Dedications: My four late friends Rory, Stan, Bryan, Jeff - shine on you crazy diamonds, they would have blogged too. Then theres Garry from Brisbane, Franco in Milan, Mike now in S.F. / my '60s-'80s gang: Ned & Joseph in Ireland; in England: Frank, Des, Guy, Clive, Joe & Joe, Ian, Ivan, Nick, David, Les, Stewart, the 3 Michaels / Catriona, Sally, Monica, Jean, Ella, Anne, Candie / and now: Daryl in N.Y., Jerry, John, Colin, Martin and Donal.

Friday, 2 July 2010

The Passenger - my 1976 review

This is a feature I wrote 34 years ago, when I was 30 in 1976, on THE PASSENGER for a now defunct London film magazine (Films Illustrated) where readers could discuss/analyse/deconstruct favourite movies (before the age of video and DVD!). It is perhaps a little simplistic as Antonioni films were not really a staple of the magazine! I am revisiting it now that THE PASSENGER is available again after a 20+ year disappearance.

"THE PASSENGER will remain a film of the mid '70s, as one of Antonioni's previous films, BLOW-UP, remains a film for and symbolises the '60s. It also contains one of Jack Nicholson's definitive performances (along with CHINATOWN, THE LAST DETAIL and ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST) and has, perhaps, been a trifle overshadowed by these films all emerging within a short period of time of each other and the enormous publicity and word-of-mouth they have generated. But THE PASSENGER has proved itself a strangely durable film and, like CHINATOWN, one that will remain around for a long time, both in the consciousness of its admirers and, one hopes, constant revivals.

Antonioni's third English-speaking film, THE PASSENGER, like BLOW-UP and ZABRISKIE POINT, centres around the oblique, unresolved aspects of life. In Antonioni's films - as in life - there are no easy answers, things are not tidied up, explained, sorted out. The disillusioned photographer in BLOW-UP may or may not have witnessed a murder. It is his attitudes, lifestyle, the drug-taking plasure-seeking society around him which drain away his resolve to follow his clues that matter. "I thought you were going to Paris" he says to Verushka, his model, when he comes across her at a typical stoned '60s party. "I am in Paris" she replies and there is no answer to that.

So it is with THE PASSENGER. Jack Nicholson is Locke, an outwardly successful television journalist, but he also is being eaten away by his own disillusionment with the job and the value of his interviews, and that general malaise that affects Antonioni's people.

When the film begins, we find him on location in Chad where he is following up some leads on revolutionaries in the desert, but everywhere he meets with silence and duplicity from the natives who beckon him into doorways, take his cigarettes and give him false leads. Having been led out into the desert by a mysterious child who then leaves him, his jeep breaks down and gets bogged in the sand. Locke breaks down and attacks it with his shovel and collapses on the sand as the camera pans away over the strange but beautiful desert panorama. We next see Locke, in an advanced state of exhaustion, struggling back to his hotel and a cool shower, and discovering that the man in the next room, who looks rather like him, has died.

We are very conscious of the stillness in the hotel - the blue walls, a fly buzzing, the noise of the fan, Locke staring intently at the dead man on the bed. We hear their dialogue of the previous evening and the aural flashback changes to a visual one by some very neat editing. Locke changes rooms, passport photos and luggage, and finds it quite easy to take on a new identity. How desperate his need is can be judged by his conversations back in Europe with the car rental girls whom he jokes with, and the free, liberated girl (Maria Schneider) he meets up with. ("I used to be somebody else, but I traded him in"). She, incidentally, is freer than Locke could ever be.

It transpires Locke has taken over the identity of a gun-runner, Robertson. Locke (now Robertson) collects his documents from a railway station locker and is watched by the contacts he is to meet. There is a meeting in a church in Munich where Locke bemusedly realises his new "occupation" and is paid a large sum of money in return for drawings of guns that Robertson was going to deliver. He decides to continue the impesonation, not realising the depths opening up beneath him. But his wife (the splendid Jenny Runacre) and colleagues back in London are also on the trail - of the new dead Robertson whom they assume was the last person to see Locke alive. They do not yet know that it is Robertson who is dead and Locke vanished into his identity. Locke is obliged to ask the girl for assistance in getting his luggage out of his hotel, in order to shake off his producer (Ian Hendry) who almost catches him in the street.

