It doesn’t take long. As soon as The Passenger begins, Jack Nicholson’s errant journalist, David Locke, appears exhausted and out of sorts. Assigned to cover a cadre of African rebels in some “godforsaken” desert in Chad, his face is sweaty, shaded with stubble, his hair is a mess, and his slightly soiled shirt is haphazardly unbuttoned. Things only get worse when his guide abandons him in the arid wasteland and his Land Rover gets stuck (in the first of several overtly symbolic scenes, he literally spins his wheels in the sand). Exasperated and alone on the outskirts of civilization, David screams into the void: “I don’t care!” He has given up and readies for a change.
Upon his return to a squalid, fourth-rate hotel (insects on walls and not even soap for the shower), David discovers his lodging neighbor, Robertson (Charles Mulvehill), an Englishman, has died of a heart attack. Accepting their faint resemblance, and impulsively regarding Robertson’s demise as a means for convenient existential escape, David assumes the deceased’s identity, assembling sporadic portions of the stranger’s past through his assorted possessions. Amidst aural recollections, eventually realized as visual flashbacks, director Michelangelo Antonioni intercuts Locke’s steady assimilation with cues and clues, like scribbles about a bank in Munich, a concealed gun, and the vague revelation that Robertson was in the region “on business.” (During one of their conversations, David had fortunately left his tape recorder running, thus allowing for Antonioni to supplant this requisite exposition.)
It’s a subdued, protracted transition, but it’s successful all the same, and soon, a temporarily moustachioed David-turned-Robertson is on the move. As it develops, The Passenger thrives on mobility, on the liberty and possibility of movement. Hovering in an aerial conveyor car, David coasts with arms outstretched in an image of floating freedom. However, reflective of its English title (in Italy, the film is Professione: reporter, emphasizing instead David’s inquiring occupational temperament), David appears to be a willfully compliant passenger, rather than one who assumes full control, especially as Antonioni provides no anticipation of permanency or certainty. Asked by an Avis associate where he is heading, he says he hasn’t made up his mind, for he, like the film itself, proceeds with a thematic aimlessness. Robertson’s gunrunning past gradually catches up with David, and the result is an effective tension, conventional by Antonioni’s standards, but engaging in its own meandering way.
Meanwhile, David’s wife, Rachel (Jenny Runacre), who though unfaithful to her now deceptively departed husband, grows intrigued by his dubious demise. Somewhat marginal to start, Rachel’s prominence increases as her guilty skepticism pieces together the scenario surrounding David’s death, drawing her directly into the narrative and into the path of David’s dodging plight. More critically, it is through Rachel’s integration that Antonioni advances David’s long-gestating disenchantment. While negligible in terms of screen time, a London-based flashback, prompted by Rachel, shows David randomly burning a brush fire in their yard, a flaming suggestion of his anarchic spirit and social rebelliousness. In another recollection, Rachel observes David as he interviews one of the African revolutionaries. In this poignant sequence, the man bristles at David’s interrogation and tells the reporter, “Your questions are much more revealing about yourself than my answers would be about me,” resisting and at the same time linking their parallel affinity for anti-authoritarianism, an abolishment of custom, and a resistance of conformity. Afterwards, Rachel chides David for accepting too much—from his subjects, from life, from her?—perhaps unwittingly priming his subsequent revolt. With these two scenes considered, when Rachel declares at the end of the film that she never knew David, apparently in reference to his capacity for such an elaborate stunt, such a proposal would be despite so many erstwhile indications.
Though arguably less illuminating, more prominent is David’s relationship with a young woman he meets in Barcelona. Played by Maria Schneider, she is seen early on in the film, accentuated by Antonioni’s camera but presented without consequence; later, when her character re-emerges, the relationship she forms with David is tenuous and immediate. His scheme is substantively shaky as it is (what exactly is the endgame?), but her swift eagerness to participate makes it hard to determine just what either of them are ultimately after. Schneider, who can’t deny her spirited sensuality any more than Nicholson can suppress his mischievousness, continually looks on as if she knows something David doesn’t, but what that is, and why she responds as she does, remains provocatively imprecise. What is clear, is that she has her own curious moral standard, appreciating Robertson’s commitment to his trade, for example, however unsavory it may be. And even as the walls close in, she manages to transmit a sovereign, youthful abandon, an indifferent joy not unlike that which is seen in Blow-Up and Zabriskie Point, the two earlier films Antonioni made with international super producer Carlo Ponti.
Setting, always so central to an Antonioni film, is given a generally more scenic treatment than the figurative application seen so often in the director’s prior work. The textured, picturesque cinematography by Luciano Tovoli canvases a range of architectural highlights and striking landscape tableaus, and though perhaps less psychologically reflective than in a film like L’Avventura or La Notte, location is vital to the holiday flight of The Passenger, with globe-trotting stops in England, France, Spain, and Africa. The most deliberated contribution from Tovoli is, of course, the movement in and out of David’s fatal resting place. Its debated significance notwithstanding (some have absurdly argued that it represents David’s departing soul), the shot is an intricate sequence of technical brilliance, an unbroken seven-minute arrangement employing ceiling tracks, suspended hooks, a crane, gyroscopes, removable window bars, and a zoom lens, but, like the identity substitution at the start of the picture, this inconspicuous denouement is just as serene, anxiously tranquil, and at once inevitable and sudden.
Midway through The Passenger, which was written by Antonioni with Mark Peploe and Peter Wollen, Schneider’s character asks David what he is running away from. He directs her to look behind them, which she does, gazing down an ever-expanding stretch of road. It’s the most obvious visualization of the film’s fundamental quest, as an exodus from the past, an internal and external journey embodied by Nicholson’s character but entirely suited to the whole of Antonioni’s filmography. In this regard, The Passenger is one of Antonioni’s most accessible features, a seemingly commercial vehicle for his recurrent explorations of fatalism, liberation, and the capricious nature of coincidence. But as evinced in Five Easy Pieces, The Last Detail, and, years later, About Schmidt, Nicholson, too, could convey corresponding inner conflict as well as anyone, making his casting ideal for such a profound trek through the halls of modern malaise, detachment, and alienation. It’s not all dour despair, though. Part of why The Passenger is such a fascinating film has to do with its optimism, its tantalizing prospect of fleeting escape, living in the moment and revelling in uncertainty and indecisiveness. If nothing else, it stimulates the fantasy of being able to reinvent one’s life, to start anew without any consideration of what came before or what comes next, to just go along for the ride.