Jack Nicholson had been around the movie world for a long time, but it wasn’t till 1969’s Easy Rider that he became a star—and it would be hard to find an actor with a better run of films in the ’70s than Nicholson. Funnily enough, he wanted to be a writer and director, not an actor, but he has only officially gone behind the camera three times over his long career. However, he was the master of finding a script and director to fit his persona, which in the ’70s was actually more subdued than the over-the-top performances he is now most famous for.
The Passenger is a classic example of Nicholson at his most subdued: few directors were able to capture how quiet he can be on screen. Bob Rafelson was able to with The King of Marvin Gardens and Five Easy Pieces (bar the famous side order of toast scene), and Michelangelo Antonioni was another with The Passenger. Antonioni had something to prove after his first Hollywood film, Zabriskie Point, which at the time was considered by many to be an utter disaster but has since gained a much-deserved cult following.
Nicholson plays David Locke, a war correspondent who is struggling to find the war he was sent to cover. One day the man in the hotel room next to him dies from a heart attack, so in a moment of inspiration he decides to switch identities with his neighbour. On top of taking the man’s identity, he decides to keep the man’s appointments—but little does he know that his neighbour he actually was a arms dealer supplying guerrilla fighters. He is convinced the switch will be more fulfilling and interesting than his life, and will end the relationship problems he is having his wife. Locke—now Robertson—also meets a girl along the way, played by Maria Schneider in her most famous role outside of Last Tango in Paris.
Antonioni, of course, had already made his name in his native Italy with modernist films that dealt often with alienation, often within the middle-class. They are great films, especially La Notte, but when he left—first for London with his mod classic Blow-Up, subsequently the USA, and then in this case Africa and Spain—he seems to have gained an even more alienated view of the landscape, which just enhances how out of step his character feel with the world around them. Nicholson is the perfect avatar for Antonioni’s own sense of alienation.
The sense of somebody forging a new identity is of course a very old concept in film, and The Passenger would make an interesting double bill with John Frankenheimer’s 1966 masterpiece Seconds. Both films deal with a man who longs to escape his commitments using a new identity, and both get in over their heads. The film has elements of a thriller, but Antonioni has little concern for the plot and gives it just enough to never make the film dull. The film climaxes in this extraordinary seven-minute tracking shot, which when you figure out he did it, is the most obvious thing ever. His use of tracking shots has been celebrated by many directors, but one of the masters of the tracking shot, Orson Welles, gradually got bored of Antonioni’s work.
Powerhouse has scored quite a heist with getting the exclusive Blu-Ray debut of this in the English-speaking world, where before there was only a poor Japanese Blu-Ray. The release includes not one, not two, but three commentary tracks, including the famous Nicholson track, one of the few he has ever done. The other extras are mostly archival interviews with Antonioni, including one specifically about the tracking shot, and there are some new interviews with some of the supporting cast. The release is rounded off by the trailer, stills gallery and a booklet with new and old writing on the film.