives the story a certain dread irony at the same time. There are some interesting notes in the films commentary track from Nicholson too. The film has long been out of view because its rights belonged to Jack Nicholson, who chose to keep the film in limited circulation. The irony here is that I bought my copy at Big Lots for 3 dollars.