Perhaps it is best not to go into the plot in too much detail. Best all round just to pick out some of the marvellous moments along the way to the final breathtaking conceit. There's Locke, back in London, daringly visiting his old haunts - delighting in being someone else, but of course he isn't. Later on he is suspended in a cable car high about the ocean his arms outstretched like a bird in flight. Later still, the girl asks him what he is running from, and he tells her to turn around and we see what she sees - the road behind them.

By now, we the audience are caught up in this mesmerising film and its deliberations of he mysteries of identity. We are now totally involved in Locke's plight. He has given up one identity for another and becomes more and more helpless as the situation gets out of his control. Finally, in a remote Spanish hotel he can go no further, either as himself or as his new identity, as his wife and the gun-runners close in on him. He sends the girl away and lies on the bed, after telling her a parable of a man who was blind for most of his life and was happy enough in his way. Then he was given his sight back and killed himself a year or so later as he had not realised how ugly and dirty the world was. The camera slowly moves through the window and around the courtyard of the hotel. Cars quickly arrive. The gunmen are in one; his wife, who has been hot on his trail, in the other. Then the camera - still in one continuous movement - comes back into the room where the others have now entered, for a last confrontation which is saddening and inevitable. The only real freedom from identity and self is in death. The final scene shows us the aftermath: as the sun goes down, the hotel-keeper comes out for a walk, a woman sits in the doorway resting. For some people, who do not question their existence, the continuity of life goes on.

Throughout the film we glimpses of Locke's television work in a tribute his colleagues are preparing. A harrowing execution of an African leader, another leader (his successor?) mouthing platitudes to the camera - we are familiar with these things from the newsreels. His wife remembers an occasion when when an interviewee turned the tables on Locke by saying that his questions revealed more about Locke than about he himself.

Antonioni, now in his sixties, is one of the great Italian directors who, like Fellini and Visconti, burst upon the international film scene in the late '50s. His trilogy of Italian films, L'AVVENTURA, LA NOTTE and L'ECLISSE, and his first colour film THE RED DESERT (all with Monica Vitti) contributed to the renaissance of the European cinema. Then he switched to his English-speaking films, of which BLOW-UP was the first. He is as much a master of landscape as John Ford was in his genre. He thinks nothing of painting whole streets or trees to get the effect he wants. BLOW-UP is the only film from the whole, crazy period of Swinging London films that has not dated and which encapsulates what it was really all about. It remains one of the great films.

THE PASSENGER, his latest film, commenced shooting in autumn 1973 and was completed early in 1974, yet we had to wait until summer 1975 to see it. The distributors MGM opened it in the small Ritz, Leicester Square, putting their more expensive THE DAY OF THE LOCUST into the larger Empire on the same day. As it turned out THE PASSENGER (previously titled OCCUPATION: REPORTER) had the longer run and better reviews, though it ultimately was followed into the Ritz by CONFESSIONS OF A POP PERFORMER. Such is the nature of cinema.

Antonioni, however, remains one of the great directors of personal expression. Like Bergman, Bunuel or Fellini you either respond to his vision or reject it totally. His images linger on in the mind, his work never dates."

That is what I wrote in 1976 and THE PASSENGER indeed remains endlessly fascinating and particularly so now that it is available again on dvd, and with Nicholson's commentary. Even at the last Antonioni retrospective in 2005 it was not available to include in the season, but we did have cast members Jenny Runacre and Steve Berkoff there to speak warmly of it's making and importance and it was good to see that amazing last sequence again on the large screen. A 2005 short of his was also shown on the great statue of Moses in Rome and was also in its own way fascinatingly mysterious. Antonioni of course died aged 94 in 2007 on the same day as Ingmar Bergman.

1 comment:

  1. I remember Films Illustrated and Films & Filming - great magazines! now magazines are all stuffed with pages of ads like Empire and are not very interesting.