An Understated Jack Anchors Antonioni’s Leisurely Thriller


Re-released on its 30th anniversary in the director’s slightly longer “preferred version,” The Passenger—Michelangelo Antonioni’s once enigmatic Jack Nicholson vehicle—looks better now than it did then, in part because it’s so clearly dated.

Together with Blow-Up (1966) and Zabriskie Point (1970), The Passenger—co-written with cinema studies titan Peter Wollen—can be seen as part of a loose trilogy. In each of these ostentatiously with-it and characteristically laconic thrillers, an alienated male protagonist stumbles into some sort of social responsibility. Here, a celebrity tele-journalist (Nicholson) reporting on a North African liberation movement ventures to the heart of enigmatic otherness. The terrain mirrors his own emptiness. But then, as in Casablanca, fate takes a hand. The only other Westerner—or indeed, guest—in his edge-of-the-Sahara hotel conveniently suffers a coronary. Nicholson switches passports and assumes a new identity. Following the dead man’s itinerary, he discovers that he is now—if not exactly Bogart’s Rick—some sort of left-leaning international gunrunner. He’s also hilariously in over his head.

The Passenger is a relic of that moment in international co-production when famous European auteurs hitched their wagons to hip and eager Hollywood stars: Fellini adopted Donald Sutherland, Godard captured Jane Fonda, Ingmar Bergman pondered Elliott Gould, and Bernardo Bertolucci hit the jackpot with Marlon Brando. Having secured Nicholson, showman Antonioni paired the American with French hottie du jour Maria Schneider, fresh from Last Tango in Paris and available for sloppy seconds. Nicholson meets her in Barcelona. She introduces him to Gaudi; he drafts her to help him elude his erstwhile producer, annoyingly in town to find the guy Nicholson is pretending to be. Captivated by this morose man of mystery (Nicholson is as attractive and understated as he has ever been), Schneider tags along for the ride. A fellow passenger in his big white Oldsmobile convertible, she’s also something of a conscience, encouraging him to continue keeping the dead guy’s appointments: It’s a form of, how you say, commitment.

The Passenger marks the decline of romantic Third Worldism. Most of the action is specifically set in September 1973—the month of the coup against Salvador Allende. Leftish thrillers with exotic locales are still occasionally made, even in Hollywood (The Interpreter was one, the upcoming Syriana sounds like another). But these typically concern professionals doing their jobs. What dates The Passenger, in addition to Antonioni’s gloriously languorous style, is its politicized angst. (Only two years after its release, acolyte Wim Wenders would update the existential international travelogue with The American Friend, turning it into a hipster referendum on American pop.) Spain is no Sahara and Nicholson’s character reaches his own dead end somewhere in the vicinity of Gibraltar. Antonioni dramatizes this with a magnificently choreographed slow zoom—clearly inspired by Michael Snow’s
Wavelength—over the course of which half the characters in the movie transverse the courtyard of an entropic posada. Leisurely and old-fashioned as
The Passenger may be, this tour de force ending is worth the wait.